Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Maciej Biedziński

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.


Warsaw…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

The first time I consciously noticed a “sign” and reflected on it, as far as I can recall, was when I was around 6 years old. My family lived in a neighborhood whose inhabitants were quite diverse in terms of education, social origin, occupation, etc. We kids got along very well… but at some point I started to wonder about the subtle differences between us. For example, the way one of my friends began to walk. Some of the teenagers and young adults from the neighborhood, the ones who were aggressive, and whom we knew to avoid, walked in a very expressive way. Their walk took up space, with their bodies going left to right, up and down, and their arms swinging back and forth — all of which made it look as though they were using their heads to drill invisible tunnels in space. What could be more “natural” than the way that someone walks? But as my friend’s gait changed, I recognized that this way of walking communicated a message: the neighborhood is ours, we are in charge here.

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

I enjoyed Umberto Eco’s novels and essays as a teen, but it wasn’t until I was doing a degree in cultural studies that I discovered semiotics. I was astonished by its clarity and applicability… yet at the same time, it felt familiar. I’d been doing (or at least trying to do) a version of semiotic analysis for years — but until then I’d never encountered a framework that would allow me to do so rigorously. Suddenly my friend’s walk (to return to that example) was a “sign” — one that I could think about in a way that revealed insights.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

While I was in grad school (c. 2008–2011), I was also working at a marketing agency as a junior strategic planner. Semiotics proved immediately useful in my thinking about brand strategy. My colleagues didn’t necessarily understand the methodology I’d began to use, nor did they share my fascination with cultural analysis… but they were thrilled with my results. Creative teams, too, were delighted that my briefs became “tighter,” more inspiring, and aligned with their own way of thinking about communication.

I don’t believe there is one correct way to do semiotics — because it’s a dynamic field, full of potentialities, and with multiple tools and perspectives, not to mention disagreements. My own methodology has evolved over time, and it will continue to evolve. I’m most concerned with using the right set of tools for each new project.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

First and foremost, it’s essential to be curious — by which I mean, cultivating the feeling of being surprised by the ordinary. As much as possible, semioticians take a humble approach towards everything we encounter, taking nothing for granted. Our work begins with not knowing, not understanding; we need to acknowledge and cherish our ignorance! Which is very tricky, in a business environment that requires consultants to prove that they’re smarter and more knowledgeable than the competition….

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

  • Roland Barthes’ Mythologies — no surprise there. Barthes taught me to notice those little facts of culture and the everyday that we too often treat as “natural,”and which we therefore take for granted or fail to see. Thanks to Barthes, too, I’ve realized that being a cultural analyst — reading, understanding, and applying critical lenses on cultural phenomena — is an obligation. With it comes a certain responsibility.
  • Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style [translated as Exercises in Style] Not a semiotics book, per se — it’s a literary experiment that retells the same short story 99 times, using a variety of styles, rhetoric, metaphors, literary tropes, etc. This is semiotics in creative practice! Queneau demonstrates the power of language, and encourages us to think creatively about we can mold, shape, and transform language to discover new aspects of one and the same social fact.
  • Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Mille plateaux [translated as A Thousand Plateaus]. Its scope is much wider than semiotics — but it transformed my own thinking and turned my attention back to C.S. Peirce. Along with the semiotic theory of Juri Lotman, Deleuze and Guattari’s text helped me to perceive “culture” as an effervescent network, overlapping, ever-changing; one full of relations, active and dormant, that can unexpectedly come to life and explode with meanings.

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

It all depends on the client, their attitude towards semiotics (and research in general), as well as on the business problem at hand. So I don’t have a single pitch. Instead, I’ll ask a potential client about their brand’s (or category’s) key cultural values, and then — by offering a few examples — demonstrate how nuanced, diverse, and potent in meaning any particular “sign” can be. Having offered up a range of potential meanings, I’ll ask them which one is their go-to when it comes not only to strategy but to communicating with consumers. If they can’t easily answer my question, they’ll realize that they need semiotics.

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

Deep, explorative projects that tackle areas, themes, and/or categories that I’m not very familiar with. The kind of projects that you can’t imagine how to wrap your head around, at first, and where everything seems to be somehow distant and difficult to apprehend. It’s intimidating to attempt to decipher a “big picture” whose contours are so blurry, but once you figure out the picture’s core elements, and once these elements begin to come together — the visual metaphor that comes to mind is how simple geometric shapes can add up to a dizzingly complex network diagram — the results are deeply satisfying, even awe-inspiring at times.

This line of work is also rewarding because you are forever encountering new cultural phenomena and stories you hadn’t heard before. Paulina Goch-Kenawy — with whom I founded CultureTellers two years ago — and I recently conducted an analysis of online alcohol-related memes in Polish culture. This was a deep dive not only into cultural history but into Internet history too. It was an adventure — and as you can imagine, a particularly fun one.

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

I’d like to see marketing or brand semiotics become more closely integrated with business processes. The tools and thinking we utilize as semioticians have a potential to be not only an integral but a fundamental part of any project or organization. Closer cooperation, not merely on a project-by-project basis, would not only greatly benefit businesses but it would allow commercial semioticians to rapidly refine and evolve our methods and tools.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

In my everyday practice I tend to use the Saussurean-influenced methodology that’s most common among commercial semioticians. That said… when one thinks about how people’s basic knowledge about the world emerges, Peircean semiotics are more useful in allowing us to reflect on how people “know what they know.” We live in a post-truth, post-humanistic, post-postmodern (or truly postmodern, in John Deely’s terms) culture, so although Saussure may be very useful for brand semiotics, the future is Peircean.

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI

Stretch yourself. Read, observe, listen and do things you aren’t comfortable doing. Whenever you come across a phenomenon that is either new to the world, or just new to you, get comfortable with being a humble ignoramus. Ask dumb questions. Eventually this practice of ignorance will broaden your thinking — not only about brands and business, but everything in the world.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | HIBATO BEN AHMED (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MYRIAM BOUABID (Tunisia) | KISHORE BUDHA (England) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | BECKS COLLINS (England) | INKA CROSSWAITE (South Africa) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | JOËL LIM DU BOIS (Malaysia) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PETER GLASSEN (Switzerland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | EUGENE GORNY (Thailand) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | GISELA GRIMBLAT (Mexico) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | FRANCISCO HAUSS (China) | EMILY HAYES (England) | YOGI HENDLIN (Netherlands / USA) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | KATRIN HORN (Austria) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | CHRISTO KAFTANDJIEV (Bulgaria) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | ELINOR LIFSHITZ (China) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | KATJA MAGGIO (Netherlands) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | RAHUL MURDESHWAAR (India) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | GAËLLE PINEDA (France) | ALEXANDRA ROBERT (France) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | KARIN SANDELIN (Sweden) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | GIANLLUCA SIMI (Brazil) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | JENNIFER VASILACHE (Switzerland) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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