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.
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?
I read everything as a child and was fascinated with common cultural narratives and histories, from folk and fairy tales to mythologies from myriad cultures around the globe. I remember reading a translation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, an older version, not the child-appropriate editions, and thinking there must be something going on under the surface of all these violent and scary stories, the lessons to be learned seemed so unforgiving that there must be a hidden message, and I needed to understand it.
I also pored over anything to do with the visual arts, particularly art history. There was something about the representation of other realities, from historical time periods to life in countries around the world that excited me. I’d hang out in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I remember seeing The Guardian of the Seraglio (1878) there, and I had no idea what a seraglio was at the time, but it must have been a fierce place, and I loved imagining it (this was before anyone reflected on the problematic Western Romantic take on the “Orient,” let alone a seraglio).
Some of it was an escape — the visual arts took me away and gave me an alternate perspective on life in the world. And, as a woman of African American and German descent, I quickly developed an awareness of intersectionality and the deeper cultural context of the everyday.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
I studied critical theory, cultural anthropology, sociology, and visual communications, and there were several points along the way that introduced semiotic thinking. I took a film course in graduate school and was assigned Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Umberto Eco’s work, which blew my mind a bit, though I’d already been reading critical theory for other courses. I also studied Barthes, Eagleton, Foucault, Kristeva; I had a particularly powerful “aha” moment while reading Chantal Mouffe’s work on hegemony.
One thing I would say is that I’ve never been doctrinaire about theory. Perhaps I rebelled against the time, when people were very committed to specific theorists and fought hard for their dominance in that academic setting. I’ve always been the type of person to elaborate on theoretical work, or at least take what works, combine it with other theoretical perspectives, and leave the rest. That’s not always a popular approach in settings where people gauge their value by their intellectual production within the confines of a discipline.
That said, the thing that appealed to me about semiotics wasn’t the work of a specific theorist, but the overall idea of how, by challenging your assumptions, or the assumed naturalness of an idea, you could get past the veneer of culture and see the underpinnings of what is commonly held to be “true.” Things are not necessarily “true,” they are believed. And the more you understand that, the more you see the fissures in culture, and the spaces through which emergent culture surfaces. I never tire of that exercise.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
I have a Ph.D. in Communications, and I was an academic for a while, focused on visual texts, particularly film. I’d no idea some of the same semiotic tools, constructs and ways of thinking were being applied for commercial purposes until after I’d left academia, worked as a brand strategist and market researcher in the corporate world, and then later joined a consumer insights agency as a researcher. This consumer insights agency had a small, but powerful semiotics department, and working with them made me fall back in love with the discipline and leverage what I knew.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
A good semiotician must have curiosity and openness — culture’s everywhere and thinking like a deep participant observer is crucial to gleaning the inside/outside view needed for semiotic insights. Likewise, this requires a bit of patience — and lack of assumption. While you’re immersed in culture and drawing insights from that, you must also observe as if you were an alien and seeing everything for the first time. If you’re already convinced you know what you’re seeing, you’re closing yourself off to deeper analysis.
You also must be able to detect and track patterns in culture with a certain amount of rigor. The ability to collaborate helps with this. Multiple perspectives drive depth in semiotic analysis, and you can get so much further when you combine forces.
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
For me this is really about the books that influenced me along the way.
- John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, just for the sheer freshness and effortlessness of reading it (and watching the TV series). It’s a fun read, and sometimes wickedly funny, and really enables you to walk away with a change in perspective and questions about what you thought you knew. That’s essential to any semiotics practice.
- Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style is theory in practice, also at times funny. You might notice a theme here — I like to have fun with semiotics. Yes, it’s a powerful methodology, but cultural insight can be a practice of knowledge, perception, discovery, and integration — energizing, delightful and fun.
The import of both works can be seen in summary in Floch’s Visual Identities, by the way.
- Also, since I mentioned The Guardian of the Seraglio, there’s Said’s Orientalism, which really kicked off an era exploring postcolonial discourse, which of course filters through to innumerable aspects of culture around the globe to this day.
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?
To be clear, much of what I do is cultural analysis and insights, which often requires semiotics, but also with a sizeable amount of extrapolation to the research context, examination of the evolving consumer ecosystem, and brand strategy.
It’s important to ask clients questions first. Sometimes semiotics sounds good, people are attracted to it, but it’s not appropriate for the research question. If clients start to frame their enquiry in terms of understanding cultural themes and/or getting a grasp on emergent culture, then we can talk about semiotics. Semiotics enables us to examine the ever-shifting cultural consciousness of which we’re all part; through semiotics we can understand shared cultural meaning, the values and beliefs behind that meaning, and how that meaning changes over time. From a brand strategy perspective, this knowledge can show us how to use culturally salient meaning to communicate intentionally and effectively.
To show clients how powerful semiotics can be, I use out-of-category examples to get them out of their current mind space. Examples from film and popular culture (common ground) are also helpful in connecting the dots. Also, let’s not forget that a quick-and-dirty semiotics project can provide a solid foundation for a research project with multiple moving parts and methodologies. In that case, I would recommend doing the semiotics portion up front. This can serve as a pilot and proving ground for anxious clients.
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
I enjoy projects focused on emergent culture for innovation inspiration and product development. I once worked on a project focused on the future of mobility that was fun because it was very blue-sky and went very far into the future. It’s the place where science fiction translates our cultural expectations emerging around life in the future.
Similarly, I worked on a very broad project around the future of food for a lifestyle retailer. Again, this was very blue-sky, and required a review of our current and emerging food system, taken from the perspective of the everyday consumer, but applied to a context in which a retail behemoth could make long-term, large scale strategic decisions.
Sometimes projects focused on a category landscape, that is, the primary cultural drivers for how a category “lives” in culture, can be fun. The landscape itself is a construct of cultural meaning — giving us so much insight about the expectations about each category. A good map offers an invitation to strategy in terms of brand positioning and innovation.
I also frequently work in the health and wellness space, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few projects exploring medical metaphor and common cultural interpretations of how the body “works.” I also worked on a resilience project for a mental health organization that felt very relevant for today. It was gratifying to know that the work would be used to help people in crisis.
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
Though this is slowly changing, semiotics can still be perceived as “academic” in the U.S. and that associates it with ponderous inaction. While semiotics comes from an intellectual tradition, its practice can be quite practical and actionable, especially since the units of semiotic analysis can be highly specific, such as particular language, color, imagery, relationship, sounds, etc. Without specific evidence for a semiotic analysis, we are making intelligent guesses — but with that evidence, we are proving the point, and can make choices about how to move forward.
I’d also like to see semiotics applied more frequently to sustainability and social change. Powerful cultural insight is the wellspring of change, and change is what we need. If you want a quick snapshot of the potential for interesting and relevant thinking going on in this space, check out Krystal Smalls’ recent article, “Fat, Black, and Ugly: The Semiotic Production of Prodigious Femininities,” which demonstrates how powerful semiotic exploration can illuminate insidious cultural discourses that deserve reflection and revision.
Peirce or Saussure?
I’ve never met a client who wanted to delve into the finer points of theory — I’m hired to address the research question, so I use the tools appropriate to the task and explain how the tools help us explore what we want to know.
That said, each theorist can be helpful. Saussure offers an understanding of the difference between signs. A binary oppositional way of conceiving the world, while at times reductive, can also be a useful analysis tool. I also just extrapolate this to the thinking that meaning is contextual, which is a very shorthand way of talking about how semiotic analysis focuses on relationships, juxtapositions, associations, and difference to derive an understanding of meaning.
But, at the end of the day, I land on Pierce, for whom the potential for signification is everywhere, a highly productive mindset. The concept of semiosis/sense-making is also important for applied semiotics because it incorporates the idea of interpretation — mediated and evolving meaning and the role of the interpreter must always be considered.
There’s also a wealth of other work to which we owe thanks — an elegantly articulated semiotic square can be a thing of beauty. Are there ways to get beyond the square? Definitely. But again, Greimas helps us articulate our thoughts, so we know what’s in the square, and what’s not.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
Get started right away. Resources are there for everyone to read whenever they want. Take what works, learn as you go, partner with the experienced. Don’t be afraid to explore what seems on to be way-out, or an extreme interpretation. Even if you decide to discard the idea, you’ve likely learned something in the exploration. (On this I’d like to shout-out Malcolm Evans, who introduced me to biosemiotics and overall inspired me to be more adventurous in my thinking.)
A book I read recently that may be helpful to someone new to applied semiotics is Rachel Lawes’ Using Semiotics in Marketing: How to Achieve Consumer Insight for Brand Growth and Profits, which is readable and practical and suggests an exploratory approach that feels fresh and resonated with me.
I also advise deepening familiarity with other modes of market research, to better be able to mesh semiotic work with these methodologies. It’s invaluable to be able to refine research findings by triangulation, creating a stronger research project overall.
However, all said, also be aware of your role as a participant in a larger system that often draws resources from the world and enhances and privileges the lives of some at the expense of others. Choose your projects with an awareness of your role in that system, and how you want to manifest it.
MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | & more to come.
Also see these series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX