Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of William Liu

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.


Shanghai…

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?

WILLIAM LIU

Although I’ve never trained seriously as a musician, I’ve been obsessed with classical music ever since a mind-opening class I took at age 9. Our teacher distributed to each of us four colored pencils: yellow, blue, green and red. She then played “Largo,” the second part of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (the “New World Symphony”), and instructed us to raise up whichever pencil best reflected whatever imagery came to mind as we listened… and to raise up a different pencil as each new musical theme emerged. When the tempo got faster, and multiple instruments came in, I instinctively raised the red pencil… which reflected the vast, vigorous, exciting, celebratory images I was imagining. Ever since then, I’ve associated particular objects, colors, and symbols with vivid mental images.

SEMIOVOX

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

WILLIAM LIU

Before I came to the world of branding — which I enjoy because it’s simultaneously artistic and scientific — I spent a few years conducting quite unimaginative, logical consumer research on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. When I was hired at Labbrand, Vladimir Djurovic immediately had me doing applied semiotics work… which was painful, because I had no background whatsoever in semiotics. Compared with the cut-and-dried consumer work I’d done, this was very abstract and projective. And very often I didn’t know what he was talking about!

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

WILLIAM LIU

I was born and raised in China, speaking Mandarin. Our cultural mindset and language system can be very connotative, descriptive, and abstract. But in a commercial context, we’re trained ro be very “western” in our approach: evidence-driven, precise, and straightforward. We refuse to accept vague expressions. This helps explain, I think, my initial struggle with semiotics — because although the decoding process is indeed very rational and rigorous, the analysis is also quote connotative, descriptive, and abstract. It’s a culture clash. So when I’m debriefing clients here in China, I’m literally “making sense” for them by switching back and forth between these modes.

Vladimir was a good teacher — and I was also lucky enough to receive training from Malcolm Evans and Nadège Depeux [Verbal Brand Strategy Director at Labbrand Paris]. I discovered that semiotics fuses art and science, creativity and rationality, insight and strategy. As with my childhood red-pencil moment, I’d discovered a means of making my perceptions of the world brighter and clearer.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

WILLIAM LIU

There is a Chinese fable, by Zhuāng Zǐ (Chuang-tzu), about a frog who lives in a well — and who refuses to know anything beyond his own narrow perspective. A semiotician, by contrast, should have the following attributes:

  • An open heart, capable of appreciating the world beyond one’s own perspective — without stubbornness, and able to tolerate challenges to one’s settled opinions
  • Sensitivity, in order to detect and accept new possibilities — whether new way of seeing things, new ideas, new approaches, and so forth

SEMIOVOX

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

WILLIAM LIU

  • Laura R. Oswald’s Creating Value: The Theory and Practice of Marketing Semiotics Research is very practical, and makes it easy to quickly grasp the theory and practice of applied semiotics.
  • Zhao Yiheng’s Philosophical Semiotics: The Coming into Being of the World of Meaning brings a deep Chinese cultural perspective to its discussion of the process of meaning production: i.e., the inner relationship between consciousness, objects, and signs.
  • A Book of Colors by Shigenobu Kobayashi, founder and director of the Nippon Color & Design Research Institute (NCD), uses meaningful images to help us understand the meaning of certain colors and color combinations. It’s not a work of semiotics per se — but very useful.

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?

WILLIAM LIU

I tell them that — based on my own experience — consumers cannot always tell you what they really need. Typically, they don’t really know what they need. By bringing a variety of different “lenses” to bear on the problem at hand — cultural nuances, human knowledge-system inheritance, the consumer subconscious — semiotics takes you deeper. Also, while traditional consumer research can’t provide implications and “landing actions,” semiotics informs strategy — mapping out a “landscape” that will then serve as a critically useful guide to next steps.

SEMIOVOX

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

WILLIAM LIU

I enjoy complex projects that require an innovative mapping approach — beyond the usual semiotic square. For example: A map with three binary oppositions instead of two, which ends up looking like a six-pointed hexagram.

It’s also fun to use semiotics as a way to help surface and dimensionalize really subtle aspects of how we humans perceive the world around us in a multi-sensorial way. For example, by analyzing stimulus such as brand-communication visuals, texts, sounds, product experiences, and so forth, But also by using the consumer’s imagination — scenes, colors, objects, narratives, and an entire universe of phenomena found not in the real world but in the mind — as a source of stimulus to be analyzed. I am obsessed with making sense of these extremely challenging sorts of stimuli.

SEMIOVOX

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

WILLIAM LIU

I sometimes say to my team, very dramatically, that “I can count the number of Chinese agencies doing applied semiotics on one hand!” As I mentioned, there are cultural obstacles to doing commercial semiotics in this market… which explains why semiotics is still a niche expertise here. But I can see signs that things are changing. Specialists are yearning to embrace new techniques to solve their problems; and consumers are getting more and more demanding about deeper-level brand experiences.

I feel humbled and privileged to be a part of the global commercial semiotics community. We share the same vision: to expand the impact of semiotics.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

WILLIAM LIU

Both. Saussure’s structural semiotics connects signifiers and signified in a way that is easy to grasp by our clients — and Saussurean binaries and differentiations are very useful for strategy. However, as a “sensory” and “music” person, I’m fascinated by Peirce’s tripartite semiosis — which allows us to analyze and explore every form of stimulation — physical sensations, mental events, the imagination — that we humans experience.

SEMIOVOX

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

WILLIAM LIU

  • Embrace the vividness of your life: art, science, culture, new creations, and so forth.
  • Immerse yourself in contradictions. Sometimes you’ll get confused, but just try to be patient and accept the beauty of the oxymoronic. Semiotics will allow you to make sense of it.

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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