Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Colette Sensier

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.


Lisbon and London…

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?

COLETTE SENSIER

I was writing poetry from a very young age, and that’s still where a lot of my semiotic sense comes from: an interest in metaphors, stories, shifting and double meanings, that feeling of recognition at a message which feels jarring and surprising but also surprisingly true. I was a pretty isolated, strange, introspective child who spent most of her time reading, writing, yearning, directing my younger siblings in imaginary games. What I’m now told is an ADHD symptom of hyper-focus manifested itself in perseverance in journeys of curiosity and observation.

SEMIOVOX

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

COLETTE SENSIER

I’m sure we must have touched on semiotics at some point in my English degree — I know we read Barthes’ The Death of the Author in the first term, immediately instructed to value cultural function over intent. But I described myself as ‘allergic to theory’ at the time. What I fell in love with was close textual criticism, honing in on etymology, syntax, metaphor, and the construction of signs. It felt like the inverse and equal of my creative writing.

Much later, I returned to Barthes in preparation for my first interview for a commercial semiotician job. Part of that application was a semiotic analysis of an eyewear advert — I started off returning to the ‘essay mode’ I’d learned at university, but loved the way that this work allowed for demi-poetic leaps of faith, freedom to assert insight and make predictions without the constraint of footnotes.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

COLETTE SENSIER

My good friend James Archer went straight to Flamingo’s semiotics department from uni, while I bumbled around travelling, writing a novel, and making half-hearted attempts at journalism for the next six-ish years. Every so often I’d hear bits and pieces about his job and feel intrigued but confused — if asked, I’d have said he ‘did marketing.’ Finally, after the novel got a thanks but no thanks from publishers, I decided I needed a ‘real job’ and quite fancied the sound of his….

I ended up doing a bit of freelancing for Flamingo, before having the great good fortune to win Semionaut’s Young Semiotician award and getting to sit down with Malcolm Evans, who both educated and excited me about semiotic theory and commercial semiotics, and very generously commissioned me for work and encouraged some of his friends to do the same.

I didn’t work full-time at an agency till I’d been freelancing nearly two years — I then spent two years at Space Doctors and then another two at Canopy Insight. Since 2020, I’ve been independent again, and loving the range of projects, clients, methodologies, and priorities which I get to explore.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

COLETTE SENSIER

Although semiotics often gets portrayed as highly technical or academic, I see creativity as essential to creating insight which goes beyond the obvious. We live in a world where AIs are more than capable of pattern-spotting and contextualising data — but relying on data alone to understand the present moment and predict future trajectories will always fall short because machines are only able to understand the past. As our world becomes more manic and less predictable, the need for inspired abductive reasoning will only becomes more important.

I’ve rarely met semioticians with backgrounds in creative practice — and I’d love to work with more writers, poets, and artists. I do sometimes work with a gifted artist and visual semiotician, Nikou Nazaripour, as See Say Studios, bringing together our visual and verbal creative skillsets for semiotically informed branding answers.

The flip side of creativity, though, is precision. Define your terms, is my mantra! When you take shortcuts, or assume you know what someone or some piece of communication is saying before they’ve finished saying it, or assume the ‘everyone can see what a horse is’ position, it’s very hard to understand the nuances around change.

Finally, it’s important to be empathetic. It can be hard to hold the line between semiotic analysis and consumer reporting, and I have found myself gently reminding clients that ‘consumer quotes’ don’t really form part of semiotic practice! But I do spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which humans experience culture — in their lives, their self-conceptions, personal narratives, and how it shapes their experience of their own bodies, emotions and mental processes. I find myself returning again to poetry, where signifier-dense texts — if they’re working at their best — jolt us out of stagnation or languishing by reminding us what it is to be human. The best big-picture semiotics insights can stimulate the same reaction.

SEMIOVOX

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

COLETTE SENSIER

I don’t tend to read books that are specifically about semiotics. My education’s come from on-the-job work, and the opportunity to learn from very smart semiotics pioneers like Malcolm Evans, Chris Arning, and the amazing senior team at Space Doctors. What does expand my mind in a semiotic way is poetry, fiction. and creative nonfiction.

One recent book that’s stayed with me is Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, a brave and beautiful addressing of the climate, pollution, and biodiversity crises and their relation to age-old power negotiations between people and the natural world, and power exploitation between groups of people. Tamás is a poet, so she’s an expert at the two-way relationship between meaning and detail, imagery and icons — between theory and the concrete — which is at the root of both poetry and semiotics. I recently rebranded a climate nonprofit with See Say Studios, and I’d love to do more work on storytelling for climate. At the same time, our strained relationship with the natural world is something that comes out in almost every project — as of course does ‘the apocalypse,’ without which you can’t really understand emergent culture.

Other recent reads include Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, narrating a search for meaning by a person whose mind has been made into a blank slate, and Helen Oyeyemi’s book of modern fables, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.

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?

COLETTE SENSIER

This is something which I find really depends on the client! I’m at a place in my career where I’m working with a wide variety of clients and projects, which is great. Many already know and love semiotics, which is also great — others know that they want cultural insight and are open-minded about which tools are used, and welcome semiotics when it’s presented to them.

Other stakeholders are less sure, and there are as many reasons why as there are clients. I’ve been working with Luminous management consultancy on pharmaceutical projects in which clients spend their days steeped in scientific data and may be wary of cultural insight until they’re shown examples of the work and their minds ‘click’ as they’re challenged in new ways. On the other end of the spectrum, the small startups and non-profits we serve with See Say Studios may not be sure initially what kind of design inspiration they’re after (or may not remember the word ‘semiotics’ a few months after the project) but they love the work and can’t believe how efficiently the insights have been reached.

Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of concepts of meaning, sign and signifier, Peirce and Saussure, I like to focus on the promise of the deliverables in terms of revealing hidden narratives, shifts, implications, inspiration platforms, and future scenarios. With a creative rather than an academic background, I was once told that Germanic words hit with much more resonance and heartiness for English-speaking people than those derived from Latin, French, or Greek — codes to me feels much more cold and tech-y than story, so I use that if people are already scrunching their faces up at the word semiotics. Something like, ‘I study culture to understand underlying stories, messages and ideas, and help people understand change.’

Like all communication, it’s all about your audience ☺

SEMIOVOX

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

COLETTE SENSIER

I really enjoy working flexibly and with different partners, from creatives to qual researchers to subject experts to management consultants. One of the main things I love about working for myself is the opportunity to flex my semiotic skills in so many areas and help to solve such a wide range of different challenges. I find ‘classic’ semiotics projects, decoding a range of visual and verbal signs in communications, to be very satisfying — but variety is the name of the game for me!

I’m very interested in multi-sensory and physical semiotics, how we experience our own minds and bodies. One of my favourite projects while a Space Doctor was an investigation into the emergent skincare category, working with scent consultant Odette Toilette to sniff, smear, crumble, play with, and taste a shedload of skincare products. More recently, I’ve worked on projects about ‘the future of sexual sensation’ and on ‘the future of mood management’ — a strange concept rooted in strategic media consumption that’s somehow become an expected part of being a responsible adult. Now I’m starting work on a project thinking about rare diseases — there’s a profound richness here in the interaction of cultural and physical suffering.

SEMIOVOX

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

COLETTE SENSIER

I wouldn’t say that I’m seriously frustrated by anything (except the issue of explaining your job on a date…). That’s probably because I enjoy being — and have the opportunity to be — flexible and work with a range of methodologies and for a range of clients.

I do think that people can sometimes stress the complexity of semiotics in a way which is unnecessary in the current era. There’s less need to explain and less need to gatekeep semiotic lenses nowadays, compared to when the methodology was developed. Everybody’s a media critic, and everyone spends their days scrolling through data! We’ve seen a huge reckoning with systemic prejudice which has massively opened up the average person’s ability to think in terms of systems. Fandoms have built up massive databases of tropes and dissect them in detail everywhere from Reddit to TikTok. Any bright teenager can explain to you how an advert or Instagram post is secretly perpetuating patriarchy, or how the Easter eggs in an A24 or Jordan Peele movie ladder up to symbolic meanings.

While semioticians obviously contribute a good deal of rigor, we shouldn’t be so slow to acknowledge that it’s a semiotician’s imagination, open mind, and creative ability which are truly rare.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

COLETTE SENSIER

I may not be enough of a philosopher to answer this one! But I enjoy Saussure’s parole vs. langue concept — the idea of considering which myths or conventions are needed for an utterance to make sense. A couple of recent luxury-focussed projects with Google and Ralph Lauren have pretty much convinced me that in this achingly media-savvy and interpretive world, status is being gained by providing and displaying utterances which require knowledge of ever-more expansive, complex, and rare myths to be understood.

SEMIOVOX

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

COLETTE SENSIER

Honestly, if a young person already knows about and is interested in commercial semiotics, they’re already halfway there. Other than that, it’s best to focus on the experience you don’t have. If you’re a philosophy PhD, read some books about advertising and brands, and if you can, attend events where you’re likely to meet agency people; if you’re already working in an agency, read some books and attend some trainings.

If I were running an agency instead of just hiring the occasional freelancer, I’d invest in outreach to young people who are already thinking semiotically without knowing that’s what it’s called — young creatives and critics (and yes, a TikTok-er who deconstructs a new ‘aesthetic’ once a week is a critic!) Diversity is intensely important both morally and in terms of creativity, and should be invested in — across the obvious markers like gender, ethnicity and sexuality, but also across social class, age, geographies, neurodivergences, professional backgrounds, and life experience.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | KRISTIAN BANKOV (Bulgaria) | 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) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (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) | EMILY HAYES (England) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | 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 (Israel) | 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) | 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) | 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) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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