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’ve never really let go of that combination of wonder, ignorance, and determination that leads children to decode the world around them. As a child, it seemed to me that the adults were having a better time than I was — and this had something to do with their access to banks of arcane knowledge. Speaking of which, as a child I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decode the three colours in Star Trek’s Starfleet uniforms. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
While on a camping holiday in Wales with friends in 1986, the summer before college, I was assigned to read some semiotic theory. While we were at the beach, cows wrecked our tent and left poo everywhere. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for the practice: sometimes I am the cow, sometimes the tent, and, if needs must, sometimes the poo.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
Indirect nepotism. I was working as a musician and night-time receptionist at Olympic Studios [London’s renowned independent recording studio] when Ginny Valentine’s nephew dropped in to visit me. He mentioned that Ginny was looking for a young padawan. Although I’d just passed the audition for an agency that provided regular piano gigs for hotels, restaurants and cruises, I went along to the interview anyway.
I enjoyed working with Ginny for a few years, before going out on my own in 1993. I founded Greg Rowland Semiotics in 1995.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
A good semiotician must:
- Embrace and reject their cultural prejudices in unequal measure.
- Be like a child who questions everything because they know nothing.
- Inject fascination into the banal, and the prosaic into the wonderful.
- Make 11 impossible cultural connections before breakfast.
- Adopt the mantle of the Strategic Paranoid Reader.
- Appreciate that structure can be a beautiful thing, regardless of content.
- Be at least marginally intelligent, or failing that, an enthusiastic observer.
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
Someone recently said that I had a “loose cannon” reputation in some quarters. Perhaps he meant, more accurately, loose canon. (That’s the problematic of phonocentric dialogue, right there.) I like the things that bounce off the Semiotics edifice rather than get stuck to it. Benjamin and Baudrillard over most of Barthes and all of Greimas.
None of the following are about semiotics per se, but they float around adjacent spaces.
- Introduction to Literary Theory by Terry Eagleton — my tutor at Oxford, and a beautiful cat. Such an elegant and witty prose stylist. Terry could write books about plate tectonics, and I’d still read them.
- One Way Street by Walter Benjamin. Always above and beyond, he abandons the tyranny of linearity here. What future brilliance did his tragically ironic death deny us? Poor Walter.
- Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee. Everything you need to know about creative branding, spin, and semiotics is here — on the four-color surface and in its incomparable symbolic miasma.
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?
When my kids were very little, I used to tell them “I look around and tell people what I think about it.” It was sufficient then and will probably suffice here. My children studied theory at college and have gone way beyond me, denouncing my perceived theoretical lack at every opportunity.
The client is rarely using her own money, so the gamble is instead against a worst-case scenario of something so indescribably abysmal that she gets shunned by colleagues and chastised by bosses for ever contemplating a semiotician’s engagement. I don’t think that’s happened yet.
Case studies make sense to me as selling tools, rather than the abstract promises of pre-set structures.
Unfortunately clients don’t always want the best work. They simply want something that ticks a box, is adequately efficient and doesn’t rock the boat too much. I generally have to leave those kinds of clients to my distinguished competitors.
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
I cherish my semiotic projects as though they were my children, sometimes considerably more so. But if you twist my arm I would say:
Projects with nice clients. Procurement needs to teach clients how to be nice, because they get so much more value than otherwise. Of course, all my clients are nice, but some are super-nice and some blind me with the sublimity of their incandescent nice.
The ones where they listen and do something directly linked to your thinking and it proves manifestly successful — that’s a high bar, and too often these days semiotics is consigned to the bulging Consumer Insight Vat. But over the years I’ve been gratified by genuinely impactful outcomes from work in brands like Calvin Klein, Axe, Pot Noodle, Rice Krispies, Keep Britain Tidy, ITV, BBC, and several others.
I also like the well-paid projects. I bet no one else will say that. It’s ironic that commercial semioticians seem to like the aura of implicit demonetisation — at least in public.
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
Cynical granite-hearted hack-work, the confusion of genuine rigour with life-denying detail, findings that fester in a smug ideological manure that purports to be objective, debased notions of ‘authenticity’ privileged over useful approaches towards structural coherence and strategic relevance.
Peirce or Saussure?
Peirce always feels kooky to me, too self-enclosed and part of a 19th-century tradition of organisational systems of which phrenology is not a sufficiently distant cousin. And I could never get with a system that purports to examine the symbolic that includes space for ‘the referent’. I don’t disagree that there is a case to be made for things existing in the real world, but it’s nevertheless distasteful to include them in any system of semiotic investigation.
Dear Ferdinand is much less ambitious than Charles, gifting us a flexible and suggestive semiotic Lego starter set, rather than Peirce’s generally unfulfilling Shrinky-Dinks.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
Don’t set off to be a semiotician — instead, let semiotics set you off.
MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | 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 (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) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | 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.