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?
My dad was in the print trade. He had a full-time job but also moonlighted for private customers with a letterpress studio in our family garage. It was a clandestine operation because he lived in fear of being penalised by his paymasters or the tax man. The first rule of dad’s clandestine print shop was you did not talk about dad’s clandestine print shop. You’d think we were printing radical manifestos but it was wedding invites, business stationary, takeaway menus, and receipt books.
The garage was filled with different typefaces — metal and wood — and racks of Letraset. I was curious why wedding invites always had curly lettering, while business cards for debt collectors were always in robust, no-nonsense letterforms. It became clear that the words were matched in importance by the choice of typeface.
I started making connections between graphic forms and an implied other level of meaning conveyed by the chosen visual style. I noticed that women’s fashion boutiques all seemed to use the same letterforms on the shop signage in the ’70s, so that typeface came to mean “ladies boutique”.
What else? There was a notorious gang where I grew up called The North Cross. Angry white working-class unemployed teenagers. Wherever they sprayed their symbol, we didn’t dare tread. The North Cross symbol defined my boundaries and therefore my territory as a child. Then Punk happened and each band had an emblem. These were industrial, semi-militaristic, sometimes subverting political iconography. Adam & The Ants came along shortly after with a heraldic crest which I spent years replicating by hand. It meant something to me. By wearing the emblem I was part of a new royal family, a wild nobility. We were the family. I was 10 at the time.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
I apprenticed in a design studio in my home town of Birmingham. My studio manager encouraged me to apply for art school in London. I had no idea what art school would entail. One third of the coursework was academic. The college ran a module called something like Cultural Analysis, Research, Semiotics (CARS) and I was dragged kicking and screaming into cultural theory and semiotics.
I wrote my dissertation on a semiotic analysis of Carl Sagan’s beautifully futile Voyager greetings project — scientific data, images, sounds and voice recordings from planet Earth, now travelling out of our solar system encoded into CD-ROMs strapped to the side of the Voyager probe. It plunged me deep into the challenges of the communication of ideas.
Then the following year I wrote a second thesis for my girlfriend, “The Semiotics of the Hat.” It was rather terrible, but she passed.
After that, I forgot about the world of semiotics in all but the most neurological way.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
I didn’t feel comfortable at art college so I started freelancing at a small studio in Soho. We did [British fashion designer] Paul Smith’s graphic design and art direction. I had genuinely forgotten about semiotics as being a distinct discipline. To me as a designer it was just an instinctive part of the process, not something to place on a separate plinth; it was just how you processed the world and made sense. Paul Smith isn’t a conventional designer however, he conveys his design ideas through written descriptions and reference materials. He doesn’t draw the clothes. He describes the vision for a collection, not the collection itself. So it was a very semiotic process. When you’re told the next season needs to have the feeling of a particular mood, place and time, you start gathering signifiers.
I bopped around the design world as a graphic designer, but I became increasingly engaged with the strategic discussions about clients’ brands. I realised the key to designing effectively lay in full comprehension of the category and culture surrounding the brand. I transitioned into strategy, away from creative direction.
The 2008 global crisis hit next. I had a 3-year-old and a heavily pregnant wife, and work just evaporated. Many people were in desperate places at that time, but I had already embraced change and was ready to change again. Quite by chance I saw a recruitment ad for a semiotician. I was utterly perplexed by that. How could there possibly be a job that only considered one tiny slice of the communication process? I applied more out of a gawkish curiosity than anything else, but I got the job anyway.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
The ability to tread the narrow line between absorbing and decoding absolutely everything, versus not decoding enough to identify patterns and commonalities.
Decode absolutely everything and you descend into an orgiastic mind-melt about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. But fail to cast your net wide enough and you’re merely drawing a donkey to describe a donkey. You need to bring in sufficient material to triangulate and breathe life into a project, but not so much that you blow your own mind and never complete the task.
Curiosity and an “emic” approach [looking at the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture from the perspective of the people who live within that culture] are also important. It’s not what the enlightened semiotician personally thinks about something, but rather what something implies or means to people who aren’t consciously decoding the world that is important.
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
- I am very fond of John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing. It’s a great way into the subject.
- Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. I thoroughly enjoyed this book at college and must now read it again 30 years later.
- Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs also made a big impression when I was in school.
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?
I look them squarely in the eye and in hushed, urgent tones I hiss, “The world we have built for ourselves is composed of elemental materials that we understand physically and emotionally. I can advise you on the best mix of elemental ingredients to create, inspire, challenge, or change.”
Then I say, “Exiting elevator in 3, 2….1” into a hidden microphone in my cufflink.
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
Things that probably wouldn’t come up in the other obvious areas of work. Things that aren’t covered by strategy, or creative, or planning, or traditional research.
I had a lot of fun for a number of years, for example, decoding flat lays [top-down perspectives of objects laid out on a surface in an aesthetically pleasing way] contributed by respondents in qual research. The qual researchers are only able to take a surface-level reading based on the contents of the flat lays and their intentions when setting the exercise. The prompt might be “Show us all of your favourite toys,” and the only thing important to the quallies were which brands and products showed up. I was able to dig deeper into the assembled items to find patterns of significance and useful insights across the range of flat lays. Decoding cultural points of interest told us a lot more about the audience than just what their favourite brands were.
I also like working with emotionally charged subjects. Studying medical- or health-related subjects in order to help people who make the medicine understand the people who take the medicine — how their lives are affected, and how those affects manifest in the patterns and touchpoints of their lives — I find that fascinating. When dealing with an intimate issue we all code and frame concepts to express ourselves and our feelings, or clarify who we are. We might encode bravery, or victimhood, or mastery. We might mask and conceal things with techniques that affect our social behaviours, and there will be rituals developed that are very revealing. Decoding such rituals is very rewarding.
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
Bad practitioners sully the craft of semiotics and make it harder for others to deliver a good piece of work thereafter. Each time a bad semiotician destroys a client’s confidence, there is one less client willing to budget for it.
Aside from that I think there’s a challenge around semiotics being too academic. The value of semiotics in the context of a commercial setting is quite different to its value as an academic study. No client has time to get into the theory weeds, so the theoretical underpinnings should be deployed invisibly. As semioticians we forget that semiosis is an intuitive ability all of us have. If humans weren’t able to decode things semiotics would not be a field of expertise. We are not leaders, we are guides and pathfinders.
Peirce or Saussure?
Saussure every time. There is a harmony and simplicity that I appreciate, and what Peirce added was implicit anyway. It didn’t require badging or pointing out. Also, ask yourself which one you’d prefer to be stuck on a life raft with for three weeks, then we can talk about how much you might love Peirce.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
- Don’t stop once you start.
- Decode everything, but don’t wander into madness.
- Be flexible and adaptable. It always evolves and the application of semiotics to real commercial situations has to change and evolve.
- Launch yourself into it off the shoulders of giants, but leave the giants behind. Kill Your Idols because 99.9% of your clients will not care for Saussure or Pierce.
- Listen to your clients. Re-read the brief every day to stay on track.
- Focus on what you can deliver, not what you know.
- Be simultaneously exciting and reliable, experimental and relatable, fun and serious.
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