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 mother loved to tell the story of how, as a baby, I would spend hours playing with a wooden toy in a very intriguing manner. Instead of having fun with my simplified bus with passengers, I would reorder them as if trying to make sense of a system.
Some of my earliest memories are about trying to get letters together everywhere I went. I remember making a lot of effort in my mind. I loved decoding. It felt like an adventure, like being in a movie. The world was fantastic and I felt alive. I also loved solving puzzles, and I would spend hours with the same ones, trying to figure out how to get them together faster. When I discovered I could read, in preschool, I felt like walking on clouds.
My parents were avid readers, so I knew entire worlds existed inside books. Part of our endless summer vacations at the beach involved the four of us reading side by side — especially when it rained. When the weather was good, we would be outside, decoding the world. My brother and I learned about the sea, animal life, plants, historical facts, art, and many other things. But the most valuable gift was understanding the sky. My parents had a telescope and taught us about the stars and the planets; about constellations, galaxies, and the universe. Connecting abstract knowledge to the tangible world would make a tremendous impact on my development.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
I felt an equal attraction towards words and images, so I enrolled in a BA in English and a BA in Fine Arts. That meant I was discovering Saussure and Linguistics while learning the fundamentals of visual language with practical exercises.
Sometime after the third semester, when I painfully decided to drop out of Fine Arts, I read an Umberto Eco book, and yearned to become a semiotician. When Barthes’ Mythologies fell into my hands, I was hooked. Semiotics kept me going in a period when Linguistics was exceedingly dry for my poetic nature. Looking back, I have the impression that Semiotics chose me — not the other way around.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
My eyes were trained by those of Magritte. The years I spent in grad school, trying to understand his creative process in contrast to Miró, made me see the world through his lens. Ordinary objects became extraordinary. During this time, I also learned how to see with my heart and soul — Miró taught me that even the most humble things have an internal life and a vibration. Working as a semiotician was a way to embody my grad studies — Genetic Criticism, the study of creative manuscripts. Taking part in bringing into being consumer goods felt like being immersed in a living creative manuscript… which is why I can accept not owning my IP in commercial projects. I could spend days and months trying to decipher the mystery of the simple things surrounding us. They all carry a universe within.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
A strong sense of ethics would be the central attribute. All the other qualities would stem from there.
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
Three profound, thought-provoking books by Anne-Marie Christin [University of Paris professor and founder of CEEI (Centre d’Étude de l’Écriture et de l’Image) and co-founder of IAWIS (International Association of Word and Image Studies)], in which she provides a historically informed perspective on how we humans make sense of and code our experience of the world, have influenced my practice: L’Image Écrite ou la Déraison Graphique, Poétique du Blanc: Vide et Intervalle dans la Civilization de l’Alphabet, and L’Invention de la Figure.
- L’Image Écrite in particular has challenged my understanding of semiotics, linguistics, and art history. Here we find the notion that “writing does not reproduce speech; it makes it visible.” Writing is a hybrid code — sound as much as image; in the case of the ideogram, its intrinsic heterogeneous nature adds an extra layer of complexity. The ideogram is a sign to be interrogated: this is a fundamental premise in my practice. Christin also points out how, despite the fact that we think of signs as disembodied entities, the “screen” or medium interferes with semiosis. We need to study the screen as well as the sign.
- L’Image Écrite and Poétique du Blanc also radically changed the way I perceived space — as a conceptual framework and receptacle for signs. I began to train myself to sensorially and intellectually perceive spaces, to read silences, and feel pauses. I might call this practice a form of semiotic mindfulness.
- L’Invention de la Figure, which examines the alphabetic code, has helped make me aware of the journey we undertake in making sense of signs. For me, the most telling example is ancient boustrophedon writing (an intermediary step in the development of the Greek alphabet) in which lines went from left to right, then right to left. (Its name comes from bous – ox, and strophè – furrow.) In referencing the plowed land, the Greeks evidenced how writing contains the notion of “field” — and how it bridges together two heterogeneous realities.
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 help people and brands navigate complexity by making sense of experience.”
I wouldn’t try to persuade a skeptical client. But if, after understanding the client’s expectations and needs, I realize that I can be of help, then I will tailor my arguments in favor of semiotics. Depending on how the conversation goes, I can be poetic — showing how semiotics is everywhere. Most often, though, I will be objective — speaking of cultural messages, effective communication, cognitive usability (especially in UX and UI), and how brand values can be expressed.
The most powerful argument in favor of semiotics is presenting it as a form of strategic thinking — a symbolic, cognitive strategy. It is easy to demonstrate how even minor and seemingly insignificant details such as the choice of a pattern can place a brand in a completely different position on the “symbolic battlefield.”
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
Design projects are my favorites, followed by branding. But any project that is constructive and leads to expansion (creatively or intellectually), and grants me intellectual freedom, is incredibly rewarding.
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
It’s rare to take on a project where the required output isn’t codes, R/D/E trajectory, and a semiotic square. These tools, with appropriate guidance and vision, can yield powerful results — and they allow us to communicate easily across cultural borders. However, when combined with unrealistic deadlines, these same tools require us to produce results from our internal automatic pilot rather than insights that are mindful and illuminating. Which is frustrating!
It also frustrates me that when we valorize Semiotics, we do so only in the context of consumer insights. Yes, gaining a competitive advantage and conveying the right messages are crucial for brands — but there is so much more to the field. Semiosis sustains, permeates, and gives birth to everything we know: the universe we live in, the subatomic particles that form everything, the natural world that amazes us, the cells and organs inside our bodies, our thought processes, our emotions, how we relate to other people, our social systems, and the narratives we’ve created.
Clients don’t often understand the impact brands have on cognition. Semiotics can be dangerous; we are dealing with the the perceptual filter of reality. On the other hand, we, as commercial semioticians, are failing to use our privileged standpoint to take Semiotics further. Sorting out massive amounts of data, and not being able to choose our objects of inquiry, is actually an advantage: We get to handle reality as it presents itself, and not in an ideal context. So is dealing with both the major and the minor aspects of life in projects that aim for a tangible actualization. All of this could provide the basis for more profound thinking about Semiotics.
Semioticians have the power to become a force for good if we apply ourselves to it. Unless we step up in the defense of the ethics of meaning, we risk seeing AI “writing” us… with unpredictable consequences.
Peirce or Saussure?
I find Saussure useful on a day-to-day basis — since the rush of decoding in commercial practice rarely leaves room for going beyond the signifier/signified dynamics. However, the way I enter each project — with an internal attitude of wonder, awe, and humility — is influenced by Peirce.
While both Saussure and Peirce were trailblazing figures, though, they failed to grasp some vital issues. We should honor their achievements without following their “schools” unthinkingly.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
- Get as much education as you can; learn from the masters.
- At the same time, be open to new currents of thought; keep up with the theoretical debate.
- Get to know the world. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch the news on both ends of the spectrum. Talk to people, and be genuinely interested in them.
- Leave room for surprise. Do your best to keep an open mind.
- Travel if you can — if not physically, in your mind. Immerse yourself in music. Go to art exhibitions. Train your eyes, your ears, your senses.
- Build a strong sense of self — you will need it. Discover what your values are — and stand up for them.
- Choose your clients wisely; make sure that they align with your principles.
- Keep growing and learning; use feedback as an expansion tool.
- Appreciate teamwork; invest yourself in being a great team player.
- Thank the competition as a chance to keep improving and evolving.
- Find a supportive peer group.
- Work from a service standpoint and not from that of intellectual or creative prowess. Always consider the project’s demands, what the agency that hired you needs from you, your final client’s interests, and, most importantly, the benefits provided for the consumers and the respect for the cultures in which they live.
- Use your practice to do good in the world, to help people live better lives.
- Learning about design thinking or human-centered design can be extremely helpful here.
- Learn self-care practices. There is a coefficient of symbolic insalubrity in certain projects, depending on the intensity and scope. Find a somatic practice that resonates with you — be it meditation, exercise, or art — one that you feel helps “move signs around” during and after projects. Take great care of your brain, body, soul, and relationships.
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) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | 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.