Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Martha Arango

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.


Stockholm…

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?

MARTHA ARANGO

It began at my Carmelite convent school listening to the nuns. I was fascinated by stories from the Old Testament and the lives of saints, especially France’s Saint Teresita of the Child Jesus (“Little Flower”), a favourite of my Carmelite nuns. What enchanted me most were the striking visual depictions of each saint, which revealed so much about their heroic lives and accomplishments.

The stories of the Old Testament and the inspiring lives of the saints took me on a journey into a world outside my own, a journey that made me believe in something greater than what I could see with my eyes alone. Through these legends, I was imbued with hope and wonder for what lay beyond our earthly realm. I often found comfort in signs — like the time when Saint Teresita answered my prayers by sending me a red rose through my neighbor. These experiences solidified my belief and connection with signs.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARTHA ARANGO

I’ve always been fascinated by the magic of advertising. When I’d flip through a magazine most of the ads passed by without catching my attention, while others captured me directly! I became very curious to discover why.

Upon completing my university studies in Colombia, I moved to Mexico and began searching for the perfect topic and direction for my Master’s thesis. One fateful day, I met with the newly appointed director of the program — a distinguished professor who held extensive knowledge of semiotics, French structuralism, and A.J. Greimas. Inspired, I pursued my thesis — analyzing TV commercials that wanted to change the junk-food habits of young children into healthy ones — within this semiotic framework.

I also began working with my sister, an established qualitative researcher, and I realised the potential of semiotics as an analytical tool. When one of our international clients mentioned the UK consultancy Semiotic Solutions, and I thought: Wow! It’s possible!

A few years later, the wings of love took me to Sweden. At Lund University, I found the only researcher in Sweden dedicated to visual and cultural semiotics: Göran Sonesson. (Rest in peace; he died this year). Thanks to him I was able to complete the empty spaces I’d discovered within French Structuralism.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

MARTHA ARANGO

While attending sessions on “How to start your own business,” the idea grew: My consultancy would introduce semiotics to Sweden! I thought creative people would understand the potential of semiotics best — so I knocked on the doors of advertising companies, but without success. Nevertheless, I didn’t lose faith. I had a mission, like the evangelists spreading the Gospel… So in 1995, I launched a semiotics consultancy.

I was presenting papers at conferences all over Sweden, showcasing Sonesson’s book Bildbetydelser and spreading the word about semiotics. At one conference I met a unique qualitative researcher, who was both profound and deep. We realised that we made a good match through the qualitative approach she had already established with her clients. In 2001 I joined her team, as she was the head of a brand-new qualitative department at Demoskop. We found a way to sell qual-semiotic visual narratives for client’s brands. By creating meta-collages to understand and develop brand values and communication platforms, we went that step further… we went Beyond! After some years working in Demoskop and after Kantar Sifo, my colleague created a “qualitative boutique” that could offer deep analytical qualitative studies, with a hermeneutic approach and semiotics, so I joined Beyond Research in 2008.

With this approach, I now offer semiotic analysis for all types of communication. Also, thanks to working with Malcolm Evans on some exciting projects, I’ve also learned the UK model of commercial semiotics that originally inspired me. The circle is complete.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

MARTHA ARANGO

  • Let meaning come to you! To be able to observe and read the corpus of your analysis without having predetermined ideas. Find pleasure in uncovering levels, layer by layer, until the meaning reveals itself. The consequence should be a physical-emotional reaction, like a primal scream.
  • Pedagogical & communicative. To be able to explain the results in a language your clients understand, without losing depth of meaning, transmitting the same emotion you sensed.
  • The frog and the eagle’s perspective. To notice the smallest detail, because that could be the nugget which gives you the clue to insight, without losing sight of the big picture! After reviewing the details, you need the ability to structure the corpus and summarize it into the values and paradigms that the material is embedded in.
  • Feel like an alien. Be a foreigner in your own country. Not belonging to the culture has its advantages, as people who belong to a certain culture are “snowed under” it. When you put yourself outside, and read the local cultural codes by comparison with your own, it provides you with a crucial set of tools to interpret from a distance.
  • Be brave. Some concepts are poorly constructed and make little sense. Learn how to communicate this to your clients, even if it hurts.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARTHA ARANGO

  • [Swedish semiotician] Göran Sonesson’s Bildbetydelser (which can be translated as Pictorial Meanings). This is the book that introduced me to another side to semiotics, with extremely good tools on how to read images and the rhetoric of the image. It’s my “Bible.”
  • Analisis estructural del relato (The structural analysis of narrative) is a compendium of semiotic papers delivered — by Barthes, Greimas Eco, Todorov, and others — at a 1965 conference. This compendium offers many tools that are excellent for analysing narratives used in commercials. I find [French semiologist] Claude Bremond’s models particularly useful.
  • Jean-Marie Floch’s Semiotics, Marketing and Communication. Very useful, as it is immersed in the language used by clients.

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?

MARTHA ARANGO

Semiotics can give you a perspective which consumers can’t see.

When you carry out a semiotics study in parallel with, let’s say, consumer focus groups, the semiotic approach can explain the why? of consumers’ reactions. The answer can be found in the cultural context in which consumer’s values are immersed. At the same time, semiotics points out specific visual elements that consumers can evaluate only with feelings of “likeable” or “not likeable.”

With semiotics, you can find the clues to develop future communications. We find the right signs and symbols which are adapted to the zeitgeist. We give you guidelines to differentiate you from your competitors, and put you one step ahead.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARTHA ARANGO

I love working on all types of projects, from both the micro-perspective (every piece of communication, ranging from logotypes to commercials), as well as the macro-perspective (cultural analysis and category studies).

SEMIOVOX

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

MARTHA ARANGO

Clients find it hard to differentiate between a good, in-depth semiotic analysis and a superficial ‘cover-up’. It’s difficult for clients judge the quality and validity of a semiotic study, unless they themselves are quite analytical.

Semiotics is still not very well established in the market. Very few practitioners are dedicated entirely to it. But the market is changing — from being focused on method to focusing more on results, which could open up the possibility of selling-in semiotics without having to struggle to demonstrate the validity of the model/method and being able to use your brainpower and your heart, in finding the best match for your client’s brand instead.

To match the clients’ expectations and go even further, to deliver very creative guidelines for their future communications, in the end it’s the results that count. There is hope!

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

MARTHA ARANGO

I have both in mind when I work.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARTHA ARANGO

As discussed earlier…

  • Let meaning come to you
  • Be pedagogical & communicative
  • Observe from the perspective of both the frog and the eagle
  • Feel like an alien
  • Be brave

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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