Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Paulina Goch-Kenawy

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.


Warsaw…

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?

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

Probably the first time I experienced “semiotic thinking” was when I’d read and interpret poetry with my father. He was tough man — an engineer, a technological university graduate — but when it came to poetry, I’d see another side of him. He took the time to show me how to deal with the complex meaning of a poem, and when we were doing that work he’d always give me his full attention. He was passionate about interpretation… and so am I.

SEMIOVOX

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

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

I studied journalism at university, and chose to write my thesis on the topic of the “language” of national cinematography. I was fascinated in particular by Pedro Almodóvar’s employment of everything from narratives and heroes to light. I found it fascinating how this filmmaker’s ‘language’ could communicate to a viewer like me — someone with no experience of Spanish culture — something about the daily experience of life in that country, from the symbolic level to the colors and textures of the natural environment. The experience of writing this thesis led me to earn a Master’s in the Philosophy of Language, which is where I encountered semiotics.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

From 2006–2014, I did semiotic analysis at Semiotic Solutions PL — the agency that first introduced commercial semiotics here in Poland. The timing was lucky, because the company had only just started up shortly before I graduated, so I was able to learn on the job. After Semiotic Solutions, I worked as an independent semiotician until 2021, when I co-founded CultureTellers with Maciej Biedziński. Each of these experiences was a valuable education.

In my practice, for years now, I’ve worked to combine a semiotics methodology with other research tools. More and more, I listen not only to what the people I interview have to say about topics, but how they say it. Paying close attention to subtle hints, signals, and emotional attitudes allows me to interpret the learnings from my semiotic work more precisely. This sort of methodology can be frustrating, but it’s never uninteresting.

I also think it’s important to listen to people because, in general, I’m most interested in how and why the topics with which our work deals can either empower or limit people.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

  • Curiosity regarding how and why things are as they are.
  • Rigor, discipline of thinking, and the patience to deal with a great amount of data.
  • Imagination — to step out of one’s own shoes and see things differently.

SEMIOVOX

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

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

The first books that made a difference, by forcing me to think “semiotically,” were not semiotics texts per se….

  • Plato’s Symposium and Raymond Carver’s story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love employ incredible precision in defining different aspects of the same idea, different perspectives. These books made me more conscious about agendas encoded in language.
  • Besides these, the work of Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes are important, because they combine a social and literary imagination with powerful observations of the ways in which the “obvious” creates our reality.

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?

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

I often share an anecdote of how I once worked with a group of designers to help them better understand their client’s needs when it came to designing the pack for a tea brand. The client kept telling them they wanted the pack to “look like _____ but different.” Through analysis of tea category packaging codes, we developed tools that allowed them to make sense of the client’s directive… which amazed them.

Cultural knowledge is intuitive… so we don’t pay enough attention to it. Semiotics helps us see the patterns that we intuitively make sense of. Until we learn to discern cultural patterns, we can’t fully understand or make use of them.

SEMIOVOX

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

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

I most enjoy interdisciplinary projects, where all parties involved try to understand at the same time both the challenge of the project and how to create new value in combining approaches. This kind of collaboration gives space for innovation and forces us all to challenge our own thinking.

Social projects — for the greater good — are also very rewarding. Simply because they are important.

SEMIOVOX

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

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

I’m frustrated with myself whenever I use the semiotic methodology in an “automatic” way — often because I don’t have sufficient time to be more mindful, more creative.

Semiotics is an amazing tool that allows us to reflect on how and why we do things, how and why we think. (Another book I should mention is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, which demonstrated to me that reflection on language can break the impasse of outdated — but still dominant and harmful — thinking.) “Semiotic” self-reflection is so important in the face of today’s changes and threats. We should all be more reflective.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

Both and many others! No point in being binary.

SEMIOVOX

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

PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY

Always answer these two questions: Why it is relevant and how it makes an impact.

Also: Learn to clear your head! Because semiotic analysis can be overstimulating.


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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