Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Sarah Johnson

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.


Toronto…

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?

SARAH JOHNSON

To say I was an avid reader would be a gross understatement. As my parents, friends and teachers could tell you, I was an addicted reader, to the significant detriment of my math homework and ability get to school on time. I read everything I could get my hands on from fairy tales to Animal Farm, so from an early age I was building up a mental database of texts on which to draw for meaning.

I also remember being quite a young child and wondering if what I saw as “green” was the same as what other people saw, and then if what I heard as “green” was the same thing other people I heard. So I guess I have always had the habits and thoughts of a semiotician. 

SEMIOVOX

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

SARAH JOHNSON

In my second year of university, I took a cultural anthropology class called “Symbol Systems and Ideology” that truly blew my mind. It looked at modern western society through an anthropological lens and explored the ways in which our culture uses ritual and symbolism to create meaning and reinforce views and values. It also suggested that meaning was contingent and that there was no absolute truth. This was a lot for a 19-year-old. I think I’ve spent the rest of my life grappling with what I was exposed to in that class.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

SARAH JOHNSON

I studied anthropology, philosophy, and English in university, which exposed me to structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and various other theories about culture and symbolism. I also loved learning about classical rhetoric with its philosophy that figures of speech and other rhetorical devices could persuade people more than logical arguments alone. 

Then I worked in advertising for many years, where I learned about how brands create meaning in people’s minds through imagery, tonality, graphic design, etc. At a point where I was thinking about leaving advertising, I met Charles Leech who told me about marketing semiotics. I thought that with my academic and career background this was something that I could do, and more importantly, something that I would really enjoy doing. I started following the Semiotic Thinking Group on LinkedIn and Chris Arning posted a query about whether people would be willing to attend a small semiotics gathering in London. I excitedly watched from afar as the event began to build momentum. It ended up being scheduled the day after Malcolm Evans’ two-day semiotic course at the MRS. I registered for both, booked a plane ticket and the rest is history.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

SARAH JOHNSON

A number of people featured in this series have mentioned curiosity and a facility for pattern recognition, and those are both definitely true. But I would also add that the ideal semiotician should also have an unusually large store of general knowledge — history, religion, economics, etc. — that can immediately be drawn on to help make connections. 

Also, I have noticed that all semioticians are passionate about travel and very interested in cultures that are not their own. I think this latter attribute reflects an understanding that we all live in cultural matrices and that our own “normality” is an intricate web of constructed values and assumptions.

SEMIOVOX

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

SARAH JOHNSON

  • Not strictly semiotics, but Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson was the first book that made me understand how symbolism is built into our most basic conceptual systems and made me able to look at language “from the outside.” So it was truly consciousness-raising, and ultimately, life-changing, because I wouldn’t be doing what I do without it.
  • I was also very influenced by the thinking of anthropologists Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger) and Edmund Leach (Culture and Communication), both of whom wrote about cultural classifications, ritual, taboo, and symbolism. 
  • Finally, in philosophy I studied Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations which talked about the idea that language is a game where meaning is created by its participants. Another way of understanding the construction of different cultures. 

OK, that was more than three books, but all very important to my thinking.

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?

SARAH JOHNSON

I say that semiotics is critical for understanding the cultural context in which consumer decisions are made. Nobody makes a decision in a vacuum; decisions are influenced by cultural forces of which one might not even be aware. These forces are all around us, expressed through cultural symbolism that affects how we interpret everything. Using semiotic analysis can help predict what might be influencing these decisions, can identify what cultural symbolism might best be deployed to help consumers connect with brands and, just as importantly, what cultural symbolism should be avoided to manage risk. 

Helping clients understand that semiotics can improve the ROI on their brand communication is speaking their language (thanks, Wittgenstein).

SEMIOVOX

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

SARAH JOHNSON

I most enjoy projects on subjects I haven’t worked on before because I am a life-long learner and am always eager to explore new things. There’s always something interesting to uncover, no matter how boring it might seem at first. I also really enjoy global studies where I can see how meanings are different in different cultures.

SEMIOVOX

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

SARAH JOHNSON

I’m not sure I have any frustrations! Although semiotics can be a tough sell to some clients, I am continually pleased and proud about how many clients find it to be enlightening and inspiring, and most importantly, of great practical use.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

SARAH JOHNSON

Errrrr… now comes the time to admit that I have never actually studied Peirce. 😬 In my study of anthropology, philosophy and English, the gurus I was exposed to were different. From what I understand, Peirce’s notion that there is actually an object independent of signifier and signified is closer to how I view reality. But Saussure by way of Barthes is really what I use in my work.

SEMIOVOX

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

SARAH JOHNSON

I’ve never liked Henry James much, but I’ve always liked his advice to young writers: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost”; that is, pay attention to the world in all its complexity and on all the subtle interactions within it. Also, read everything and know stuff.

That’s the philosophical part. My practical advice would be study something like anthropology, literature, communications, or graphic design, and then, in the quite likely event that you can’t immediately get a job as a semiotician, get a job at a marketing, design, or ad agency so you can really learn to understand brands and brand theory. Then go to Semiofest and meet wonderful helpful people!


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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