Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Mariane Cara

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.


São Paulo…

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?

MARIANE CARA

I was raised on the outskirts of São Paulo, where modest houses seamlessly blend into the landscape surrounding Pico do Jaraguá. Although our house was buzzing with children, I gravitated towards creating my own adventures, often in the company of objects others deemed worthless. When I was five, my father would come home bearing piles of cast-off papers, all riddled with typos and bound for the trash bin; these poorly shaped papers morphed into canvases for my doodles. I also decided to try my hand at sculpting, transforming leftover breadcrumbs into elegant swans. Naturally, that venture didn’t quite pan out. So, I turned to architecture, crafting entire cities from matchboxes and toilet paper rolls with an objective in mind: to distract the ants from my slice of chocolate cake.

I remain fascinated by the art of drawing significance from the seemingly insignificant. As a commercial semiotician, I infuse mundane materials with layers of meaningful symbolism.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARIANE CARA

In 1994, during the first semester of a college Linguistics course, I stumbled upon the concept. After sitting through a particularly tedious class session, I asked the instructor if there was a way to discern meanings beyond the written text. Her response was straightforward: “What you are seeking is not Linguistics, but Semiotics. Go read Peirce.” From that day forward, nothing made sense without studying icons, indexes, and symbols.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

MARIANE CARA

While navigating the academic maze from a Master’s to a doctorate, I immersed myself in Brazil’s deep pool of semiotic thinking. But putting theory into practice? That was a whole different game. I had to morph from a diligent student to a restless visionary, since the theories didn’t always meet real market challenges head-on. Attending Semiofest 2015 was a turning point, as the interactions with this spirited community of colleagues significantly catalyzed my approach to semiotic challenges in marketing and branding. Big thanks to Semiofest’s friendly and vibrant group for the transformative experience!

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

MARIANE CARA

Even though they emerge from the same ‘conceptual womb,’ theoretical and applied semioticians are fraternal twins, each displaying unique characteristics deemed essential for excellence in their respective fields. For those drawn towards application, certain indispensable traits are necessary:

  • Meticulous attention to discerning patterns in all cultural manifestations.
  • The ability to seamlessly translate complex concepts into actionable insights.
  • Quick thinking and a knack for managing tight deadlines, as clients often approach us for immediate solutions, requiring prompt responses within tight timeframes.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARIANE CARA

  1. Semiotics, Marketing and Communication: Beneath the Signs, the Strategies by Jean-Marie Floch. Floch was a pioneering scholar who successfully merged the intricacies of theoretical depth with the immediate requirements of practical situations.
  2. Matrizes da linguagem e pensamento (Matrices of language and thought; available exclusively in Portuguese) by [Catholic University of São Paulo professor of Semiotics and Communication Studies] Lucia Santaella. This detailed book spans over 400 pages, presenting all possible matrices of Peirce’s categories. It also highlights sound as a significant semiotic expression, showcasing its association with “firstness” and its ability to instigate feelings.
  3. Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I am fascinated by the subjects of multimodality, and this book is a classic for understanding the association between metaphors and everyday life.

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?

MARIANE CARA

The most persuasive approach would be to mention all the brands for whom you have already employed the methodology and achieved success. However, due to NDAs, it is not always possible to do so. The solution I have found is to begin with a simple rule consisting of two elements: intentionalites and impact.

I explain that all communication is composed of INTENTIONALITIES: words, colors, shapes that are intended to convey a message and are closely associated with everyday reality, which is constantly evolving. Semiotics plays an essential role in strategically constructing these intentionalities to yield the most relevant IMPACT within the current culture.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARIANE CARA

I am most drawn to projects where an idea is being conceived from scratch — especially front-end innovation and R&D projects. One favorite project is still in progress and confidential, so I will be vague:

In 2019, we initiated an extensive brand audit, evaluating the signifiers, intentionalities, and symbolic territories of both the brand and the main competition. The client also employed a qualitative approach involving consumers. In 2021, in collaboration with the branding team, we conducted an update of cultural territories to discern changes since 2019. This information assisted the creative team in developing the new positioning and logo. In 2022, we entered the phase of researching trends in product solutions — observing shapes, colors, and other design elements. At this juncture, we established certain parameters based on the cultural tensions identified via semiotic analysis. In 2023, the design team presented 10 prototypes, and we conducted an assessment of each, cross-referencing them with the new positioning and logo. In 2024, we’re continuing to work on this effort. I anticipate that we will start to see the outcomes of this effort materializing in 2025.

SEMIOVOX

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

MARIANE CARA

It can be frustrating to see applied semiotics occasionally turn into a rigid framework that isn’t always the best fit for a brand’s challenges. In my view, our field should be about expansion and exploring multiple possibilities, not strictly adhering to a single framework.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

MARIANE CARA

Grab ¾ of Peircean categories, the main ingredient, packed with a burst of three-dimensional awesomeness. Add ¼ of Saussurean dichotomies for that extra kick. Sprinkle in a pinch of your favorite side author: Lotman, say or Barthes, Eco, Jakobson, Bahktin. Give it all a whirl, and when you’re ready, pour it into a Greimas-designed rectangular mold. It is certified nonsense-free and guaranteed to be a thrill for your semio-adventure!

SEMIOVOX

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

MARIANE CARA

Allow curiosity to overflow freely in your mind. Once the reservoir is full, begin to select each piece of knowledge with criteria, separating only those patterns truly worthwhile. When you have isolated the essential elements, align yourself with creativity, transforming these potent territories into genuine ideas. Upon completing the curiosity + criteria + creativity trinity, start the process anew.

As Peirce would say, semiosis consists of infinite expansions, never reaching an endpoint.


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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