Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Gaëlle Pineda

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.


Paris…

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?

GAËLLE PINEDA

In French literature classes in junior high school, I loved reading a text on my own at home and then discussing its interpretation with my teacher and classmates. I have vivid memories of those moments, when it felt as though we were uncovering something concealed. My connection with images didn’t begin until my senior year in high school, when I began using the walls of my bedroom as a giant moodboard covered with meaningful magazine cutouts, movies tickets, and so forth — each item contributing something unique to the overall “narrative” I was building.

SEMIOVOX

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

GAËLLE PINEDA

After graduating from school with a Communications degree, I spent several years analyzing the media impact of banking and luxury brands. It wasn’t until I enrolled in the “Expertise en sémiologie et communication” professional Master’s program at the Université de Paris Cité that I discovered the theory behind the linguistic and visual analysis I’d been learning in a hands-on way. From Barthes to Floch, through Greimas and [the French linguist] Anne-Marie Houdebine, for me it was all immediately useful — a toolkit on which I could draw to enhance my practice.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

GAËLLE PINEDA

While studying semiology at the Université de Paris Cité, I met three fellow students in the same continuing education program. We came from different career paths, but we shared the same vision of semiology as a tool for analysis. We started by creating a blog, Sémiozine, and then an agency, Sémiosine. (You may notice an allusion to Barthes’ S/Z.) Since 2011, we have helped companies and brands create, master, and evolve their marketing and positioning strategy.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

GAËLLE PINEDA

Our work at Sémiosine has taught me the importance of the following:

  • Keep your eyes open. Remain curious about everything, including social trends.
  • Be self-reflective — so that your analysis remains as objective as possible.
  • Be flexible! Tailor your methods to both the project brief and your client’s needs.

SEMIOVOX

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

GAËLLE PINEDA

Very difficult to select only three, but here are some books that I’ve found useful when it comes to applying semiology “in the field” (within a business context), as well as when it comes to persuading clients to use semiology as a complement to, or replacement for, other methods.

  • Métiers de la sémiotique, [French semiologists] Jacques Fontanille and Guy Barrier, eds. This book explains how and, above all, why to use semiology and/or semiotics to address some communication issues, such as space analysis or brand identity.
  • Entreprise et sémiologie: analyser le sens pour maîtriser l’action, [French anthropologist] Béatrice Fraenkel and [French semiologist] Christiane Legris-Desportes, eds. Testimonials from experts and practitioners, using case studies to provide an overview of the practice of semiology in various business contexts.
  • Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. Nicolas Jung [co-founder of Sémiosine] and I recommend it to students whenever we lecture. I’ve read it over and over, hoping some day to muster the audacity to write something à la manière de….

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?

GAËLLE PINEDA

Early on, we avoided using the term semiology — but not any longer! We use the tools of semiology to help companies and brands with marketing and positioning strategy. Our methodology enables us to go beyond the superficial aspects of communication, in order to make sense of the deeper narrative that the brand intends to share with its audience.

To define the scope of our intervention, we find it valuable to share previous case studies — in order to get a sense from the client what sorts of semiological solutions they’re looking for.

SEMIOVOX

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

GAËLLE PINEDA

What I find fulfilling is using semiological tools to help customers move forward confidently in their strategic decision-making; I don’t really have favorite sorts of projects. Although I do like to stay “in the field,” as close as possible to the object of our analysis — so perhaps I should say that my favorite projects involve conducting research and analysis within a retail context.

SEMIOVOX

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

GAËLLE PINEDA

Semiology is too often perceived as “the icing on the cake” — a nice-to-have, not a must-have. The RFPs we receive frequently tack on semiological analysis as a little extra “intelligence.” We know from experience, though, that in many cases semiological analysis is the key methodology for a project. Brand name pre-testing, to use one example, is far more successful when semiological analysis is deployed early on to identify communication opportunities and risks. A focus group is great for testing the outcomes of such a process… but not so great on its own.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

GAËLLE PINEDA

This dichotomy doesn’t really interest me. I’ve been nourished by both — and I’m more directly influenced by other theorists. That said, I call myself a semiologist (vs. a semiotician) because I work almost exclusively on the French imaginary and because, in my practice, I’m mainly interested in the overall narrative constructed by the linguistic and iconic elements I analyze.

SEMIOVOX

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

GAËLLE PINEDA

If you end up working at (or starting) an agency like Sémiosine, you’ll…

  • Work on a wide range of topics and objects of analysis — so you’ll learn to navigate seamlessly between such disparate spheres as luxury goods, say, to public hospitals.
  • Be misunderstood, sometimes, by clients’ marketing and communication teams — so you’ll learn to advocate for the relevance of semiological analysis to all sorts of projects.
  • Learn to love working with fellow semiologists — Nicolas Jung, in my case — who’ll challenge your interpretations and improve your work. As [French semiologist] Valérie Brunetière memorably put it: “You’re more of a semiologist with more than one person.”
  • Discover the value of sticking closely to the corpus, or stimulus set. No matter how challenging the brief, the solutions are always to be found within the evidence at hand.

MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | 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) | INKA CROSSWAITE (South Africa) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | JOËL LIM DU BOIS (Malaysia) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (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) | FRANCISCO HAUSS (China) | EMILY HAYES (England) | YOGI HENDLIN (Netherlands / USA) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | KATRIN HORN (Austria) | 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 (China) | 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) | RAHUL MURDESHWAAR (India) | 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) | KARIN SANDELIN (Sweden) | 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) | JENNIFER VASILACHE (Switzerland) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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