Tuesday, November 16, 2010

MODULE EIGHT - Semiotics

In the 1950's, the Ulm Institute of Design in Germany had a mission to solve the design problems of the era. To that end, directors of the school developed a program called “Semiotics”. This program taught design principles which take into account meanings of symbols, overall design architecture, and user interaction.

Max Bill, European; Swiss, 1908, Variation 13,Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
San Francisco, California, USA,Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts purchase 1984.1.98.
What are the 3 branches of Semiotics?

  • semantics - meanings of signs and symbols
  • syntactics - architecture or signs and symbols into a whole
  • pragmatics - user interaction with signs and symbols

What was the relevance of semiotics for 1950's Ulm Institute Artists?

Max Bill(19-08-94) was instrumental in developing the curriculum for the Institute of Design in Ulm. According to Meggs and Purvis (p. 357), "Bill constructed layouts of geometric elements organized with absolute order. Mathematical proportion, geometric spatial division, and the use of Akzidenz Grotesk type (particularly the medium weight) are features of his work of [the 1930's]."

The image above is one of Bill's works. Here we see the geometric elements. One might say that the semiotic element with regard to the syntactics is manifested in the way the rainbow colored circles are arranged. The juxtaposition of the rings gives way to white space which draws the viewer to the center part of the image. The pragmatics, user interaction, is such that the view starts their visual journey at the center of the image and then works their way across the rings toward the outside.

What was are the implications of semiotics for in today's media?

In his book, Interactive Media: the Semiotics of Embodied Interaction, O'Neil offers explanations as to the importance of semiotics in today's media.  He states "Semiotics takes the view that signs can be organized within various media, to form texts that can convey some kind of meaning." He explains the ideas of two theorists, Saussure and Hjelmslev.

Saussure theorized that words had two major components when it comes to meaning:
  • Signifier - the physical representation
  • Signified - the meaning conveyed
I think of this this concept in therms of the words, Amplifier and Amplified.  The Amplifier is the physical object which emits sound. What is Amplified is the music which conveys meaning and affects the senses.

O'Neil says, Hjelmselv thought of the signifier as " the physical materials of the medium, e.g., sound, light, wood, or stone." Hjelmselv introduced the concepts of form and substance in the understanding of a sign.
  • Substance of Expression
  • Form of Expression
  • Form of Content
O'Neil says Hjelmsevs ideas can be thought of  in terms of a Greek statue where the substance of expression is the stone from which the statue is carved. The form of expression is the shape of the body. And in the case of a statue of Zeus, the form of content is the "concept of the divine or all knowing."

Zeus of Artemision, detail; head,c. 460-450 BCE,Image and original data provided by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

The figure below (p. 68) from O'Neils outlines a comparison between Saussure and Hjelmselv theories.

    According to a CCNMoney.com column, By Blake Ellis, , the change of the GAP logo "ignites [a] firestorm". This speaks to the relevance of semiotics in today's corporate design. Here we see the "signified" modified through restructuring the design. The signifier, the word GAP, did not change but the signified, the meaning, did change. Or, using Hjelmslev's train of thought, we see that the substance of expression, digital design medium, did not change. However the form of expression, (fonts, colors, and layout) and the form of content (meaning the logo evoked) did change.  In this case, the meaning and emotion evoked changed so much in the negative direction that the logo was reverted back to the original design.


    Meggs, Philip B and Alston W. Purvis (2006). Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    O'Neil,Shlaleph (2008). Interactive Media: the Semiotics of Embodied Interaction. London Springer Science & Business Media

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