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The Life of Signs

Posted 4 years ago by Linh Nguyen

In 1993, there was an event. The late Prince, over dispute with his record label Warner Bros., changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince wanted out of his contract, out of the identity that tied him to it. The new symbol, also known as the Love Symbol, was an act of artistic liberation. The world was in disarray. The music industry was both irked and inspired. The meaning of identity was open for all to critique and ponder over.

Was it still Prince even if his name was different? How do we come to terms with the old meaning and the new name? Does he still mean the same to us? When Prince died, I remembered this event. I thought about how his name change says so much about how we see and structure the world, how language is both a barrier and a breach towards understanding. I thought about how we make meaning and what he meant to me.

We study signs to understand their significance and how meaning is created.

Thoughts like these belong to the field of semiotics, the study of signs and meaning. Despite certain assumptions, semiotics doesn’t need to be an academic luxury. Anyone who is interested in how we notice things, how we look for and communicate them, is engaging in the practise of semiotics.

We study signs to understand their significance and how meaning is created. Why do some signs mean more than others? What is the relationship between seeing and understanding? How do signs change from culture to culture, online and offline?

The web is highly made up of semiotics and has a whole bunch of different languages, from hashtags and emojis, to acronyms like NSFW and TL;DR. There are also other signals that we have come to recognise: the house logo leads us back to the homepage; a star represents a bookmark; white space signals separation. The web is full of rich signs that are, unfortunately, also excessive. Practising semiotics help us to face the challenges of understanding, representing and communicating large amounts of information.

Semiotics was founded by mainly two guys: Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce, both of whom have different interpretations of the field. Saussure saw semiotics through the lens of linguistics, the study of language and its structures. So for him, semiotics is more a system of words.

But we all know that language is more than words. It’s whatever that communicates. Peirce recognised this. He saw signs as anything that’s perspective, knowable or imaginable:

“…every picture, diagram, natural cry, pointing finger, wink, knot in one’s handkerchief, memory, dream, fancy, concept, indication, token, symptom, letter, numeral, word, sentence, chapter, book, library.”

He had a broader definition of signs and it’s his interpretation that we’ll be focusing on instead of Saussure’s. For Peirce, semiotics is made up of a triad:

Sign: The information we respond to.
Interpretant: The interpretant is not whoever interprets it, the interpretant is what is made of the sign.
Object: What the sign refers to.

And there were three types of signs:

Icon is a sign that resembles something.
Index is a sign where there is a direct relationship (smoke means fire).
Symbols are abstract and deals more with meaning (red means stop).

In order for signs to exist and mean anything, they have to be understood. A sign needs an interpretant to stand between it and the object it signifies. The primary function of a sign is to generate meaning, which differs depending on the culture. By learning about different cultures, we can understand how people receive and decode messages around the world, and find a way to translate them.

“Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.” – Umberto Eco

Now that the world is becoming increasingly globalised, we need to learn to interpret various signs so that meaning doesn’t get lost in translation. This is a new challenge that semiotics faces as cultural lines are blurred. Another issue is that signs don’t always represent what they’re intended to represent. If we take a sign outside of its cultural context, it will be meaningless or worse, misleading. If we want to appeal to the right people, we have to create messages that fall into their own frame of references, not just culturally, but digitally too.

Context is more powerful than the content itself. When Marshall McLuhan first coined the phrase “the medium is the message,’ he meant that people are so focused on content that they overlook the fact that the content’s impact depends on the structure under which it exists. The way it’s conveyed is more influential than what’s being conveyed. Content is seeing what something is about, but what something is about is influenced by its entirety. Reading the same article in a magazine or online convey different signals and therefore experiences.

A website’s structure is just as important as the word it holds. The impact of a message is predicated on how the information is organised. If we look into software as a medium, communication changes depending on whether we use iOS, Android or Microsoft on our smartphones. For example, emojis may be universally loved, but they’re not always universally or technologically depicted. Sometimes, they don’t translate well across different platforms.

Google’s emojis are weird bloated, blob-like things. Samsung’s emojis can look terrifying at times. Apples dancer in a red dress shows up as a man on Samsung. Though these sort of things rarely happen because emojis are standardised by Unicode to prevent cross-platform miscommunication, it does leave room for (mis)interpretation.


It’s even worse when things get inconsistent. Google’s browser uses the hamburger icon to mean menu, but Gmail uses a grid. Considering both products belong to the same company, having two different signs to mean the same thing is pretty confusing. It’s also jarring and feels like a wasted effort for the mind to learn different symbols for the same thing.

With the rise of knowledge, so comes the rise of its fragmentation.

The effectiveness of a product is measured by how many people are using it. It’s about the response. If the intention is for people to use our products, it’s better to stick with what works. Mark Boulton, director at Monotype, has three top tips on how to make sure icons are understood by the user:

“Be conspicuous – Be bold.
Leave ‘creativity’ to the bad designers – This is not the place to do something different. If a convention exists, use it.
Location, location – Be in the right place.”

The more we practise semiotics, the better we get at understanding how to help people use a product. With the rise of knowledge, so comes the rise of its fragmentation. Now that more of us are communicating to each other, there will be more signs to register and keep track of. Semiotics helps us to put these fragments together, to filter the signal from the noise, so that we can improve communication.

“Semiotics has demonstrated that whatever is human involves signs. Indeed, it implies more than this: whatever is simply alive involves signs.”

– Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio, Semiotics Today. From Global Semiotics to Semioethics, a Dialogic Response.

Signs aren’t meaningful in isolation, said Saussure. Something always has to stand for something else. We are all co-creators of meaning, and we need meaning for things to matter. Though no one controls signs and no one owns them, as Prince has shown in 1993, the life of signs connects each and everyone of us. Our very reality is mediated by them.

Why, hello there! I’m the word-generator at Marvel with a background in the humanities. I also like walks, talks, and…rhymes. You can contact me on good ol’ email.

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