Week 8: Signs and how to use them

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If I show you the picture above and ask you what it is, without a doubt, you will tell me that it is a chess piece that plays as a white horse. Yet, if I ask you what it means or what it stands for, you may tell me many things: “chess”, “strategy”, “game”, “horse”, “knight”, “white”, “army”, “opponent”, etc. This relates to DENOTATION and CONNOTATION.

For those who don’t know, denotation is the explicit or direct meaning of a word or expression, while connotation is the idea or meaning associated or suggested by it. For instance, the word “wind” is the denotation for “air in natural motion” and “freedom” may be a connotation for “wind”.

As illustrators and designers, we need to understand the importance of signs and how to use them. We communicate, in fact, through signs, images that hide a deeper meaning than what it translates to us at first sight.

Regarding this subject, we discussed in our last CTS session three different theories that relate to the different types of signs that exist.

SEMIOTICS by Charles Sanders Peirce

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In semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce distinguishes three sectors within signs. The icon is a sign that generalises an idea through an illustration.
For instance, although the image above doesn’t quite look like our idea of the human eye, the resemblance is enough to make us understand it as a representation of that. In other words, the icon is a simplification of an idea.

The index points to its purpose, to the existence of the idea. In the example above, we couldn’t draw “south-west” but by pointing towards its direction, we understand the idea that is being shown.

Finally, the symbol has an arbitrary relationship with the idea. That is, although the word “box” doesn’t resemble an actual box, the word is closely linked to the object, which means we immediately picture the idea of a box when reading the word.

According to Peirce, to create an impact and to have true meaning, a sign should combine all of these three factors.

SEMIOLOGY by Ferdinand de Saussure

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Saussure based his study not on what the meaning is but how the meaning is constructed. He defended that we are limited by language and tried to understand how we perceive meaning through language.

According to Saussure, the sign is formed from the union of the signifier (the sound-image) and the signified (the concept it represents). The connection between them is arbitrary and conventional, but only through their union are significant sounds and ideas articulated.

For instance, if I pronounce the sound “I” (the signifier), I can be referring to the signified “I”, as in “my person”, to “I”, the letter or even “eye”. The sound just by itself means nothing but we, by creating language, link a concept or idea to it, creating meaning. Now, just like Saussure said, we are limited to language. In Portuguese, the exact same sound “I” does not mean “me”, the letter “I” or “eye”, it means “ai”, an exclamation of pain, the equivalent of “ouch” in English.

MYTH by Roland Barthes

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The third and last thesis we discussed in class was Myth by Roland Barthes. Barthes defended mythology as the study of a type of speech. As Saussure, he also made a distinction between signifier and signified. However, he believed that the correlation between both created a third term: the sign.

“Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion. Do we have here, then, only a signifier and a signified, the roses and my passion? (…) we do have three terms; for these roses weighted with passion perfectly and correctly allow themselves to be decomposed into roses and passion: the former and the latter existed before uniting and forming this third object, which is the sign. (…) I cannot dissociate the roses from the message they carry”.
(Barthes, R., 1957).

As a system constructed from a semiological chain, myth is a bit more complicated to explain. According to Barthes, the sign that results from the signifier and signified can also be used as a signfier that, along with another signified creates a second sign. The first semiological system is considered to be the language, while the second is the myth.

I found it hard to find examples to illustrate this as the myth is subject to context and history. Barthes himself, a French, gives an example that, in my opinion, wouldn’t be perceived by everyone as you would need to know French history to fully understand it. An example I imagined to illustrate the myth relates to my own culture:

In 1974, when Portugal was still living a dictatorship, there was a revolution known as the “Carnation Revolution” or the “25th of April”. The revolution started as a military coup but the movement was soon coupled with an unanticipated and popular campaign of civil resistance. This movement would lead to the fall of the dictatorship. The name “Carnation Revolution” comes from the fact that almost no shots were fired and when the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the repression, carnations were put into the muzzles of rifles and on the uniforms of the army men.

In this context, a carnation becomes something else to us, Portuguese people; it a sign of resistance, revolution, and specially, freedom. That is, essentially, the myth.

Note: all images are taken from a PowerPoint presentation by our tutor.

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