Semiotics is the study of signs, how acts of communication contain meaning. It’s from the greek meaning “observant of signs” it’s called ‘semiology’ in the US and France.

Divergent Thinking Task – Apple

  • Healthy
  • Harvest
  • Food
  • Traffic Lights
  • Halloween
  • Colours

Semiotics was first suggested by Ferdinand de Saussure (pictured). Saussure studied linguistics, especially Sanskrit, so much of what he proposed is based in language, rather than visual communication.


Saussure said that when an act of communication happened a sign was created (pictured), which consisted of a signified and a signifier. This sign happens by most things you do in everyday life such as talking to someone.


The signifier is the thing that signals something (such as a spoken or written word). The signified is how that is registered in the mind of the person getting the message.

Divergent Thinking Task – Acts of Communication

  • Senses, smell, taste, hearing
  • Music
  • Sign language
  • Eye contact
  • Body language, gestures
  • Composition
  • Book covers
  • Magazines
  • Radio
  • Tone of voice
  • Facial expressions

Denotation is the simplest level of what is seen (head, smelt and so on).

Connotation is what that means to you – the things you think of in a personal way.

Polysemic Images – something with many meanings

Denotation and Connotation Task – Polysemic Images



  • Old house
  • Run down
  • Old town
  • Farm house
  • Derelict land
  • Smashed windows
  • Falling apart
  • Empty
  • Abandoned
  • Family home
  • Rotting wood
  • Neglected
  • Natural disaster


The style of the house reminds me of the cartoon movie Monster House (pictured) which I haven’t seen since a kid so there’s some personal connection.



Saussure said there is no natural connection between the signifier and the signified; this is purely ‘arbitrary’ (random).

The idea that language is symbolic and has to be learned is important. It promotes the idea that language is also valued.

The word “dog” (a signifier) can have different meanings in different contexts, and this is how we understand the signified. Below are a few images of how the word dog can be used in different contexts.


Paradigms & Syntagms

Paradigm – big groups of ideas from which we can take one item.

Syntagm – items that we select from the paradigm.

Example: a paradigm would be a box a syntagm would be chocolates which creates a box of chocolates.


Using the table above we chose one syntagm from each paradigm to create a headline. The combinations are endless I went with ‘cowboy in jeans on galloping stallion’ which we then drew for a bit of fun.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) Task


What do you think is happening here?

It’s an advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes featuring a cowboy/rancher using the product.

What can you see that makes you think that?

I know this from the Marlboro type down the side of the image, the uniform the man is wearing links to him being a cowboy, his positioning sitting on the bench shows him on a break with his cigarette from taming horses judging by the whip rested on his knee.

What else can you see?

I can see that he is sat on a fence which has an old outdoor look which tells me its a ranch full of horses or just animals in general. I also see a tiny Marlboro packet in the bottom left maybe to show what they look like in stores for anyone interested in buying.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce (pictured) ‘discovered’ semiotics at about the same time as Saussure. He added more detail and made semiotics fit all forms of communication, not just linguistics.


Peirce’s breakdown of signifiers (three kinds of signs): Icon, Symbol, Index


This kind of signifier always has a physical resemblance to the signified.

This could be roads and rivers on maps as they follow the patterns of the real landmarks. It could be all images that are not abstract. The amount that a signifier is iconic is relative – a hologram of a person is very iconic, so is a photograph, painting, drawing, while a stick person is only just iconic of a human.


Signifiers that are symbols have no natural connection to their signifieds. They are cultural conventions that are agreed to have specific meanings in a given society. Again their context is important as the meaning can change.

All written words are symbols and all spoken words (except onomatapia) are symbols. All numbers are symbols (unless written as dots). All letters are symbols. When clothing signifies this is also symbolic. Road signs, heraldry and logos are all symbolic (bit may have iconic elements within them).


Signifiers that are indexes have an actual, physical link to their signifieds. The signifier cannot exist without the presence of the signified.

Smoke as a signifier of fire is a classic example. Symptoms of illness are signifiers of the condition. Lipstick traces on a glass, footprints, fingerprints are all indexes. Many elements of the weather are signifiers of weather conditions – such as rain, lightning, heatwaves, fog and rainbows. Smells and sounds are also indexes of the signifieds that caused them.

Indexical signifiers are used to forecast the weather, diagnose illness, and are evidence for detectives, historians, archaeologists and palaeontologists.