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Semiotics is a way of analysing any mediatext to uncover the ways it creates meaningfor its target audience. Some key terms insemiotics are sign, code, denotation andconnotation.
Media texts, like the magazine ad on theright (from a charity’s campaign againstverbal abuse), can be made powerful andcompelling.
If you’ve been to any recent film at amultiplex cinema with an ultra-wide screenand surround Dolby 5.1 sound, you’ll haveexperienced how very realistic mediacompanies can now make their‘representations’ of the world…
So believable, often, that it really doesseem as if the media is able to offer us a‘window on the world’.
Semiotics provides important ways for you to be able to ‘deconstruct’a media text so you can work out how it is working on its targetaudience to create particular meanings and feelings.
Sometimes, too, a media text will be working to create or reinforce aparticular way of viewing or thinking about the world.
Semioticians believe that when we, as humans, put ‘things’ togetherto create some kind of meaning, we end up saying far more thansimply what the things in themselves ‘say’, that is, we create ‘codesof meaning’.
Signs are important because they can
mean something other than themselves
Stop means Stop
Apple means Apple
Crown means Crown
Crown means King
Apple means Healthy
Stop means Danger
The interpretation of a sign
is dependent on the
context in which it is used,
it’s relationship to other
signs, and its environment.
There are numerous relationships that can exist
between signifier and signified. We can have the
same signifier with different signifieds and different
signifiers with the same signified.
Signifier Signified Signifier Signified
Apple Temptation Apple Apple
Apple Healthy Pomme Apple
Apple Fruit Apfel Apple
Three Types of Signs
• Icon - a sign that
physically resembles what
it stands for - a literal sign
• Index - a sign which
implies some other object
or event - an implied sign
• Symbol - a sign with a
conventional or arbitrary
relation to the signified - a
learned sign CAT
The signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the
signified. A pictoral representation, a photograph, an
architect’s model of a building, or a star chart are all
icons because they imitate or copy aspects of their
An index had a factual or casual connection that
points towards its object. Wet streets are a sign that it
has rained recently. Smoke signifies fire. A nest image is
an icon of a nest but also an index of a bird.
A symbol has an arbitrary relationship between the signifier and
the signified. The interpreter understands the symbol through
previous knowledge and experience - it must be learned and
agreed upon. Spoken or written words are symbols. There is no
reason that the word CAT should represent a cat instead of a tree.
Semioticians would say that a common andimportant ‘sign system’ is the clothing we eachuse to cover our bodies. They say that clothingmeans far more – in our culture – than merely toact as a body covering.
Instead, we use clothing as a series ofmeaningful signs that are placed together tocreate an even more meaningful code, one thatour ‘audience’ (i.e. those we dress to impress!)can ‘crack’ and so ‘read’ that we are trying tosay… ‘I’m cool’, ‘I’m a Goth’, ‘I’m a Hippy’...serious, fashionable, clever… and perhaps mostespecially, that ‘I am an individual’ and ‘…notpoor’, ‘street wise’… and whatever else we deemimportant to us in our society.
The individual clothes or the fabric from whichthey are made don’t say this in themselves, ofcourse, they denote merely, clothes; but theindividual signs work together to create a codethat connotes mush more than, merely clothes.
There are, in semiotics, manysuch ‘sign systems’:architecture, cosmetics, homeand office furnishings, restaurantmenus, and so on. In fact, ‘signsystems’ are all around us if wecould but see and recognise thatwe so often do not want to justdenote literal meaning, we wantto connote ideas and feelings.Yet, those ‘sign systems’ areoften not noticeable simplybecause they seem so ordinary,so every day, so normal.
Think of these three signs: a teenage boy, a teenage girl, a redrose. Are they gardeners or are they romantically attached?
Can you think up more ‘signs’ that work together to create‘extra’ meaning beyond the obvious? Here’s another to helpyou along: a man and a woman in their late twenties; a child ofthree, a child of six months, a swing, a garden, sunshine, bluesky…
What was the code? A happy family – a normal family… (butare all families like this? Is it a genuine representation ofreality)
Look at the signs and theresulting codes thes constructin the image to the right.
Can you deconstruct it intosome of its individual signs andsee how these seem, so verynaturally, to work together tocreate a code that signifies orconnotes meaning (andfeeling) much larger than theindividual meaning of the signsthemselves?
( SYMBOL / IDEOGRAM )
The audience’s perception of the
A product’s brand is influenced by,
but can’t be controlled by
combination of the
to form a
Joy, Intellect, Caution, Cowardice,
Fertility, Money, Healing, Success,
Knowledge, Tranquility, Calm,
Royalty, Wisdom, Spirituality,
Creativity, Invigoration, Warmth,
Passion, Anger, Stop, Battle,
THE MEANING OF COLOUR
An ident is the symbol or logo displayed by studios to
mark their work as their own.
You need one for all your work. Think about what you
want to symbolise and then think about a signifier that will
do the job!
Have a look at some major studio idents for inspiration.
What features are common? What palette is most
popular? Which is best? Why?
A good logo should
identify rather than explain
work in black and white
be the foundation of a visual system
work for a variety of media
be recognisable at a distance
An important recognition is that the meaning created by a sign or acode is often of two distinct types:
1All signs have a DENOTATION.
This is its ‘basic meaning’: what it ‘literally’ is on its own, away from
the context of, say, the advert it is in, e.g. a red rose denotes... a
•Signs and codes can have a secondary suggested meaning –called a CONNOTATION.
This is the meaning that develops within a certain context, e.g. arose can connote romance and love.
To recap: semiotics is the study of the way meaning is created within a particular culture orsociety… by its various sign systems. It applies not only to media texts but to all kinds ofhuman creations. It offers a truly important way of deconstructing and analysing all kinds ofmedia texts.
1A sign is defined as any single thing that creates separate meaning on its own. Signs usuallydenote meaning when viewed individually.
2A code is defined as a collection or group of signs that seem – to us in our society or culture –
to ‘go naturally together’ and thus to seem a part of a single thing that creates a larger meaning
than the individual signs from which it is made.
•The meaning created by a code is always greater than that of the individual signsfrom which it
is constructed (remember… romance is the meaning (and feeling!); the code is made up of a
few signs: a boy, a girl, a red rose… a smile, bright eyes, rosy cheeks… … …)
1Of course, the signs that ‘go together’ to create a code cannot be just any signs at all: they
must be composed of just those signs that we as members of a particular society or culture
recognise as somehow ‘going together naturally’ to create an overall meaning.
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