Intro Hi my name is Stephen Cox, I’m an interaction designer and design researcher who has been around since the mid 1990’s. I’ve taken on the task today of discussing semiotics or the study of signs and how they can be useful in under 10 minutes. But i’m happy to chat to people about it offline. Has anyone here already have a good understanding of Semiotics?
Semiotics is the study of signs (not your normal street signs). It’s a way of looking at the world based on the idea that everything we experience is actively constructed by us. That there is no information just sitting there, but that we make information by the way we interpret and read “signs”. Thinking about semiotics is useful for those of us conducting design research because it takes us back to basics. It makes us stop, look, listen, deconstruct and reconnect everything that we see and experience while doing research.
Brief History Ferdinand Mongin de Sassure (old French guy- linguist) Charles Sanders Pierce (old American guy – mathematician) Claude Levi Strauss (still a very old French Anthropologist) Mr Strauss was my first contact with the idea of semiotics and structuralism when I was studying anthropology at uni. These guys were structuralists, which basically means they thought everything made by humans existed or was conceived within a web of other things.
So what is a sign? Signs - in the semiotic sense - are comprised of two bits, the signified (which is the actual idea or concept being discussed, and this can be anything) and the signifier (the thing that points to the signified).
e.g This word DOG represents the idea of an animal the letters used are arbitrary but our shared cultural understanding means that most of us in the room know what is meant when we see those three letters.
Structuralism The structuralist’s said that things “signs” only make sense when put in the context of other things – so the word DOG, by itself might signify a particular object but it’s not until you put it in with other signs that you can make any sense of it. They believe that it is the relationship between the signs that made a difference. Using this thinking, means that any collection of signs can be read and analysed like a text. And because signs represent anything we can see or conceive that means we can “read” anything. That’s pretty interesting, because it means everything you see when you are doing research, be it the arrangement of desks, to the flowers and pictures on a windowsill can be read and interpreted and used as information in your study. Things, have meanings, and you can access those meanings. So let’s get onto the juicy stuff.
How do you read these sign systems? There are actually a bunch of different ways to do “semiotic analysis” – but for the sake of time i’m only going to explore one or two today – the others will be in the slide pack and on the web somewhere no doubt. Syntagmatic Analysis and Paradigmatic Analysis Love the words... Syntagmatic Analysis means looking at where the sign sits in relation to other signs, and paradigmatic Analysis is why are those particular signs chosen they pick that particular sign.
So in this sentence Man + Bites + Dog when we do Syntagmatic Analysis we are asking why does the man bite the dog, why isn’t the dog biting the man. The location of the sign is important, and how it relates to the other signs it sits with.
When we do Paradigmatic Analysis we are asking why isn’t it a woman biting the dog, what is the significance of the fact we have a man biting the dog? The choice of what is in each spot is important
So a real world example of this sort of analysis is this: This is a picture of a cabinet that you might see in any elderly persons home. It’s a cabinet that sits near the door of the home and inside the cabinet is a bunch of knick knacks from around the world. I saw plenty of these when I was doing research into “gated developments” for a developer and these sorts of collections are fairly typical of a lot of “empty nesters ” retirees, that have been in their suburb for years, but are planning on moving to a gated community (not a retirement village).. Using this study as the context, we can use some syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis to draw some meanings and information about the owners of these types of cabinet. For the purposes of this discussion, i’m going to say that the two key signifiers in for the purposes of the study are the knick knacks (Let’s say there are Australian and Overseas Knick Knacks) and the cabinet itself, it’s location etc. The signs make sense within the context of household display.
Syntagmatic Key questions, Where is it located? near the door, what’s on top what’s inside? The stuff on top of the cabinet are local Australian Knick Knacks (Trophies for golf mostly), but the stuff inside the cabinet is mainly Overseas Knick Knacks. What does this suggest to us about the Syntagmatic structure? Are the things on top more important because they are displayed and accessible? Do Australian Knick Knacks have more weight than the Overseas Knick Knacks? How are the Kick Knacks grouped? By country, by people who sent them home? Is there any order?
Paradigmatic What was chosen to be in this cabinet? Why are there things from other countries behind the glass? To be observed? Preserved? What’s not in there, which countries? Where’s the stuff from their trips around Australia, why is that kept somewhere else? What types of Australian items are kept inside? Being able to make these quick sorts of assessments during field work and to question everything you see and to look for additional meanings gives you the opportunity to dig deeper, to ask better questions and to understand more.
In this case, a quick analysis of the cabinet in the context of how the suburbs around them have been changing (immigration, movement of old friends away etc.) seems to suggest that those things kept “inside” the cabinet are becoming more prevalent in the real world outside their doors. This analysis allowed me to ask more pertinent questions around how they felt about the changes in their suburb, what they imagined a gated community might be like, and the concepts of “people the same as us” – all of these insights proved to be pretty valuable when we worked them into the designs of the final site built on top of this research. To me these sorts of cabinets
Denotion and connotation Something else to be aware of when you are doing semiotic analysis, this is the idea of denotion and connotation. Denotion is the literal and obvious translation of a sign into meaning, For example it’s the object being photographed. Connotion is the way it is framed and taken, soft focus hard focus etc.
For instance this is just a date (the format denotes a date) July 3rd
This is a date that connotes something as well September 11th Connotations are contextual and cultural associations related to the person creating and interpreting the signs, but also ways of portraying the sign. This is important because it emphasises how important having or being aware of culturally specific knowledge is. And how it can either colour the way you see things, or mean that you might miss some of the cultural information embodied in a set of signifiers. E.g, unless we conversant in chinese culture, the fact that the old number for the bus to Star City Casino in Sydney was 888 wouldn’t mean anything to you (888 is a very lucky number).
Semiotics in 10 minutes
10 Minute Theory Stephen Cox - UX Australia 2009
SYNTAGMATIC International Australian Front door How are they ordered?
PARADIGMATIC What’s missing? Where are the Australian travel Knick Knacks? Why were these things chosen for the cabinet?
ANALYSIS Cabinet is an unconscious metaphor Map of the perfect world where the international is kept safely behind glass Suburbs are changing Allows you to ask more specific questions and get better answers about why they wanted to move to a gated community.
SEMIOTICS Everything is a sign Signs can be read Signs exist in a structure and context Looking at the structure of signs allows you to get to the meaning For each text what is being said, by whom and why?