The origins of semiotics lie in the study of how signs and symbols create meaning.

Sturken & Cartwright (2001) said that ‘Just as language communicates through words, organized into sentences, visual culture communicates through imagery. Semiotics studies this communication and its meaning.’

Everyday, we are exposed to images. From family photos on facebook to articles in the newspaper, we are always actively reading images. We actively read them through image analysis which allows us to make sense of the world around us and this applies to a work of art/design.

The theory of semiotics seems to come from Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. This theory helps us to determine many of the formal patterns that enable us to make meaning of our culture and the different aspects of it (such as the media).

Signs are made up of the signifier and the signified. The signifier refers to an image or word and the signified refers to its meaning.

However, many theorists and philosophers have contradicting opinions as to what a sign is. Saussure says ‘a sign is anything that makes meaning’ whilst Umberto Eco says ‘a sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie’.

An example would be if a sign read the word ‘Tree’ (the signifier), one would imagine an image of a tree (the signified). It is not always that simple though, as the signifier may stand for a different signified. This is because of denotation and connotation. An image of word (the signifier) could invoke a different feeling or idea for different people thus making the signified different for everyone. Roland Barthes says that the connotation (signified) follows almost immediately after reading the signifier.

In terms of communication, our own personal connection to an image can determine whether the image is successful or not. If the signified is the same for the majority of people, this suggests that an image has been a success.

Semiotics is often used in the media in adverts etc. They often play on the norms or values of the particular culture, to make a pun or lesson from the advert. For example, the following image is of a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup (a well known condiment in the western world). It has been edited to appear ‘chopped up’ and has a tomato leaf of top. The slogan underneath reads ‘No one grows ketchup like Heinz’. These aspects, along with the fresh red background aim to crush the belief that Heinz ketchup is full of sugar and produced in large factories and replace that with the opinion that it is inface a fresh and healthy product. Therefore leading to a rise in sales.




In order to read images effectively, it helps to have an understanding of that culture and their way of life. For example, this image by Paul Strand would be simple to read by someone who understands the western culture. It is of Wall Street, the financial district of lower Manhattan, New York. This is a place full of grand architectural buildings and excessive wealth. From my knowledge of the area, i know that the people in this image are bankers and other businessmen, in their suits on their working day.






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