The Loyalty of Images

Design as Semiotics

This piece was originally commissioned by Medium.


French artist René Magritte painted The Treason of Images (sometimes, The Treachery of Images) in 1928–29. You’re familiar: It’s a painting of a pipe with the subtitle, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Occasionally the painting even goes by this name.

It’s been mimicked, mocked, and copied ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Magritte’s philosophy behind the painting was the image is not the object: The image is a symbol or representation of the object itself. You can’t stuff the painting with tobacco.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. C’est un signe.

What a perfect title to such a groundbreaking artistic statement, The Treason of Images.

Margritte regarded French philosopher, Michel Foucault, with esteem and the two kept in touch. Foucault wrote of the artwork,

From painting to image, from image to text, from text to voice, a sort of imaginary pointer indicates, shows, fixes, locates, imposes a system of references, tries to stabilize a unique space. But why have we introduced this teacher’s voice? Because scarcely has he stated, “This is a pipe,” before he must correct himself and stutter, “This is not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe,” “This is not a pipe but a sentence saying that this is not a pipe,” “The sentence ‘this is not a pipe,’ this is a not a pipe: the painting, written sentence, drawing of a pipe — all of this is not a pipe.”

This is semiotics. This is reframing our understanding of communication about a referenced idea rather than a referenced object.

So… what is semiotics?

Defining semiotics is not terribly difficult. It is simply a study of signs and symbols and their interpretation or use; it is how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated; semiotics is meaning-making. It is the connection between what exists, what we know it as, and how we address it. (There are innumerable branches and fields within the broader study of semiotics.) Defining semiotics is not terribly difficult… right?

If graphic design is visual communication and problem solving, semiotics is the umbrella under which graphic design exists.

A triangle is often used to illustrate semiotics. (How meta!) The three points of the triangle represent a relationship of understanding of a concept or idea. Here you can see three points: 1) sign (the object itself, as we see it), 2) signifier (some representation of the real), and 3) signified (what the concept means, pointing back to the sign).

Now with an example:

Further, Merriam-Webster defines semiotics as a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. This sounds like an exaggerated or robust definition of graphic design, eh?

We can safely say semiotics is learned according to experience: semiotics is experiential. For instance, when confronted with sink faucets, we know red means hot. We have tested and compared with blue meaning cold — or perhaps been burned in the past. Therefore, experiences inform expectations. However, red can also mean love, fire, blood, or stop. A single sign can have multiple signifiers (interpretations) depending on the context. Contextually, at a sink faucet, we know red means hot and not a faucet of blood.

My proposal is that all design is semiotics — or a subset of semiotics — all design is a communication of signs, in one fashion or another. But not all semiotics is design. In other words, there can be no design without semiotics. Let me explain.

What is design?

Design is intentional and premeditated. It serves a purpose of solving a problem — or creating a solution where perhaps there was no problem initially. (Henry Ford’s motor vehicle is an example of design preceding formal problem.)

Mihai Nadin describes design,

“Exceptionally rich in connotations, design (as verb or noun) suggests the activity of marking out, of conceiving a plan in one’s mind, of devising means for a specific function. It also has the connotation of creating and calculating for a predetermined end (a definition of particular relevance to engineering design) … To design means, among other things, to plan, to anticipate according to a devised course of events in view of a goal, of material and technical constraints, and under the influence of the environment.

Indeed, the word design is rooted in Latin meaning “from the sign” or something similar. Semiotics and design are naturally linguistic bedfellows.

From semiotics to design

Design is visual communication. Semiotics is the tool used to decode encoded messages. Cultural scholar, Stuart Hall introduced the idea of the Encoding/Decoding model of communication in a 1973 essay. His theory revolved around television communication but can easily be transferred into more general terms of semiotics.

All messages (signs, emojis, verbal and non-verbal communication, et al) are codes. As codes are sent, through whatever medium or means, they are encoded. Not all are so heavily “encrypted” as “code” implies but each message requires decoding on behalf of the recipient in order to understand.

A thumbs up in most contexts simply means ok, good job, yes, or good. On the road, a thumbs up is a plea for a ride. In ancient Rome, it was Caesar’s decision to kill in the gladiatorial games. The thumbs up is encoded by the sender and the simple message is decoded as non-verbal communication by the recipient. The same sign (thumbs up) in different contexts yields different experiential interpretations.

But how does this affect design?

What is the grand takeaway?

Mihai Nadin writes, “The main sign operations — substitution, insertion, omission — are actually the rules of design language.”

Design is essentially an applied knowledge of semiotics, design is applied semiotics. Knowledge elevates design elevates culture.

Visual design funnels through semiotics. A knowledge and awareness of semiotics therefore is not only helpful but critical to creating, maintaining, and improving design. As designers, we must consider the semiotic implications of design. This hinges on the integrity of the designer.

Designers must always be sensitive to the effects of semiotics within the ever-growing and evolving technological realm of design and its long term implications on society.

So. Pipe or no pipe?


Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, 1981

Basics of Semiotics by John Deely, 1990

Ways of Seeing by John Berger, 1972 (See also, Four part BBC video series)

Symbols: A Handbook for Seeing by Mark Fox and Angie Wang

This Is Not a Pipe by Michel Foucault, 1973 (PDF)

Semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce

Ferdinand Saussure: Semiology

“Design and Semiotics” by Mihai Nadin, 1990

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