Semiotics: A Powerful Communication Tool For Designers

There is an important thing present in advertising and other design uses, that we call semiotics. Actually, it’s present in everything in our lives, so deep that we don’t always pay attention and it happens naturally. So, what is this thing that surrounds us and is so important for design and advertising? The semiotics is the study of signs, and through them, it studies the origins of meaning in different languages of communication.

It goes deep into communication languages, verbal or non-verbal, to even understand why we think about the image of a rose when we hear the word “rose”. Why is this sound or theses letters connected to this object? What is the relation between them that makes the meaning? And more, why do we think about passion when we think about the rose? Though? Just a little, but we’ll talk more about it and show how to use this knowledge for communication and persuasion.

What do we need to know to make use of semiotics?

First, know what is a sign and its kinds. A sign is anything that makes meaning. Anything? Sure, if you see/hear something and understand that, it is a sign. They are the mediators to the world. According to Saussure, the signs have two aspects: signifier and signified. The first one is the material that has a meaning and the second one is the meaning. For example, the open sign is the signifier, while the signified is that you can go in.

The use of semiotics in our lives

Now let’s see the kind of signs according to Peirce and then analyze some things in our lives on which we can see the use of semiotics.
The three kinds are:

  • Icons – a clear representation of the object itself, keeping its characteristics. There’s no distinction between the icon and the real object. Examples are: photos, drawings, imitations, onomatopoeias and others.


  • Index – They indicate something. The index connected with its meaning (not arbitrary) but unlike the icon, it’s not the object itself. As examples, we can say that smoke indicates fire, smiles indicate happiness, fresh coffee smell in the morning indicates that someone preparing breakfast. Even medical symptoms and measuring instruments are indexes, because they indicate something.


  • Symbols – They have no resemblance to the real object, it’s  a result of a convention. A symbol can only make meaning if the person already knows that, so, this is a matter of culture and previous knowledge. We all know that a dove represents peace, but there’s no connection between the animal and peace, it’s just a convention. Letters and words are examples of symbols. The graph sign (words) has no direct link to the thing itself, but for each culture, they make meaning. For us, the mourning is represented by the color black, but this color changes for different countries and cultures.

Let’s analyze a common object, some cell phone “icons”:
Here we can see some real icons (representation of the object itself) like the calendar, the camera and the clock. Also, some indexes (signs that have a connection with the object, but it’s not its real representation) like the stocks, You Tube or mail. If they were real icons, there should be a photo of a stock exchange, a thumbnail of a You Tube video and an electronic mail image. Finally, we see also a symbol, for Flash. There’s no visual connection from the Flash “icon” to the real meaning.
There’s no specific indication of what is that, but we know, because there’s a previous knowledge that Flash is an application for animations (ok, this image – flash – is not real, but useful for educational purposes). The designers who projected this screen were aware of the signs and its meanings, as we all shall be when designing anything. It is important because it’s the base for communication, which is the final purpose.

Semiotics in advertising

Thinking about these three kinds of signs, what do you think is the most used in advertising? Symbols. The symbol is the last step of comprehension, which brings on subjective ideas and concepts. Of course, the signs in general belong to these three categories, but each one has its predominance, so we are ignoring the less predominant kinds.

Example I: Words hurt too

Let’s start with this clever ad about verbal violence (click to enlarge). The main element is the boy’s picture. So, you instantly think: “it’s an icon, because icons are real representations like photos”. Ok, but no. It is surely an icon, yet more than that. As we said that all signs can belong to the three kinds, this one is more symbolic. See, the boy looks upset, looking down, pale colors, showing sadness. These perceptions are primary indexes, because the eyes looking down, for example, is an indicator of sadness. BUT when we understand that this boy has suffered violence, it becomes symbolical and subjective.
The “words/blood” coming out from the boy’s nose is another index (indicating violence) that becomes a symbol. There’s no real blood, the written words are giving this idea, again, subjective. If I didn’t know what is this about I wouldn’t understand the image, it was important to have a previous knowledge about the concept “words hurt too”.

Example II: Opera to punk rock mp3s

Here we see the same woman, with same hair and same position creating a totally different look only by changing the clothes, from opera style to punk rock style. Obviously, the main sign is the clothes, and again, symbols. There’s the convention that the first style of the woman (composed by a long red dress – all symbols in this ad) is more classic adequate to opera, while the last look is more rebel, according to the punk rock style (boots, pantyhose, mini skirt and top). The transition between them illustrates the concept “opera to punk rock mp3s”.

Example III: If you pay a prostitute, you’re financing human trading

Now see this ad about prostitution. The main elements are a meat package and a woman inside of it. Why is this combination so strong? First, this kind of package is known as meat package, distributed largely in supermarkets, as a common commodity. When they put the image of a woman instead of the meat there’s a clear comparison with the woman – a prostitute – and a piece of meat. The woman becomes a symbol, provoking feelings like surprise, repulse, shock and impact. Nobody would like to treat a human being as a piece of meat, that’s when we read the concept “if you pay a prostitute, you’re financing human trading” and the whole idea clears up.
This article is just a brief view about semiotics and interpretations, the real thing is much more complex and complicated. We indicate some good books to go deep into semiotics concepts like “This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics” by Sean Hall, Theory of Semiotics by Umberto Eco (largely known name in semiotics) and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language also by Umberto Eco. To conclude this article, there is a nice video that explains in an easy way some aspects about semiotics.

Video: Semiotics, The stuy of signs.

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11 thoughts on “Semiotics: A Powerful Communication Tool For Designers”

  1. Sanjeev Sharma

    One of the most interesting articles I have come across recently. Beautifully written, enjoyed every bit of it!!
    Thanks Estéfany!

  2. Jajaja that image of Magritte, here in Colombia, (Universidad Nacional) we see 5 courses of semiotics and visual communication and the first book we read is This is not a pipe, is great to see that image in your great article.

    1. @Yourmung Saludos para colombia, I am from colombia as well. Glad you like the article. This is not a pipe is such a great example of semiotics. Luv Magritte

  3. I like the message of the boy’s picture. The first time I saw it, I already know how to express that particular picture, literally or not. No doubt, with the use of picture, we can express so many things.

  4. Brilliant blog, I remember a lecture at university on Semiotics and had to use in within an essay. Thinking back to it I can’t remember using semiotics in my dissertation! Even though I may of, if I didn’t I probably should of! This was a great read to refresh my memory on semiotics!

  5. I like it very much ’cause. it’s very very useful and helpful as a background material for my lectures in mass communication especially in broadcast journalism : non verbal language.

  6. indeet it’s a well-written piece. i’m in field of communication and this article has simplified my understanding of semiotics.

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