Photo: Universal Pictures ‘They Live’

Probably the best visual to understanding the art of semiotics is a still from John Carpenter’s sci-fi opus They Live, where the lead character ‘Nada’ finds a set of sunglasses that allow him to decode the messages hidden all around him. Cutting through superficial messaging to get the underlying message.

So, with that in mind, the key word in the heading is ‘bothered’ – because the quicker we can be ‘seen to be’ of concern, to be found for what is being looked for, to resonate with our audience, the sooner that might turn into new customers and sales.


What is it?

In its simplest meaning, semiotics is understanding how meaning is created and communicated by the study of signs and symbols (semantics the visual) and how those are built into and understood in sign systems (syntactics – the structure or rhythm) – these will have an accepted code, or ‘meaning’ in a culture or society (pragmatics). I’m not going to lie, this is not my area of expertise (there are degree courses!) but when designing a new logo and branding, I will naturally touch on semiotics.

Some things have global meaning – for example traffic lights (for safety – makes sense!). They are part of a bigger highway code system that will vary country to country, but it’s pretty universal that red is stop, green is go (amber isn’t drive fast though ;D). But those stand-alone colours will have different ‘meanings’ in different cultures or when used in different contexts. Red for instance, is lucky in China, but is also synonymous with danger, love, anger, sex, energy, sales, and Coca-Cola.


Why you should be bothered

Semiotics is about understanding the culture and context, the ‘landscape’ your company exists in. You will want your branding to be ‘decoded’ as quickly as possible, so that it’s clear who you are and what you do.

If you are a start-up you will be looking at the landscape that your product or service serves (i.e. the competition). You may want to fit into that landscape, it’s probably in the same country so you can use similar signs or codes – the style of logo, use of colours, type of language – so that you easily can be recognised as belonging in that landscape. Those signs/codes create your ‘look & feel’ or ‘branding’. You may also want to be seen as something different and by understanding the semiotics you can, because you understand the landscape, enabling you to cherry-pick elements so you’re still seen as a player in the same landscape, but also unique. So, you might choose a different styling for your logo or name, unusual colour palette, but use the same language syntax.

If we are thinking about colour landscapes for instance, companies that want to make you feel safe or trusted favour blues and blacks. If you’re a start-up that blue may be bright, or you’re an older company that wants a younger audience – that brighter blue will be in your new brand palette (or vice-versa) (see Pfizer new branding that marries a bright blue and a heavy dark blue). But, if you want to visually display a different perspective, show creativity you would buck the trend, and you may go orange like GSK.

The thing about sign systems and codes is that they are continually changing. ‘Cool’ used to be ‘cool’, ‘sic’ or ‘dope’, now it ‘Lit’ or ‘GOAT’. Colours that were on-trend a few years ago, may now look dated especially when combined with on-trend imagery, logo design and language.

By thinking about semiotics, understanding how meaning is created and communicated when starting or reviewing your branding and how it fits into the landscape of your customers, and considering cultural and societal changes, you will naturally increase empathy with your customers. That said, above all, you should always be true to yourself and not try to please everyone (highway to hell!)!


If you want to know more, here are the articles that got me interested:

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