<aside> ⚪ This piece was originally commissioned by Medium.


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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.

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).

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Now with an example:

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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.