Lecture 6: Graphic Design – Signs & Symbols


“If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles you can devise your own methods” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Sean Hall (This means this, this means that, 2012) describes semiotics as ‘what matters is not what you put into a piece of communication but what you leave out’, sometimes leaving something to the viewer’s imagination is just as captivating. He also defines the figure of speech ‘synecdoche‘ which is a term for a part of something referring to the whole of something, or vice versa.

Foreground OR  Background – a matter of choice! The human eye has the ability to see both foreground and background – which is your automatic choice?

A syntagm – any combination of things that conform to a specified set of social rules. These social rules make us form assumptions on images, people, signs through conforming – should it be this way? For example…traffic lights, the signifiers are red, yellow and green signified globally as stop, caution and go. Images with objects, signs that are familiar to us can straight away cause us to question when there is something out of place or different. For example proximity in relation to the grouping of objects; presence, indicated in different ways such as size, colour, sharpness, tone and texture.

Semiotics  – The word ‘semiotics’ comes from the Greek word semeiotikos, which means an interpreter of signs or more simply as the study of signs, symbols, and signification.

Signs are very diverse and include some of the following:

gestures, facial expressions, speech disorders, slogans, graffiti, road signs, commercials, medical symptoms, marketing, music, body language, drawings, paintings, photography, poetry, design, architecture, film, landscape gardening, morse code, clothes, food, heraldry, rituals, primitive symbols.

These different types of signs are vital to human existence because it underlies all forms of communication. Hall (This means this, this means that, 2012) describes the meaning of the image and how we ‘read’ it is not fixed by it’s creator or author but is equally determined by the reader. Similarity occurs when objects look similar to one another. People often perceive them as a group or pattern meaning patterns of human behaviour, prior knowledge and mindset make our perception.

When creating work designers must consider the following for their target audience:

Denotation: the literal or primary meaning of a word

Connotation: an idea or feeling which a word invokes for a person

From both semiotics alongside denotation and connotation our minds work overtime to pull out meaning and understanding!

Similarity – allows the viewer to identify pattern

Continuation – draws the eye through the page

Closure – the human eye is amazing! If enough shape is there people can fill in the missing information

Proximity – identifies relationships and groupings

Figure and Ground – the eye’s ability to see both foreground and background – tricking the human  eye

Symmetry and Order – composition of the image – don’t waste the viewer’s time or they will disengage from the message being delivered.

Drawing in your target audience through other means

Type as a signifier:

‘The use of a particular type style: the typeface, its size, weight and colour, as well as its position within a particular context, can be a deliberate choice made by the designer in the construction of a message’ (Ian Noble & Russell Bestley).

Colour, one of the biggest forms of non-verbal communication. Evoke emotion through colour, demonstrate culture or political and historical meaning, look at psychology and current trends for your target audience. How will you appeal to your audience – what is ‘in vogue’ for your group?

Line – can be used for a wide range of purposes: stressing a word or phrase, connecting content, creating patterns and more. (siscottstudio.com)

Shape – geometric, natural/organic and abstract. All evoke different ideas and create a specific feeling for the audience.

Value – Within the design the light and dark areas this creates depth, contrast, emphasis on parts of the whole of the image as required.

Texture – adding visual interest to the work allowing the viewer to see past the one dimensional form.

Scale – defines importance, adds attention and emphasis to specific areas or focal points. In photography the general ‘go to’ rule is the rule of thirds within an image.

Space – Give the eye opportunity to reflect, allow space which creates thinking time and a chance to reflect on the message/focal point of the image.

As defined by designer Paul Rand “Order, variety, contrast, symmetry, tension, balance, scale, texture, space, shape, light, shade and colour – this is the language of form”.

From this I took ‘visual literacy is also about how people perceive you…’ – what are we trying to say? How will this come across to the viewer? Consideration of the above will allow for an image that creates questions and cause the audience to think.