Semiotics; The signified, the signifier and the icon.

The study of signs and symbols, especially the relationship between written and spoken signs. Semiology draws attention to the layers of
meaning which may be embodied in a simple set of representations, such as the five interlocking rings of the Olympic flag. It is concerned with the meaning invested in the sign and the signifier (the physical representation of the sign).

Sometimes spelt “semeiotic”, or “semeotic” (by Charles Peirce Saunders, one of the founders of Semiotics), it was made a official form of study, branching off into many different aspects of the field in the mid-19th century. Charles Peirce Saunders, an American philosopher (1839)
and (later known as a semiotician) and Ferdinand de Saussre, a Swish linguist were two of the first respected people to conduct such a study.

The studies of semiotics were split into five groups; “signified”, “signifier” “symbol”, “index” and the “icon”

SignifierThat is what is read or seen visually

An example of a signifier can be a pictogram sign, a poster for a film, theatre performances, a photograph etc. It’s something that captures the eye of a person or people, and in that point in time doesn’t need to be read into, the concept unknown; the connection between what is being shown and what it means unknown. It’s simply to be taken at face value.

Signified – What the signifier is meant to represent, the concept behind the signifier

Depending on the intentions of what is being visually shown to the public, the concept of, the poster that is advertising a film, or for topic’s
sake; Barbara Kruger’s typography posters, is left to the consumer’s interpretation. It is a deliberate attempt to have an intellectual meaning that make’s a person use their imagination or attempt to see it from the creator’s point of view. Sometimes the signifier has no intention to resemble what is being signified – see “Symbol”.

“Your body is a battleground”, Barbara Kruger 1989.

Kruger was an infamous female graphic designer, who interlinks sentences with old photographs, always black and white or modern photographs which are turned black and white to contrast with the coloured words. Though the visual image is famous for other uses, for different circumstances, she would take that image and join it with the sentence – giving it a completely different meaning.

Icon – The signifier resembling the concept behind the signified, making it recognizable visually

This is where the topic of the pictogram signs, such as “Smoking not allowed” is most appropriate. What is being visually
represented, the meaning of it is obvious. Toilet signs which have “male” and “female” pictogram signs are simplified to thick stick figures,
with the “man” being “nude” whilst the “woman” has a triangular skirt, stereotyping what the two genders appear to look like. It
helps visually to communicate with the human eye, and doesn’t need to be thought about.

The pictogram, though an ancient form of communication; notably in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, was modernized by Otto Neurath in his “Isotype” movement, using pictures to explain a situation without words. 

IndexThe signified and the signifier are directly linked up, connected

Ultimately, Index signifiers are similar to Icon signifiers; the concept and theory behind the visual result are one of the same and therefore
there is no need for thought or query when looking at the signifier. Index signifiers could also be twin results to the Symbolic signifiers, like the crucifix and Jesus Christ. In the biblical story, Jesus Christ was nailed to a wooden cross and was left to die, as punishment for being a “false prophet”, lying to the Jews. Therefore, the crucifix that is worn around the necks of religious groups (Christians, Catholics) is the visual representation of the death of Jesus Christ. It is the visual statement of Jesus Christ’s willing sacrifice for his people, ridding people of their sins – which is the Symbolic signifier.

Symbol – Neither the signified or the signifier resemble nor are directly connected to one another

Symbol, a contrast to an Index signifier, and to some extend the purpose of an Icon signifier is more connected with the Icon; the image that is used in symbolism, like the crucifix of Christian and Catholic religious is an icon, it is recognisable visually, but the concept behind the Symbol can be interpreted and can to some purposes be debated in any way, which is very close to the signified signifier.  Barbara Kruger’s Graphic Design/Typography billboard pieces are considered “symbolic signifiers” because the meaning behind her work isn’t obvious, it has to have the interpretation of the viewer, whether it is for personal reasons or logical ones.

Bill Hicks, a late American comedian in his 1993 stand-up “Revelations”, made a comedic statement between Jesus Christ and God, which revolved around Christ’s second coming. Making a made up reason for Jesus Christ’s delay, linking it to the symbolic signifier of the crucifix; it can be found between 3:19 – 3:50 of this YouTube clip:

Though it is a humourous take on the topic of symbolism, as a whole, and about religion; the statement is quite blatantly making a point on why it is crosses/crucifixes instead of a fish. Which, though the symbol of the fish was  originally simply an iconic image of the animal, became a symbol for Christ when he fed the 5000 people. It puts into question whether the fish would be a better way to remember Jesus Christ as a messiah, friend and a good human being – because it put him, as a person into a positive light. Whilst the crucifix, the cross is a negative part of his life, it is a remembrance of his pain, suffering.


2 responses to “Semiotics; The signified, the signifier and the icon.

  1. Pingback: Sign Systems – Photography

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