Visual Communication and Meaning

The meaning of
CCS Hand In
• Monday 7 April
• 5.00pm
Shelves outside GP20
CCS Office. Lower Floor
Gray’s Portakabin
Reading wk comm 18 Jan
• Barthes, R. The new Citroen.
• In: Barthes, R. Mythologies. Hill and
Wang: New York; 1972, pp 88-90.
Find on Web:
Bibliography - Barthes
• Hall, S. Representation. London: Sage
Publications Ltd; 1999, pp36-41
• Howells, R. Semiotics. In: Howells, R. Visual
culture. Blackwell Publishers Ltd: Oxford;
2003, pp94-114.
• Julier, G. The culture of design. Sage
Publications Ltd. Oxford: Sage Publications
Ltd; 2002, pp87-95
• Raizman, D. A history of modern design.
Graphics and products since the industrial
revolution. London: Laurence King Publishing
Ltd; 2004
Web Resources
• Dr Daniel Chandler. Introduction to semiotics for
• See specifically: Introduction and Section 7 titled
Denotation, Connotation and Myth.
• Presentation by Professor John A Dowell, Michigan
Stage University. Background and overview of Barthes’
life and work.
• ‘Plastic’. Another essay from Mythologies analysing the
contemporary and cultural value of ‘plastic’ as an
emerging material in the 1950s
• To discuss meaning in design and culture
• To introduce “semiotics”
• To indicate that semiotics was more than a
new method of cultural analysis but also
signalled cultural change
Art and design culture
The 50s and 60s
Jackson Pollock. One: Number 31. 1950.
MOMA New York. Oil and enamel on canvas.
Morris Louis. Number 99. 1959. Cleveland
Museum of Art. Acrylic on canvas.251 x
This is
Richard Hamilton. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so
different, so appealing. 1956. Collage on paper. 26x24.8cm
Brillo Box
Silkscreen ink on
painted wood
17 1/8 x 17 1/8 x 14 in
Marcello Nizzoli
The Lettera 22. Olivetti. 1950
The Mirella Sewing Machine. 1956
Dieter Rams.
The Transistor. Braun. 1956
Dieter Rams & Hans Gugelot
SK4. “Snow White’s Coffin”. Braun. 1956
Modernism as an imposed solution
“All believed that advances in science and
technology were evidence of social progress and
provided paradigms for design thinking. They
thought that communication could be objective
and that optimum solutions to design problems
could be found. Many felt that design, if rationally
conceived,. could help solve social problems and
did not itself create such problems. And most
assumed that goods should be mass produced by
industry.” Victor Margolin. Design Discourse. 1998
1950S “Good Design”
Edgar Kauffman Jnr. Dept of Industrial
Design, MOMA
“Kauffman did little more……. than reiterate the
same Arts and Crafts values that had been voiced by
so many Modern Movement spokesmen before him,
emphasizing once again the well known tenets of
truth to materials, the unification of form and
function, aesthetic simplicity, and expression of the
modern age……..
Jonathan Woodham
60s Pop: fun, disposability,
colour pattern, vitality, kitsch.
Clockwise from top left:
Murdoch, Peter. ‘Spotty’
child’s chair. 1963
Archigram Magazine cover.
De Pas, D’Urbino and
Lomazzi. The ‘Blow’ chair.
Pesce, Gaetano. ‘Up 2’
armchairs. 1969
Italian Radical Design
Archizoom Associati, Naufragio di Rose dream bed.
From high art and ‘good design’
‘things’ that communicate
• Semiotics: something that stands for
something else
• Symbols: things ‘that represent or stand for
something else’ (the swastika, the double
mask of theatre…)
• Signs?
“Western culture has consistently privileged the
spoken word as the highest form of intellectual
practice and seen visual representations as
second-rate illustrations of ideas”
It is now being asserted that the way in which we
understand society, and the place where we
convey and create meaning, and establish
attitudes, is essentially “visual” and not “textual”
N. Mirzoeff. 1999
Making meaning
Semiotics as one
The significance of Semiotics
• treats objects, images and practices as
“texts” to be read.
• The question is not - What am I seeing ?,
but - “What does it mean” ?
It therefore, can cover; pictures,
fashion, clothing, photographs,
advertisements, furniture, household
items, toys, films, cartoons, virtual
imagery.... and treat them as “texts”
to be read and decoded.
Italo Calvino (1923-85)
Invisible Cities. Cities and Signs 1
Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it
has recognised that thing as the sign of another thing: a
print in the sand indicates a tiger’s passage; a marsh
announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of
The city of Tamara….the eye does not see things but
images of things that mean other things: pincers point out
the tooth drawers house; a tankard, the tavern….If a
building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the
position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate
its function: the palace, the prison
‘The embroidered headband stands
for elegance; the gilded palanquin,
power; the volumes of Averroes,
learning; the ankle bracelet,
voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the
streets as if they were written pages;
the city says everything you must
From Linguistics to Semiotics
• Ferdinand de Saussure. 1857 - 1913
• ‘Language is a shared system. It is only
because we know and agree about the rules
and codes, that we can communicate’
• The production of meaning is dependent on
the “sign”.
The Sign
•The signifier + the signified = the sign.
•The form
+ the idea in your head
= the meaning
But the relationship between the signifier and the
signified is ARBITRARY, and dependent upon a
shared code.
It is this arbitrary relationship
which permitted a linguistic
theory to be applied to a wider
cultural field
The idea of the sign can be extended
from the written or spoken word to
images, objects, even activities and
events in the everyday world.
“Mythologies” 1957
Roland Barthes.
Barthes extended Saussure’s
concept of the sign to cultural
objects, images and practices
generally, treating these as
components in a “language”
which communicated and
established meaning
within society.
‘Every object in the world can
pass from a closed, silent
existence to an oral state, open to
appropriation by society….’
Roland Barthes. From the essay ‘Myth
Today’ in Mythologies. 1957
R. Barthes.
Two levels of meaning
SIGN – first level
• Signifier – CAT, English the word made up
of letters. It could as well be ‘chat’ or
• Signified – image in your mind of a cat, any
• Sign – a cat
Toys always mean something
..literally prefigure the world of
adult functions, prepare the child to
accept them all…before he can even
think about it…the alibi of a nature
which has at all times created
soldiers, postmen…
Barthes. 1957
First level
• Signifier: Barbie (word, toy, picture etc)
• Signified:
On the basis of the agreed “cultural code”,
in the Western world, the word, toy or
picture is understood to be, the Mattel doll
2nd level
Barbie as connotative ‘sign’
The perfect woman will be perfectly thin with elegant limbs
and flawless skin. She will ‘possess’; beautiful clothing,
jewellery, cars, racehorses, jacuzzi and jet ski in pink... She
will never have enough stuff…. ….recently seen at Paris
fashion week…perfect contemporary womanhood
(See: Mary F Rogers. Barbie Culture. 2000)
Myth and ‘naturalisation’
• ‘Toys here reveal the list
of all the things the adult
does not find so unusual,
war, bureaucracy…’
• Deluxe Aggression Series
Action Figure Star wars
exclusive battlefront
collection Spartan soldier..
At the level of connotation, the
sign can tell the truth or lie, but it
is connected to the wider social
and cultural framework; to our
values, our beliefs and our social
Haim Steinbach
Wood formica
Ceramic pitchers
detergent boxes
29 x 66 x 33 in
All objects are "packaged" to deliver certain meanings. And desire
packages everything. When we dress, we package ourselves, our
bodies. Every thing and object has a skin through which it speaks.
We have feelings about these objects — we project into them, and
communicate through them. …..In primitive societies, objects may
be found on the ground, literally, strewn about the place as in a
"natural" state. But in our advanced industrial Western society,
objects are found on consoles, on tables, on countertops. These
counters and tables are vehicles of presentation; they are objects,
they have functions, but they also have skins, histories . . .
Something happens when you put an object on one of those
support structures.
Haim Steinbach. Interview. Journal of Contemporary Art.
‘The new Citroen’. In: Mythologies