We see signs everywhere and everyday. From traffic lights, to signboards, adverts, our fridge in our house and more many places. Each and every signs we meet with our own eyes, most of them, has meaning on its own. But how are we able to derive meanings from the signs we are presented with? This is where the study of Semiotics comes in and which will be further discussed below.
Semiotics, according to Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2006), in their book called, the Media Student’s book can be defined as “the study of signs, or of the social production of meaning by sign systems, of how things come to have a significance.” In other words, semiotics touches upon deriving meanings of signs, or in other words our interpretation, from what ever sign systems we can see.
Jane Stokes (2003), in referring to Ferdinand de Saussure’s work in his book called Course of General Linguistics, said that Saussure believed that the use of Semiotics does not only used to analyze linguistic texts, but also could be used to analyze numerous system of signs. She also added that, I quote, “and there is no reason why it could not be applied to any media or cultural form.”
Semiotics enables us to see what we cannot see in a text given to us or, in regards to our module, visual text. What enables us to successfully (or not) interpret a visual text is the characteristics of Semiotics. According to Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2006), they mentioned about three characteristics of Semiotics. First is Signifier, which is the ‘physical’ form of a sign (traffic lights, toilet signs and etc). Secondly we have the Signified, which means the concept or ideas of the signs or simply put, a sign that refers to something other than itself. And lastly, the emphasis of Semiotics to us, which emphasizes about the words or signs we use in various social context has been constructed and shaped to us to our perception of reality. For example, this picture right here.
The signifier of the sign is the two image of a man and a woman. The signified is that, it shows the toilet. How do we know this? This is because we already know that restrooms are used by both males and females in the world. Animals? Naaadaaa. Hence, we term this image as the toilet.
The basic idea of Semiotics is that as stated by Jane Stokes (2003), “And the key to semiotics: it is about how the producer of an image makes it mean something and how we, as readers, get meaning out.”
In this paragraph, I am focusing about Codes. In any given visual texts, image or adverts, there are always “coded” meanings behind it. And what is meant by coded is that we learn to read signs to wider systems of meaning which has been institutionalized variously by people or an institution. We cannot interpret a sign on our own when a given meaning of the sign has already been produced and agreed upon by others. It just does not work that way because it may violate sets of rules given by a particular institution. Hence, we read signs by what have been constructed and shaped to us. For a good example is the green light of a traffic light.
When we see this green colour on the traffic light, we immediately know it means 'go'. But how do we know this? isn't it just another colour on a machine or something? or just a freaking light show being shown free on the traffic stop? Hi-five!
A sign never stop to produce meanings. Hence, we also study denotation and connotation in Visual Communication. Denotation literally means the literal description of a visual text.
The Denotation right here is that a black male, 6 foot 8 inches, with a white jersey that has Rockets and the number 1 written on it, using a red socks and white shoes dribbling a ball.
Different from Denotation, Connotation is the conceptualized ideas of a sign that we can link it to. As stated by Dr. Chris in his slides, it is the metaphor of something by representations in our head. Using the same picture, we connote that he is a basketball player. Or a celebrity that gets more than four zeros in his bank account a year. Or even, just Tracy McGrady.
Signs can also be divided into three categories which are:-
Indexical- the use of signifiers that act as a kind of evidence.
To conclude, semiotics simply means the study of how signs are used and manipulate in our everyday life that enables us to extract meanings from any visual text. Since texts are usually amplified with various coded meanings. Thus, as a visual communication-ist, we should learn semiotics in detail.
Branston G. and Stafford R. (2006). The Media Students Book (pp. 11-21). Fourth Edition. Routledge.
Stokes J. (2003) How to do Media and Cultural Studies. London GBR: Sage Production, Incorporated. p. 71