This means that? post-structuralist semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols in the process of production and communication of meaning (my definition). It includes the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Some influences have been drawn from phenomenological analysis, cognitive psychology, structuralist, and cognitivist linguistics, and visual anthropology and sociology.

Apart from being a branch of linguistics, semiotics also studies non-linguistic sign systems. The term ‘semiotics’ refers particularly to discussions in the United States where semiotics has been prevalent in discussions of Communication Theory, behavioural science and cybernetics. In Europe the term ‘semiology’ is common, referring to discussions around cultural meanings of signs in everyday life and political discourse, particularly in post-structuralist questioning of modernism, capitalism and universal meanings following the political upheavals in 1968.

Pictorial semiotics

Pictorial semiotics focuses on the properties of pictures in a general sense, and on how the artistic conventions of images can be interpreted through pictorial codes. Pictorial codes are the way in which viewers of pictorial representations seem automatically to decipher the artistic conventions of images by being unconsciously familiar with them.

Semiotics provides a technical language to describe how images are coded and decoded. Amongst other concepts semiotics uses connotation and denotation as a way of describing actual and intended meanings:

  • Denotation describes the obvious, literal things in an image.
  • Connotation describes the associations we have with that image. These associations are determined by our social, economic and personal perspectives.

Meanings also reside in visual dynamics:

  • which images are chosen and what they stand for
  • connotation of different types of line, shape, colour and texture
  • where images are placed and the hierarchy of relationships between each of the signs. Placing something at the front or top of an image will create a different meaning from placing something at the back or bottom.

According to Swedish semiotician Göran Sonesson in (1988). “Methods and Models in Pictorial Semiotics” (1988 pp. 2–98.) pictures can be analysed by three models:

  1. narrative model, which concentrates on the relationship between pictures and time in a chronological manner as in a comic strip;
  2. rhetoric model, which compares pictures with different devices as in a metaphor;
  3. laokoon (or laocoon) model, which considers the limits and constraints of pictorial expressions by comparing textual mediums that use time with visual mediums that use space

Key questions for this research include:

  • how far is it possible to create pictorial symbols to communicate complex concepts and deep meanings, without needing text? what are the limitations, if any? can anyone do this?
  • relationship between individual creation and use of symbols ‘parole’ and public symbol systems ‘langue’ and ‘codes’ – how widely are the former understood and when and how do they become ‘langue’.
  • how far and in what ways might ‘hegemony’ by dominant groups restrict creativity of others to create their own symbols and meanings?


  • Barthes, R., (1967 (French 1964)) Elements of Semiology, New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Barthes, R., (2009 (French 1957)) Mythologies, London: Vintage Books.
  • Barthes, R., (2010 (French 1967)) The Fashion System, London: Vintage Books.
  • Barthes, R., (1977) Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press.
  • Barthes, R., (2000 (French 1980)) Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Books.
  • Cobley, P. & Jansz, L., (2010) Introducing Semiotics: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books Ltd.
  • Collins, J. & Mayblin, B., (2011) Introducing Derrida: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books Ltd.
  • Downs, S., (2012) The Graphic Communication Handbook, London, New York: Routledge.
  • Guiraud, P., (1975 (French 1971)) Semiology, London: Routledge.
  • Hall, S., (2012) This Means This, That Means That: a user’s guide to semiotics, London: Laurence King Publishing.
  • Horrocks, C. & Jevtic, Z., (2011) Introducing Baudrillard: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books.
  • Thody, P. & Piero, (2013) Introducing Barthes: A graphic guide, London: Icon Books Ltd.

To get: Sonesson, Göran (1988). “Methods and Models in Pictorial Semiotics”

Also link to literature on linguistics and creative thinking/creativity.