An Introduction To Semiotics — Signifier And Signified

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!
— René Magritte


The Treachery of Images by René Magritte

The image above is René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, sometimes translated as The Treason of Images and if you read the quote above it, you can probably tell Magritte is talking about this painting.

It looks a lot like a pipe to me, but the words underneath say “This is not a pipe” and Magritte is 100% correct. What you’re looking at is not a pipe. It’s a digital image of a photograph of a painting of a pipe. What it isn’t, is a pipe, and if you aren’t convinced see if you can fill it with tobacco, light it, and then smoke it. I’ll wish you good luck as you try.

Radioactive Icon

My point in sharing this with you is to say that signs aren’t the things they represent. Some signs look like the things they represent, such as an image of a photograph of a painting of a pipe or the print icon in most apps that looks like a printer. Some signs look nothing like what they represent, such as the symbol for radioactive shown here. If you didn’t know what it was a symbol for, nothing in the graphic would help you figure it out.

All this talk about signs not being the same as what they represent is what semiotics is all about. Semiotics is a good topic for designers because it allows us to understand the relationships between signs and what they communicate to the people who interpret them.

If you think about it, just about everything you do when designing a website is about creating a sign of some kind, whether it’s an icon or text label in a navigation bar or a background image that provides context for an article. The words on this page are all signs as well.

I spent the last two weeks talking about icons, both in general and the hamburger icon specifically. I want to spend the next few weeks discussing semiotics. It’s a much larger topic than what I’ll be able to cover here, but I’ll walk you through the basic concepts and try to help you decide what type of icon to use depending on the specifics of what you want to communicate.

What is Semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of signs. Not roadsigns, but something more general. It’s the study of meaning-making and meaningful communication.

Semiotics is related to linguistics, the study of language, but it limits itself to the signs and symbols part of communication. That’s not to say it’s all visual. Words and numbers are signs along with photographs, icons, and roadsigns. Anything that’s capable of representing something else is a sign. Anything that creates meaning is a sign.

The reason for studying semiotics is that is gives us a useful set of tools for identifying and creating the patterns that lead to meaning in communication.

Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce are the founders of semiotics, though each worked independently of the other. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) was a Swiss linguist, who was also the father of modern linguistics. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was an American philosopher and the founder of pragmatism. They’re names will come up a few times throughout this series.

Signifier and Signified

Saussure said the sign is the basic unit of meaning and he thought signs were made up of two parts.

  1. Signifier — The form of a sign. The form might be a sound, a word, a photograph, a facial expression or Magritte’s painting of pipe that’s not a pipe.
  2. Signified — The concept or object that’s represented. The concept or object might be an actual pipe, the command to stop, or a warning of radioactivity.

Remember that words, as well is pictures, are signs The word “pipe” is a sign for an actual pipe as much as Magritte’s painting is a sign for an actual pipe. The signified is the same in both cases, that of a real pipe than can be filled with tobacco, which you can light and smoke.

What’s different in the two signs is the signifier. In Magritte’s case the signifier is a painting and with the word “pipe” the signifier is the word itself. Both are representations of an actual pipe.

The Interpretant

Peirce added a third part to signs, the interpreter. He saw signs consisting of:

  1. The representamen (signifier) — The sign’s form.
  2. An Interpretant — What the audience makes of the sign.
  3. An Object (signified) — What the sign refers to.

One thing to make clear is the interpretant is not the same as an interpreter. It’s not the audience, but what the audience makes of the sign. For example if someone looked at Magritte’s painting and saw it as a piece of wood rather than a pipe, it’s that sense that it represents a piece of wood that’s the interpretant and not the person making the interpretation. That’s probably not very intuitive so let me add another example.

Imagine a street light at an intersection turning red and several cars stopping. According to Peirce’s model the red light of the traffic light is the representamen (signifier), the act of cars stopping is the object (signified), and the idea that a red light is a command for vehicles to stop is the interpretant. If it’s still not clear, don’t worry. The basic concept should become clearer as we continue through the series.

Peirce said “We only think in signs” and added that anything is a sign if someone interprets it as meaning something other than itself. He also added that signs can be defined as belonging to one of three categories, icon, index, or symbol, which is where I want to pick this up next week.

Closing Thoughts

I realize I didn’t cover a lot in this post, but I want to let the basic concepts sink in before moving on. In some ways they probably seem obvious, but if you were looking at Magritte’s painting and someone asked you what it was, you’d likely respond that it’s a pipe, even though it’s a painting of a pipe or an image of a painting of a…well, you get the idea.

I want you to take away the short definition of semiotics, that it’s the study of signs and that a sign is anything that can represent something else and is interpreted to have meaning.

Also take away that signs have three parts, a signifier or representamen (Magritte’s painting), which is the actual form of the sign, a signified or object (an actual pipe), which is what the sign represents, and an interpretant (the meaning that’s interpreted), which is what an interpreter makes of the sign.

Next week, I’ll continue by talking about three different categories of signs, icons, indexes, and symbols. I’ll leave today with you another quote about signs that expresses a different meaning about what they can do.

A sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie
— Umberto Eco

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

6 comments

  1. Reminds me of two people looking at a book, one sees the front with an image on it, the other is looking at the back with no image. Both are asked if there is an image on the book, one says yes, the other “no.” Gets you into a quandary of perception and reality. Sounds like a Microsoft interview.

  2. As always, great post! So many things people take for granted that go into visual communication. If you keep writing them, I will continue reading them! It is wonderful to know that someone else cares as deeply about the minutiae. So many “designers” are just rubber stamping everything. Big ups!

    • Thanks Durham. I’m with you about the rubber stamping. I don’t expect our clients to care this much about the details of visual communication, but I’m often surprised at how many people who consider themselves web designers don’t seem to care either.

  3. From what I’ve read the Interpretant is the Signified, not the Object. Do you have points 2 and 3 confused? Unless books such as Visible Signs – An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts (p.21) is wrong?

    • I thought I had it right. I don’t own the book you mentioned. Could you tell me what it says on page 21? From what I did read, I’m pretty sure the interpretant isn’t the signified or the object, but something different that depends on how the observer interprets what they see. It’s possible I made a mistake and I know some of the terminology was confusing as I was learning it. If you can tell me specifically what on page 21 of the book you’re referring to, I’ll see if I can sort out what I wrote.

      • Hi again, to be honest there’s a lot of people on the net who’ve interpreted Peirce’s Triadic model as you have as it’s a very abstract process to get your head around. But to the best of my knowledge it’s not exactly correct. I’ve just applied and been accepted onto a part time Masters in Graphic Design so thought it best to do a LOT of reading up on it before I went to the interview. Google “Peirce’s Triadic Model” which will link to sites such as this:

        https://www.decodedscience.org/charles-sanders-peirces-semiotics-the-triadic-model/22974/2

        If you still wish to see that page let me know and I’ll scan it, but the above search should hopefully give enough evidence. But if you believe both examples can at different times be correct please let me know, as this is the only other way both examples could be correct that I can think of. I really hope that’s not the case, as it only makes the subject more confusing to learn. Hope that helps!

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