Syntagms and Paradigms — Telling A Story With Signs

A single sign can communicate meaning on its own. Think of a stop sign. No matter what context you’re in when you see something that looks like a stop sign, you reflexively stop. However, signs can communicate more and more effectively when you consider the relationship between multiple signs.

Narrative Scroll - Vessantara Jataka

For the last few weeks, I’ve been taking a look at the world of semiotics. I talked about signs and then the three types of signifiers before looking at their literal and implied meanings.

Today I want to talk about the relationships of signs, specifically two types of relationships a sign might have, syntagmatic and paradigmatic, and how these relationships can help you tell stories using signs.

What are Syntagms and Paradigms?

You’ve probably heard the word paradigm before and have at least a sense of its meaning. If you’re like me, the word syntagm is new. Syntagms and paradigms explain with how signs relate to each other.

  • Syntagmatic relationships are about positioning.
  • Paradigmatic relationships are about substitution.

A syntagmatic relationship involves a sequence of signs that together create meaning. A paradigmatic relationship involves signs that can replace each other, usually changing the meaning with the substitution.

The words in a sentence are all syntagms and together they form a syntagmatic relationship that creates meaning. If you change the order of syntagms in a sentence it can change the meaning significantly.

  • John ate an octopus.
  • An octopus ate John.

Two sentences using the exact same words (syntagms), but very different meanings because the order (the syntagmatic relationship) of the words changed.

Sticking with John and his dinner, John might have chosen a variety of things to eat besides octopus. He might have chosen beef, eggplant chicken, or pasta for his meal. Each is part of a paradigm of foods or specifically foods John might eat. The items in a paradigm share some kind of function and the paradigm is the set or category they belong to.

Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations can be seen as different dimensions of a sign and they’re often shown that way as in the following table.

The cow jumped over the moon
That dog walked around my yard
This cat slept under your bed
Our hamster ran inside its wheel
Their bird flew through our window
Pat’s fish swam in a fishbowl

The syntagmatic relationship is seen along the horizontal axis and the paradigmatic relationship is seen along the vertical axis. Start at any row and read across for the syntagmatic relationship. Look up and down any column for the paradigmatic relationship.

For example “The cow jumped over the moon” (syntagmatic) together form one meaning, but you could replace cow with another word in the column (paradigmatic) to form a different sentence with a different meaning such as the “The fish jumped over the moon.”

Let me offer one more example. Here are a couple of three course meals. The combination salad, salmon, ice cream forms a syntagmatic relationship as does soup, steak, pie. Salmon and steak have a paradigmatic relationship because one can be substituted for another.

Salad Salmon Ice Cream
Soup Steak Pie

Hopefully that’s clear. It took a little while for syntagms and paradigms to sink in for me, which is why I’m offering different examples and repeating myself a bit.

I should point out that syntagmatic relationships can also be spatial or conceptual, however I think it’s fair to say sequences still play a role in both. Changing the spatial relationship or the order in which concepts are delivered changes their sequences as well as the overall meaning delivered.

Creating Narrative, Story, and Myth Through Signs

Syntagmatic relationships lead into the idea of narrative, story, and myth. A narrative is usually defined as a sequence of causally related events. A happens, which leads to B happening, which leads to C happening, and so on.

You’ve probably read somewhere that your design should tell a story, share a narrative, or similar. One way to do that is through a sequence of signs; a sequence of visual elements.

Think about how you might create compositional flow through your design. Perhaps you design a product page in a way so the first thing a visitor sees is the image of the product, because the image has the most visual weight on the screen. The element with the second most visual weight might be the name of the product, followed by a short description and then a price with an “add to cart” button.

The order these elements are seen tells a story. It wouldn’t make sense to show the “Add to Cart” button prior to seeing the product for example. That would tell a different story, probably the story of a greedy site owner asking for your money before letting you know what you’ll get in return.

There’s more to narrative than designing elements to be seen in a specific order. Most cultures have narratives that are familiar to the members of the culture. For example America has the cowboy myth. The story of the rugged individual who is independent and free from the constraints of civilization.

Because these narratives are so familiar to us, you can evoke the full narrative in someone by showing them a sign from an important moment in the story. We try try to understand an image as one moment in a sequence of images, or events. We see an image and we try to connect a story to it.

Marlboro famously used imagery of cowboys to invoke the cowboy myth to sell cigarettes for about 30 years. An ad would show an image of a cowboy doing something a cowboy does and smoking a cigarette. The idea was the image would remind you of the cowboy myth and you would connect independence and individualism with smoking. Part of the target market for the campaign were older kids who were at the age of declaring independence from their parents.

Hardly the most ethical use of narrative in advertising, but hopefully you get the point about delivering a narrative to a viewer with a single image.

If you understand the narrative well enough to know which key moments will make the audience think of the full narrative, you can connect a product to all the associations a viewer might have with the narrative by showing an image of one of the key moments.

Of course in choosing a single image you leave it up to the viewer which mythology to call forth. Which narrative is invoked depends on the paradigms held by the viewer. You and I might hold very different thoughts about cowboys. The narrative invoked by the image of a cowboy in one of us might be completely different than the narrative invoked in the other.

Keep that in mind if you want to use a single image to associate a product with some narrative. Make sure you know the paradigms of your audience to make sure you call the narrative you want and the associations you want made with your product.

Closing Thoughts

Signs communicate more when seen in relation to one another. None of the letters you’re reading would mean much on their own. However, when placed together to form words and when those words are combined to form paragraphs and so on, they communicate a lot.

Signs can either have syntagmatic (sequential) relationships or paradigmatic (substitution) relationships. Changing the sequence or substituting one sign for another, changes the meaning of the combined set of signs.

In visual design the hierarchy you create through the use of different elements, their attributes, and different design principles creates a sequential relationship in the order in which a viewer moves through the hierarchy.

At the same time you choose which elements, attributes, and principles to use from a paradigm that provides different ways of attracting attention.

Your choice to make something red or large to gain attention is substituting one method from the paradigm of how to increase visual weight for another. Creating a hierarchy of visual weights that leads your viewer through a sequence creates a syntagmatic relationship of visual weights.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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