Signs are all around us. We often do not think about the abundance and meanings of these signs as they are such an integral part of our society and we rely on their presence. But why are we dependent on them and how did they become such a norm in our world?
This study of signs is called ‘semiotics’ “or the study of how things come to have significance” (Branston, p. 13, 2003). It analyses how we use sign systems and how we take ideas and turn them into specific signs to represent one specific element in our society. It also demonstrated that our “perception of reality” is created by our surroundings and the words we use (Branston, p.13, 2003).
Signs are defined as “something that stands for something else, and, more technically as a spoken or written word, a drawn figure, or a material object unified in mind with a particular cultural concept” (Berger, p.3, 2010). They are the connection to a word we use and a visual representation, thereby also enhancing the importance of language in the field of semiotics.
Semiotics has already existed for centuries (though it was called a different name back then), and was studied by philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. The idea that we use signs and linguistics to spread our ideas and standardize our expressions has fascinated humans as far as we can trace back. Modern semiotics, however, is said to be influenced by two main linguistic researchers; Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure (Berger, p.4, 2010).
Saussure believed that signs had two main aspects; “a sound -image or signifier and a concept or signified” (Berger, p.5, 2010) With this he pointed out the instability of sign meaning. With different trends in our society and different norms, Saussure also stated that signs can easily change with time and different trends. It also important to keep in mind that signs do not have a meaning by itself – they only have meaning in terms of the linguistic meaning they are tied to (Berger, p.6, 2010).
Peirce, on the other hand, decided that the word ‘sign’ was still too broad and that it could be separated into different types of signs. He called these different subgroups as symbol, icon and index (Branston, p.13, 2003). Each of these types of signs have a different element that sets them apart from the other.
In the following sections the concepts of symbols, icons and indexes will be briefly outlined and explained with examples.
Icons are signs which “resemble what they stand for” and are very simply a visual representation of what they are supposed to illustrate (Branston, p. 14, 2003). There is no writing involved in icons, as they are often a drawing or picture of the thing they are trying to depict; they could therefore be very straightforward.
An example of an icon sign is the logo of the oil company, Shell. The logo depicts a drawing of a shell, which both matches the name of the company but also demonstrates what the product entails. Oil comes from the ground and fossil fuels or fuels are created from these shells and the earth. By having this icon, there is an immediate relation to the logo, the company and what the product is.
Symbols, though like icons, are not the same as them. T
hey also depict a visual representation through a drawing but are perhaps more standardized. Peirce called symbols “signs for which the relation is arbitrary” (Branston, p.13, 2003). They are often based on rules of language and are often well known throughout society. Symbols are therefore signs that we use in order to follow rules, like traffic signs and an exit sign for example. They do not represent a company or a specific identity but rather a direction or rule in our society.
Index, is the last type of sign that Peirce outlines and represents a “causal link between the sign and that for which it stands” (Branston, p. 14, 2003). A direct visual representation is therefore usually not present. Instead, the depiction is usually something that reminds the viewer of another notion. An example of an index is when we see smoke for example. When we see smoke, we automatically think of fire, even though there might not be any flames visible. It is therefore often seen as an actual connection between two objects, occurrences or actions.
Berger, A. A. (2010). The objects of affection: semiotics and consumer culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (chapter 1: “The Science of Signs, pp. 3-31)
Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2003). The media student’s book. London/New York: Psychology Press. (chapter: “Semiotic Approaches”, pp. 11-17)