An Introduction to Semiotics

What is Semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of signs, or the role signs play in society. Branston and Stafford define it as the “qualitative approach seeking to relate texts to their surrounding social orders” (2003, p.12). The basic unit of semiotics are signs, which can be words, images, or objects that stand for a particular cultural concept in our minds. In The Science of Signs the author claims says that one of the main goals of semiotics is to “identify the hidden codes that shape our beliefs and the way we find meaning in the world” (Berger, 2010, p. 25). Applying semiotic analysis is therefore decoding different aspects of a culture, e.g. signs found in advertisements, rituals, food practices, or fashion.

Saussure’s Approach

There are two different semiotic approaches that both try to investigate how meanings are socially produced by a system of signs. French linguistic Ferdinand Saussure introduced the new science of semiotics. Saussure’s approach distinguishes between the signifier and the signified. The physical signifier is the image, word, sound or gesture that can be associated with a concept. This concept, or immaterial signified, is the idea associated with the specific image, word, sound or gesture. Saussure calls the process from signifier to signified signification and indicates that signs always refer to something other than themselves. Verbal signifiers, such as words, always have an arbitrary relation to their signifieds, since different languages have differing words to describe the same objects. While the word for an object to sit on is “chair” in English, it is “Stuhl” in German and “chaise” in French. The different letters do only stand in an arbitrary relationship to the actual object they represent. Therefore Saussure emphasises the claim that language is culturally constructed. Furthermore, he says that concepts are defined by binary oppositions, since one sign could not exist without being related to its antagonism.

Pierce’s Approach

The American logician Charles Sanders Pierce introduced another approach to semiotics. Pierce agrees with the distinction of the signifier and the signified, but he adds a third term to Saussure’s semiotic approach: the referent. Pierce distinguishes between the signifier, which he calls a sign, and the signified, the concept or meaning attached to it. He calls this signified an object. The referent portraits what the sign and the object refer to. It describes the understanding we have of the relation between sign and object. The philosopher Pierce emphasises intertextuality, which links the connotations of different signs together. He also developed a typology that distinguished between three different kinds of signs: symbols, icons, and indexes.




A symbol is a sign that does not resemble to what it replaces. The relation between signifier and signified is arbitrary or conventional. One has to learn the meaning of a symbol that has no causal link to the actual symbol. Most of the symbolical signs are part of religion, culture, habit, norm, tradition, and the law. The play/pause buttons for example do not depict actual existing objects, but refer to the activity of playing and pausing a video or auditory material. Every child learns what the play/pause buttons symbolise and how to use them according to their meaning.



An icon is a sign that resembles what it stands for.
A drawing, photo, or a typed message for example are icons, as the signifier and signified relate through similarity. The picture of a cartoon tree physically resembles the concept of a real tree that we have in our minds. Therefore it communicates truth and reality by corresponding with the actual object it represents. The portrait or photo of a person is likewise an icon, as it usually shows a person in the way he or she really looks like.




An index is a sign that is causally linked to what it stands for. The relation between signifier and signified is not arbitrary, neither are they related through physical similarity. An index is directly connected to the object through an actual causal relation. The picture of a clock is an index for time, as the object depicted (clock) affects the sign (time). In order to tell the time, one has to look at a clock, which is therefore an index of the time. Another example would be smoke, a sign that can be associated with fire and is thus an index.


Berger, A. A. (2010). The objects of affection: semiotics and consumer culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2003). The media student’s book. London/New York: Psychology Press.

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