Visual communication seems so familiar to us that we do not even think about how is its structure and effects. We are used to analyse the structure and methods of written and spoken language. However, visual language has took less attention comparing to those languages, therefore, it lacks deep theoretical reflection sometimes. This post will discover the concept of semiotics. In order to have a better understanding of the concept, I will explain the terms sign, icon, symbol and index and will give examples for each of them.

Language has a very important place in society we live in regardless separating spoken, written or visual. It let us understand each other with the help of signs, which Berger defined as “anything that represents something else”. (Berger, 2010, p.10) The term semiotics appears right there, the scene of signs, which has been introduced by  Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure.

 The term semiotics is rooted in Greek word semeion which means sign. The concept deals with the “social production of meanings and pleasures by sign systems” (Branston & Stafford, 2003, p. 12)  

Retrieved from:

Saussure’s researches allow us to understand the roles of signs in our contemporary world. According to him, there are two concepts that signs have to include which are sound-image & signifier and concept&signified. Basically, the sign is the signifier and what is associated with that sign is signified. The real object represents signifier and the related meaning of it is called signified. For example, when you see a drawing of a flower, you think it is a flower instead of millions of other things because of there is a common understanding and sharing an idea of what a flower is. 

Retrieved from:

Berger argues that signs does not have meanings by themselves but they are related with other signs. Which means, a sign is determined by its relative signs. Saussure also claims a sign is always related with others and in this way they have deeper meanings. (Berger,2010, p.11) 

For instance take the example of word high, we can only understand its full meaning by knowing the word low. Of course, those words might have      second meanings according to the context.


Retrieved from:

Charles Pierce, who is an American philosopher also has a strong contribution to semiotics. However, he has a different understanding of signs. According to him, signs are the things which “stand to somebody for something in some respect of capacity”. (Berger, 2010, p.10) He expresses that semiotic theory let us understand how society acknowledge meanings during their lives. From the advertisements to the media and consumption culture, the meanings are presented in everywhere. He introduced three categorisations of signs: Icons, indexes, and symbols.

Figure 4-5-6

Retrieved from:

These notions separate from each other with their relation between the signifier and the signified.

Some of the signs are at one point more common to understand which are not highly related with cultural sense. Those common signs are named as “icons’. For instance in the example of figure-4 bike, anyone from anywhere around the world would easily understand that it is a bike without shared culture.

 Indexical signs are based on a casual relation, they “signify by casual connections.” (Berger, 2010, p.10) For instance in the example of figure-5 skull, it implies that if you will touch or get close to that place it would be dangerous and would kill you. As a result of that, that sign presents a cause-result relation.

Symbols are a complicated matter. Saussure believed that symbols are never completely arbitrary, suggesting that there is usually some kind of quasi-arbitrary or rudimentary bond between symbolic signifiers and what they signify. For instance the drawing in the figure-6  symbolises a specific word which can only be understood by learning how to read it. Also, Saussure uses the example of a symbol of justice, a pair of scales. This symbol cannot be replaced by any symbol since we have been taught to associate the scales with justice for a long time. (Berger, 2010, p.14)  Unlike icons and indexes, symbols do not require a certain logic relation. Symbols are signs that signifies by convention, and they have to be learned by time. They can be related with history and events of the country, and they can gain or lose meaning by time. “We learn the meaning of a symbol as we grow up in a specific culture (Berger, 2010, p.10). 

s Semiotics can also be used as a research method in many ways. Saussure, as I mentioned above usually focuses on language, words and their internal relation, while Peirce usually focuses on the three types of signs. For example, Peirce’s method can be used to analyze the types of signs in consumer society. Branston claims that Semiotics are extremely useful in order to explain the meaning of media realities. Branston and Stafford in their book Mythodologies used semiotics and Marxist theory to analyse how some of the everyday life meanings shaped. “Semiotic theory offers an explanation of how people find meaning in their everyday lives, the media they consume and the messages they receive from marketers and advertisers in contemporary commercial culture.”. (Berger, 2010, p.11) Therefore, considering all of these information, the semiotics has a significant place in language, media and culture studies.


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *