Semiotics is the study of relationships between signs and what they represent or “signify”.

The word “Semiotics” comes from the Greek word semeiotikos, which means an interpreter of signs. Signing is vital to human existence because it underlies all forms of communication.


In the study of semiotics, something defined as a ‘text’ (such as a printed advertisement, an animated cartoon or a radio news bulletin) is in itself a complex sign containing other signs.

Semiotics plays a very important part in visual communications, semiotic analysis entails identifying the signs within the text and the codes within which these signs have meaning.


What do we mean by signs? Well, we, as a species are driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans – meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and through the interpretation of ‘signs’

Indeed, according to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, “We think only in signs”.

Signs are important because they can mean something other than themselves. They are however dependent for their meaning on the contexts in which they are read and understood.

Signs take the form of:

• Words

• Images

• Sounds

• Odours

• Flavours

• Acts

• Objects

But such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning.

The Notion of Subtext

To signify what we want to signify without being too explicit in the signified, we use a subtext. The famous semiotician Umberto Eco says people recognise subtext and operate within the subtext.

Consider the example of an environment:

Signifier – a building

Subtext – a religious building eg: a Hindu temple

When we communicate the subtext, it then tells us how to behave appropriately in response.


About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

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