Antinomies of Semiotics in Graphic Design

By Storkerson, Peter | Visible Language, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Antinomies of Semiotics in Graphic Design

Storkerson, Peter, Visible Language


The following paper assesses the roles played by semiotics in graphic design and in graphic design education, which both reflects and shapes practice. It identifies a series of factors; graphic design education methods and culture; semiotic theories themselves and their application to graphic design; the two wings of Peircian semiotics and Saussurian semiology and their incompatibilities; semiology's linguocentrism, its affinity to cultural criticism and its seminal role in cultural and social anthropology, structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction. It examines the uses and criticisms of semiotics and semiology in design, their use in graphic design education, and their operationalization within technical communication and human factors as paths that might be applied to graphic design.


This paper reflects an effort to understand semiotics within graphic design and graphic design education and its apparent lack of broad visibility. There are many possible reasons including defects in the theories, difficulty in understanding them or their obscure terminology, difficulty in applying them, or it could be that graphic designers are averse to semiotic theories or theories in general.

The history of semiotics in design indicates that there is no one underlying problem, but a series of antinomies or contradictions. Semiotics is a young field and not well worked out. Semiotic theories have been separated into the two schools of Peirce and Saussure. Saussure's is a theory based on language, not visual or sensory communication. Peirce can be applied to the broad range of communication, but it is difficult to understand, having a strange vocabulary. One might like to combine them, but there are some thorny incompatibilities between them. Peircian semiotics also needs a bridge to graphic design, but there is not the critical mass of people within graphic design to build it, and no one can build it for them. Graphic designers are largely averse to theory and the scholarly publications that could establish and develop a semiotics that would be appropriate to graphic design.

Semiotics and semiology are very much alive and used elsewhere. Semiology was a part of graphic design for much of the last century. It has provided a continuing critical base for social theory, deconstructlon and "the interpretive turn" in the humanities. Semiotics is used in technical communication and semiotic concepts are used in human factors to decompose and analyze interpretation. Semiotics can serve as a framework to unify quickly developing but scattered literatures in naturalistic thinking as they are relevant to design. The semiotic model of diagrammatic thinking has made possible a comprehensive understanding not only of diagrams, but the principles behind visual and spatial thinking. It demonstrates the profound importance of graphical communication in the human leap from experiences in the world to the ability to think about those experiences in abstract terms: to make order of what is and imagine what could be (Stjernfeld, 2007).


Graphic design has a longstanding and close relationship to the visual fine arts and the studio/atelier tradition of instruction by apprenticeship as practiced eighty years ago at the Bauhaus and at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, now the Basel School of Design, which until recently functioned as a "vocational level school" (Maier, 1977; Visual Communication Institute, 2009). Vocational and atelier models share a non-intellectual approach to education, In which the knowledge acquired is largely tacit and not available for examination, even by the knower (Polanyi, 1966). As Dietmar Winkler has chronicled, the Bauhaus worked to rationalize formal aspects of design to be more in tune with industrial society, but in their own practice and teaching they were traditional.

Hans Meyer in 1928 and Mies van der Rohe in 1930, had been steeped in the trade school tradition, which saw non-applied research and intellectual pursuit as the dilettante activity of the rich and aristocratic. …

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