Research: Semiotics

Everyday we are surrounded by signs and symbols that we must decode in order to navigate our world. Street signs, for example, use symbols that have culturally accepted and recognized meanings to safely guide us on the road. Decoding these signs and symbols is something we do in our everyday lives, according to the cultural and social conventions we learn growing up. We do it without even realizing.


Semiotics the study of how signs and symbols communicate and create meaning. These signs and symbols can be visual or linguistic, but also come in the form of tastes, odors, sounds, objects and acts that carry additional meaning

In visual communication the concept of semiotics is useful because it describes how images and objects can have a literal meaning as well as more complex meanings, stemming from cultural association, connotation and context.

Effective visual communication incorporates this denotative (literal) meaning with connotative meaning, in order to quickly and unambiguously portray complex ideas.

Take a cross, for example:

Its denotative meaning is simply a cross. It is a symbol.

However it is loaded with connotations that turn the object into a meaningful symbol. Culturally we associate the cross with Christianity (or Satanism if the cross is inverted). It may also be associated with death, especially if the cross is white. It can also be associated with direction or coo-ordinates, the intersection of two things or a target point. The Red Cross has become an accepted symbol for medical or humanitarian aid. The types of crosses and their associated meanings are endless.

Semiotic theory suggests there are three types semiotic signs:

  • Icons are signs that physically resemble something. For example a diagram or a photo of you.
  • Index signs have a direct link between the sign and the object. For example the wet floor signs that are put on floors that are slippery.
  • Symbols are signs that seem to have no direct or rational relationship. For example the colour black can symbolize death, however there is no actual relationship between the two.

I am planing to use the images of a tree and a hand in my image. Trees have the obvious connotation of being a part of nature, and human hands are often associated with care and touch. I am hoping the two together will give the idea that people who want to be turned to compost when they die, are wanting to care and stay in touch with nature- taking nature into their hands so to speak.


Boulton, M. (2005, October 15). Icons, symbols and a semiotic web. Retrieved from:

Chandler, D. Semiotics for beginners. Retrieved from:

Pratt, R.J. (2007). Making semiotic theory more relevant to professional graphic design. Retrieved from:

Semiotics explained:


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