How to interpret signs? – By @paboukratevans

By Pierre Aboukrat


How to interpret signs? 


If you want to ace, your half-term assignment here are three systems to interpret signs. From Saussure to Pierce and Barth you’ll know it all. It goes from easy to hard. 


What’s a sign? 


A sign is the union between something that I see and a mental image that I can relate to what I am seeing. 


1.Ferdinand de Saussure. 


Use for verbal and non-verbal interpretations.


We distinguish sign and the referent: 

 -Referent: something (real or supposable real) designated by the sign,

-The signifier are shapes, composition, colours, texture, language,

-The Signified is the mental image you get from the signifier. 


Sign = Signifier/ Signified. 


Signifier = material physical -> your sense feels it.


Signified = immaterial conceptual -> you intellectually get it. 


Example: René Magritte — The treachery of images (1929). Painting with the referent pipe.


  1. The referent is the pipe. 
  2. The signifier are shape, composition, colours, texture, language. 

The colours bring a sweetness, with a rising dynamic (the pipe is going up), some characteristic of brilliance that calls to one of our senses is touch. It seems smooth. 

  1. The type is a reminder of childhood, plus de text is a childish connotation. 
  2. /1. Signified. This is a pipe (image) 

/2. Signified. This is not a pipe (language) 

  1. Signification: Absurd (there are 2 signified contradictory). With interpretation, we could associate many significations to that image. 


2.Charles Sanders Peirce


Use for verbal and non-verbal interpretations.


The biosphere is the world in his total. 


Semiosphere: is a semiotic space that is necessary for the existence and functioning of languages and other sign systems.


Peirce contextualize sign: 

-Representamen is the sign,

-Object is what does the sign designate (it is the same as the referent from Saussure). 

-Interpreter is not the interpret. It is all the signs that the audience is going to give to the object. This is regulating by the standard. 


Example: Somebody pushes me in the tube, I fall. 


Representamen: I fall

Object: somebody pushes me 

Interpreter: I am paranoiac so I think that someone wants to arm me. 


Peirce brings total freedom to what you think the image is. You are bringing your interpretation. For Peirce, there is no relation between what is happening and what you are thinking. 


3.Roland Barth 


Use for non-verbal interpretations.



Semiotic of the image. 

“How does sign comes to images?” 

“The visuals messages use specific languages?” 


For Barth, there is 3 categories of the signifier: 

-Signifier plastic: concrete material from the image (shape, composition, support, colours, texture, perspective, typography…) 

-Signifier linguistic: Audible or written elements (dialogue, words, analyse linguistically…) 

-Signifier iconic: Shapes immediately recognisable. 

->Afterwards you can decrypt the image. 


Example: Think small from Volkswagen beetle —DDB agency (1959) 


Referent: Volkswagen beetle car


Composition: vertical, portrait format, periphery 

Dynamic: rising, positive

Gesture: the car seems to be moving

Colours: black and white (the car and type have the same colours). 

Gap: it represents the space that the car takes. 

Text: vocabulary deprecatory that is going to valorise the convenience. 


–       Being smart



We can project, on the car the image of an insect. We are in robust imagery against the wild. The emptiness is the unknown. The interpretation of the car itself is that it is facilitating our journey into the unknown. We want to sell us that it is our best companion when we are in a new space. Here, it is to the adventurer that we are talking to. 


! Keep in mind that it is your interpretation in the end that prevail !

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