Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts is a useful overview of the semiotic theories by Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco that introduce this thinking to the visual arts professionals. De Saussure’s Model for a Sign is composed of the two fundamental elements, the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. A sign emerges when both elements are present (Crow, 2016, p. 14).
David Crow is a professor at the University of the Arts London and the head of Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Schools of Art. ‘There are three main areas that form what we understand as semiotics’, he writes – ‘the signs themselves, the way they are organized into systems, and the context in which they appear’. (Ibid, p.15).
According to Charles Pierce, all signs could be grouped into three categories:
Icon, where the sign resembles the object it represents;
Index, where there is a direct link between the sign and the object;
Symbol, where there is no logical connection between the sign and what it means.
The book explores the theories by the French semiotician, Roland Barthes, which include such concepts as denotation and connotation. An example given by Crow cites the use of soft focus in film and advertising, which, according to ‘has found its way into our consciousness to the degree that it is universally read as sentimental’ (Ibid, p. 63). Chow offers various ways in which several signs create a new meaning, thus:
Syntagm is a ‘collection of signs … organized in a linear sequence’ … ‘The value of these units can be affected by their combination with other signs’ (Ibid, p.43).
Paradigm is a group of signs that ‘we recognize as the same set’ (Ibid, p. 44).
Codes are units of paradigms, that could be digital (when units are clearly defined and limited in number e.g. letters in an alphabet) or analogue (e.g. marks produced by a paintbrush).
Metaphor is a phenomenon where substituting one ‘word or image in a sequence for another, we can transfer the characteristics of one object to another’.
The book goes on to explore Roland Barthes’ approach to reading text/image combinations, which is formed of three messages. The first message is … ‘a linguistic [one]. It is the text itself… Reading the linguistic message requires a previous knowledge of the particular language employed… The linguistic message can also carry a second-order signifier by implication. The second message is the coded iconic message. This is a symbolic message and works on the level of connotation… The third message is described as the non-coded iconic message. This works on the level of denotation’. (Ibid, p. 85).
The book is a highly stimulating and challenging text and could be recommended for BA and MA students in graphic design, visual arts, film and photography. It would be wonderful perhaps to expand the body of illustrations in the next edition and offer more decoded examples from history of art, film and photography.
It can be found on Amazon: Visible Signs
Crow, D. (2016) Visible Signs. An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts