Semiotics: It's Everything

Visual Culture Senior Lecturer Robin Marriner recently introduced us to semiotics. How did I get this far in life and not know about semiotics?

Semiotics is a broad and complex idea that covers a lot of ground. In it's simplest form, it is the study of signs (Chandler, 2007) and the meaning ascribed to them. These signs appear in many forms—words, objects, images—and the context (physical, cultural, political, emotional, etc.) that surrounds these signs is as important as the elements themselves. In the visual arts, semiotics helps us understand how meaning is constructed by both the artist and the viewer (Rose 2016).

Semiotics is underpinned by the theory of meaning, which is always conditional, since people use different sets of “rules” based on their worldview or paradigm (e.g., Modernists vs. Postmodernists) (Heywood, 2012; Marriner, 2017). Another layer of complexity is the codes and conventions at play of which we are usually unaware (Rose, 2016). All of these factors affect how we interpret any given visual artifact, and each person's interpretation will be different.

Awareness of this dynamic is of course crucial for an artist. We simply cannot assume that viewers will read our work as intended. I'm realizing that in addition to what I make, that even choices around where it is shown, what is written about my work, who writes it, and the list goes on...all contribute to how it is interpreted and received.

A place for me to dig deeper is how this ties into things like material choices, color, decisions on how to install work, and so on. Through the lens of semiotics, suddenly everything matters. And I want it to. I want the materials I choose to invoke certain themes and responses, I want my choices related to form, structure, line and even the choreography of how someone experiences my work to tell a story. And therein lies the irony, since, according to semiotics, I can't determine how the viewer interprets the work anyway.


Chandler, D. (2007) Semiotics: the basics. [electronic version] Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2017).

Heywood, I. and Sandywell, B. (2012) The handbook of visual culture. London: Berg, 2012.

Marriner, R. (2017) Meaning of Visual Culture [Lecture], Research Methodologies MD-AR7001. Bath Spa University. 14 October 2017.

Rose, G. (2016) ‘Semiology: Laying Bare the Prejudices’, Visual Methodologies. 4th edn. London: Sage, pp. 106-146.