Spring 2008

Know what I mean?

This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics

By Sean Hall
Lawrence King, £16.95

Here’s a question for you. Given that it took us an awfully long time to translate the texts of ancient civilisations, despite the fact that to the original writers they made perfect sense, what on earth possesses us to think burying toxic waste with a little yellow triangle will alert future generations that they maybe shouldn’t think about opening it? (See Adriana Eysler’s ‘Here be monsters’ in Eye no. 62 vol. 16.)

This is not just a political or moral argument, it is a design issue as well, and it is used by Goldsmiths College lecturer Sean Hall to explain a key concept in semiotics: that meaning changes over time and between cultures. This holds true whether you are designing advertising for a different generation or region of Britain, never mind warnings of imminent death to our descendents.

Semiotics is the core theory underpinning all visual communication, so why is it dismissed and feared in equal measure? Probably because it has taken this long for someone to write a decent book on the subject. At last we have a book on theory that manages to interest both expert and casual readers alike, and could even hook the latter – what I tend to call ‘dumbing up’, though I doubt the term will catch on.

I’d like to say This Means This, This Means That is ‘unputdownable’ (now there is a word I hope we bury) but it isn’t – and that is really the whole point. Written in short sections, each one poses a question that is then discussed (if not always answered) on the turn of a page. It is designed to be put down. Then picked up again. Ideal for dipping into and pondering over, it is a clever approach to a subject that has been traditionally covered in long, discursive texts that may be informative but are often very dull. You can bet I’ll be borrowing ideas from this for my own teaching.

Hall intelligently develops his explanation of semiotics so that initial, rather interesting questions such as ‘how should we communicate danger to future generations?’ develop into (gulp) full blown theory, with terms such as langue, parole, connotation and denotation, semantic units and paradigms discussed in ways that – impossible though it may seem – are actually interesting.

And so they should be. Most people who ‘get’ semiotics seem to remember the moment when it clicked, an instantaneous transformation from rejection to fascination. Usually, I think, it is because they asked a question about how semiotics related to their experience, rather than simply sitting in a lecture and being told stuff that seems both a bit obvious and a bit overcomplicated. That is how Hall works; he asks questions the reader wants to answer, then provides the means to do so.

The book is tellingly labelled a ‘user’s guide’ rather than a ‘beginner’s guide’. Although I can see this being a set text on many courses, it is also a ‘must read’ for anyone involved in visual communication.

It is time semiotics became fashionable again and Sean Hall’s imaginative and thoughtful book may be just what it takes.

Jonathan Baldwin, lecturer in design history, theory and practice, University of Dundee

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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