What is Semiotics? How to apply Semiotics in Design

Understanding semiotics in practice in Visual Design and Communication

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In this article we are going to deal with the semiotics. This is a frequent issue when dealing with design and visual communication, especially when it comes to graphic design.

Understanding and studying Semiotics can be of great value to a designer, as it will help us understand how we (human beings) deal with the representations we are exposed to on a daily basis. If you work with Design, you should know that this subject is directly linked to your craft.

Therefore, let's understand what is semiotic and how it can be applied to Design through its elements.

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In this article you will see:

What is semiotics?

Semiotics is the science of signs and their significant processes, that is, it studies all the means that man communicates, whether verbal or nonverbal languages.

Usually we associate semiotics with images, but its study is broader and can refer to other types of languages such as gestures, sounds, smells, among others.

Therefore semiotics is also disseminated as the science of all languages and practically everything that exists can be studied and analyzed from semiotics.

Where does semiotics come from?

First let's start with etymology.  Semiotics is a term that derives from the Greek word 'semeion', which means sign and optics meaning science.

Although the discipline emerged in the early twentieth century, the history of semiotics is older and the first studies on signs were executed by the Greeks. Historians indicate that they are among the forerunners of the semiotics Plato and Aristotle, through their studies on signs and how they could be interpreted, their languages and perceptions.

Plato was the first to observe the triadic structure of the sign, composed of: onona (the name), eidos or logos (the notion, idea) and pragma (the referring thing).  Aristotle uses the sign in the field of Logic and Rhetoric as "a premise that leads to a conclusion".

It is also found in the Middle Ages, from the works of St. Augustine, more studies on the signs, as found in the work "De doctrina Christiana" which says:

"The sign is, therefore, something that, in addition to the impression that gives us meanings, makes something else come to mind as a consequence of one's life."

He defined the existence of verbal signs

(conventional) and non-verbal (natural).

Conventional signs concern those we use to demonstrate "feelings of the mind", since the natural ones would be signs that are generated without the intention of being signs, but that would lead to the understanding of something.

Even though the study of the sign of Saint Augustine was carried out in the sphere

of theology, this foundation served for further studies, already in modern semiotics.

Many other scholars continued to study about, but at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries there were two scholars with highlights about the sign:

Charles Sanders Peirce, American philosopher and Ferdinand Saussure, Swiss scientist and father of scientific linguistics.

These are the main exponents and creators of the two most important theories about signs: semiology, associated with Saussure and semiotics, associated with Peirce. And although they worked independently, there are many common points in both studies.

Saussure, in his work of signs, proposes the semiology that would be the science that studies the processes of representation and signification, where linguistics would be a part of this representation. Even for this, his studies have a stronger connection with verbal linguistic terms.

He discusses the dual relationship of a sign that is between the signifier and the meaning. In this line every language would be a system of signs.

The signifier would be an acoustic image, a first mental impression of the sign. The meaning would be an idea or concept that the signifier represents. The sum of the two would result in the sign and the direction it carries.

And the origin could be both natural (a thunder, for example) and artificial, that is, produced by man (writing, for example).

In parallel to Saussure's studies, and without contact, Charles Sanders Peirce.

It adds another element in the study of the sign, which would conceive the triadic of the sign (image below) where we have the thought or reference, the symbol and the referent.

So a sign has as the first noticeable element the representt that is determined by an object, which in turn will determine an interpreter to identify the sign in question

About the history and the semiotic schools (of Saussure and Peicer) we will stop a little here, so the article does not get so dense, but I suggest you research more about. The subject is very broad.

However, for the application of semiotics in design, we will continue, in this article, using as a basis the Peirce school.

What is a Sign?

Semiotics is the study of signs, meanings, how these signs permeate through communication (transmitting information), their classification and their uses. Here, it is worth remembering that the signs are not the popularly known and related to astrology and horoscopes, but rather, signs as something that gives meaning to the other thing.

A sign is a thing that represents an object to an interpreter, that is,according to Peirce, a sign is divided into three parts, so we have the triadic sign.

The thing that has that character, I name REPRESENTATION, the mental effect, or thought, of your INTERPRETER, and the thing that she puts in your place OBJECT.

Book Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, voume 1.

In this context, there is also the term "Semiose", which is nothing more than the process of meaning of these three pillars. Such as when an image, or a set of images and words, represent a camera and our interpretation process.

Below is an image that represents how each part of a sign's understanding and message works.

You must have wondered so far, where does design get into this story? And it's right here.

The design, as a quick conceptualization, is the process of problem solving, using images, symbols, visual attributes, among other tools, such as semiotics.

But how can this be done?

In the process of semiosis, previously mentioned, we have three (03) ways in which a sign conceptualizes something, and they are: ICON, SYMBOLS AND INDEX.

Below we will use as an example, in the position of object or a Lion, to understand how these concepts work.


Icons are the easiest to understand and represent because they are the literal representation of the shape of the object or item they are representing.

As for example a drawing of dog, or bucket of popcorn, or even the drawing of sun to represent a sunny day.


The index requires prior knowledge of what is represented, some type and level of experience or fact that has occurred.

When we use a camera, for example, to represent a photograph, certain "emojins" to indicate feelings and emotions, or a halter (gym weight) to represent bodybuilding.

Then, assimilation happens by induction or approximation of the represented sign.


Symbols are signs adopted to represent something, but that do not necessarily have meaning or literal reading with what the sign wants to conceptualize. An example of this is the representations of numbers, which are nothing more than drawings adopted as convention to designate "one", "two" and all other numbers.

Here assimilation happens due to conventions, habits and a process of remembrance (or needs a prior explanation).

There are, however, elements that merge between symbols and icons, such as a phone drawing to indicate the contact of some establishment.

Now we have all the parts within the process and how they relate:

Meet the audience (decoder).

The symbol only makes sense when the subject who is reading the sign has repertoire to interpret it in a certain way, that is, if you present a symbol to a public who does not know what it means, the message will not be transmitted.

Imagine, for example, the symbol of medicine.

For a person who is not and does not have knowledge about the area, will not make any sense. At most the person will see a snake tangled in a stem. Which can send even a message of danger, or something that brings a bad feeling.

Porém, se você apresentar a mesma figura em um congresso de medicina, todos entenderam que se trata do símbolo da medicina, que nada mais é que uma serpente enrolada ao bastão de Esculápio, ou Asclépio, nome do deus grego que simbolizava a Medicina.

Video: Semiotics in Design - Understand what is semiotics and how to apply in Design

Then watch a video I recorded on the topic. In this super class I talk about what is semiotics going through all the points listed so far, besides giving more practical examples about semiotics in design. Check it out below.


From the moment you think more cautiously about what problem you are solving, and with which clarity that transmits the information, it becomes easier to work and achieve the goal you want.

Of course there are some cases where you want to understand what you want to go through, but deep down it's there. An example? Look at the "Amazon" logo. Have you noticed that there is an arrow drawing indicating from "a" to "z" and that the phrase that defines them is "everything from a to z"?

In this case, if we stop to observe, there was the use of symbols, icons and indexes, right?

Semiotics, then, is not as complicated as it sounds, but a tool to help you help, innovate and communicate more efficiently.

You as a designer need to understand about the theme in order to communicate as effectively as possible and semiotics can be applied in a thoughtful and strategic way within a design project, especially in projects of visual identity.

How about you start using Semiotics right now?

Strong hug

Until later.

David Arty

Hi I am David Arty, founder from the blog Chief of Design.
I am from São Paulo, Brazil. I work with design, mainly with web design, since 2009. I try to transform crazy and complex ideas into simple, attractive and functional pieces.