A few weeks ago, while sitting at an intersection, a mushroom crop of roadside campaign signs (’tis the season) caught my eye. One sign stood out from the others—it had the candidate’s name in white against a blue background. To the right and slightly behind the name was a green apple. In an instant, I knew that woman was running for the School Board. Not the County Commission. Not the House. Not for a Judge’s seat. Not for a seat on the Mosquito Board (yes, that is a thing). For School Board.
The apple told me so.
What a great design, I thought, knowing that other designers might see the use of an “apple” to represent “school” as a case of the designer picking the low-hanging fruit (bad pun intended). But where others see unimaginative, I see clear, simple communication. And that’s exactly how a graphic designer/visual communicator should apply semiotics.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols as elements of communication. Ferdinand de Saussure developed a two-part theory of signs including the form/image (signifier) and what the form/image represents (signified). C.S. Pierce added a third, human, element to the equation, theorizing that a sign “means something to someone in some capacity.”¹ In this example, the sign (apple), represented to me (as a voter and product of the U.S. Education system), the concept of “school.”
Seems simple. But what if the audience doesn’t interpret the apple as a reference to school? An apple image appearing in a technology magazine triggers an entirely different meaning. So does an apple image appearing in a fantasy fairy-tale movie. And what if the viewer was not raised in Western culture? Does apple = school still apply?
In order for symbols and images to work in layouts, a designer must take culture and context into account. Audience research (understanding who you’re talking to) helps the designer select imagery most likely to register and resonate with the intended viewer. The designer must also consider the form, size, distribution method, and end viewing environment of a layout to ensure the layout is seen, read and understood in reference to the things around it. A freeway billboard containing paragraphs of campaign promises is a recipe for failure even if the billboard has a viewership of thousands of people a day. No one can read paragraphs of text on a billboard at 60+ miles an hour.
Back to the campaign sign—designer assumed the audience (middle–upper middle class, adults with children, residents of a US city) would understand the apple as a reference to education. And placing the apple on a small road-side sign in the right context (busy commercial intersection, typical American suburb, election season) would cement the intended meaning of “this candidate is running for school board.”
In all, it was a good reminder that sometimes simple, direct communication is best. And simple, direct communication depends on understanding your audience and knowing how to choose and use the appropriate signs and symbols.
Mission accomplished, graphic designer. I received your message. May your candidate win.
1. Marcel Danesi and Paul Perron, Analyzing Cultures.