The Complete Graphic Designer
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their
impact on communication and language. Signs and
symbols help designers convey unique messages
through shared experience and meaning and are one
of the most effective tools used in communication.
Culture, age, gender, and life experience are factors to
take into consideration when choosing visual symbols
to communicate a message.
The fi eld of semiotics was fi rst introduced in the
1800s by the American philosopher Charles Sand-
ers Pierce as the result of his work in linguistics. His
pioneering work led to the categorization of signs into
three basic types: icons, symbols, and indexes.
These are signs for three of the
largest religions in the world, rep-
resenting Christianity, Judaism,
and Islam. Additionally, these
symbols are indicative of religion
in general.
Types of Signs
Icons are realistic representations of objects or
things in the form of simplifi ed illustrations or pho-
tographs that communicate quickly. Websites are
notorious for the use of icons such as a basket or
shopping cart to represent a site’s online store.
Symbols are arbitrary signs with no apparent resem-
blance to the object or thing being represented that
require the use of a common or shared language or
cultural experience to be deciphered. Letters of the
English alphabet rearranged into words and sentenc-
es are visual symbols for sounds and language.
In a book, the index is where readers can look to
quickly fi nd more information about a particular
subject. In semiotics, an index references the subject
matter or object. For example, a highway sign con-
taining an icon of an airplane represents an airport.
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Design for Communication
This poster commemorating the
40th anniversary of the bombing of
Hiroshima makes a powerful and
clear statement through photography,
color, and semiotics. The word “peace”
is used in both English and Japanese,
while the visual, a hand held up as
a universal symbol of “stop,” gives
context to the word.
Chermayeff & Geismar Studio
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Design for Communication
In the ultimate exercise of semiot-
ics, the AIGA (American Institute
of Graphic Artists) and the United
States Department of Transportation
collaborated to create a system of
icons for use in airports and trans-
portation hubs that communicate
complex messages to international
audiences, regardless of language or
culture. These timeless examples of
design have been in use since 1974.
AIGA/U.S. Department of
The Meaning of Signs and
Symbols Changes Over Time
It is possible for the meaning of symbols to change
over time. One of the oldest symbols is the Wheel
of Life, otherwise known as the swastika. In Eastern
cultures such as India it remains a symbol of life and
prosperity and is considered a symbol of good luck.
Hitler and the Nazis’ misappropriation of the symbol
to include acts of evil and hatred has forever altered
Westerners’ interpretation of its meaning. Because a
red cross was used to identify soldiers of the Holy Cru-
sades, the International Red Cross organization is un-
able to use the symbol in Muslim-dominated or Middle
Eastern countries; a red crescent is used instead.
Communication, peace, and unity
are the messages conveyed in this
poster. Stylizing the ubiquitous
“Helvetica man” with a smile and
wearing hats indicative of various
cultures is a simple yet powerful
way to illustrate these themes.
Design: Jovan Rocanov
Bright colors and simple graphics
serve as a warning to all who oper-
ate heavy machinery. Since large
equipment such as printing presses
are built and shipped throughout the
world, visually descriptive icons with
minimal text are used to circumvent
language barriers.
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