Applied Semiotics

Years ago, studying Communications as a postgraduate, I  became a  fan (in the full  pin-ups-on-the-wall,  throw-underwear-at-the-stage sense)  of  Semiotics, the ‘science of signs’  founded by theorists such as  Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. (The website Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler remains in my view the best introduction.) I was fascinated by the concept of meanings being actively created by people – this seems truer to me than the idea that meaning can be passed on intact, denoting the same to the receiver as it does to the sender. In marketing communications, it would be nice if meanings could be propelled into people’s heads like silver signification-bullets, delivering a payload of information+emotion in non-negotiable form. But no. People draw what meaning they want from any set of symbols you put in front of them – the game is one of stacking the odds so that as many people as possible are likely to interpret your communcations they way you want them to. That’s as precise as it gets, and why I think of marcoms as being a kind of ‘applied semiotics’.

My  recent dealings with road signs have reminded me of all this stuff. Road signs are nice, definite, solid signifiers referring unequivocally to specific signifieds (bits of material reality such as the Edge Hill campus.) Or so you would think. It has been a long haul – we hope to work with the Highways Agency to get the university signed from the M58, but it’s a lengthy process. In the meantime, Lancashire County Council have done a thorough job of signing the main campus through Ormskirk, as well as our site in Chorley.

However, I just noticed a sign by Ormskirk church – pointing westward towards a ‘College of HE’.  This is bizarre on a number of levels – driving out towards the coast would always have been taking one further away from the insitution (whatever we were called), and I could swear this sign wasn’t there before. Could this be the ‘signifier with no signified’  that semiotics says cannot exist? Perhaps some kind of ghost-college has started appearing out on the Moss, hovering over a misty field, displaced there by the arrival of the university…

I suppose I should  do something to get it removed. In the meantime if anyone complains I could refer them to the works of Saussure to contemplate the fugitive nature of meaning.