Representation and Interpretation: Semiotics

Semiotics. What does it mean? According to World encyclopedia (2004), semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, both visual and linguistic, and their function in communication. Much of our understanding of the way we interpret signs is due to Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Peirce, a pair widely known for being the unofficial fathers of semiotics. So how do we read these signs? Let’s take a look at the following Earth Day advertisement:

print #advertisement 25 Eye Catching and Creative Print Ads Examples
Fakhoury, K 2009, Global warming project, viewed 1 April

Looking at this relatively simple graphic I can see a symbol, or rather two symbols meshed together; a candle and the earth. This is our sign as it is conveys meaning. The way we read signs is broken into two parts. First is the signifier, which is the literal image we see, in this case the image of the burning earth. The second is the signified which is the mental way we perceive the image. This is divided into two parts. The literal meaning of this image, also known as the denotation, is that the world is burning. This interpretation paired with the simple statement “there is no planet B. Act Now” reinforces the alarming issue the poster conveys. The connotation of the signifier is the associated meaning witch is the way in which we interpret the image. This is different for every individual based on their ideology; their environment, culture and history. For example, some might see this poster and interpret the candle as representing that the world is on fire or getting hotter. They might relate it to a previous bushfire experience or research they have done on global warming. I on the other hand associate the image as a warning to us that the damage done to the earth is becoming irreversible. I see candles as something that burn relatively fast and that cannot be ‘unburned’. It is important to note that most connotations of the signifier are likely to be negative as that was the illustrators primary objective.

The way we interpret images such as the one above can relate back to some of the most popular communication models. One such model is Lasswell’s Communication model. This model states that the communicator presents a message through a channel to the receiver which results in an effect. If we apply this back to the image, we can see the communicator or the organisation behind the advertisement, presented their message through the symbol of the melting earth to us, the receivers. The only problem with this model in relation to semiotics is that it is linear and doesn’t take connotation into account. That is, the signifier is going to have a different effect on all of us because of our ideology. Despite this, the model still relates as it states that there will be an effect, which there is. It is expected that the message that most would take from this, is that the planet earth is suffering, and we are being called to do something about it. However, the full predictability of this effect is not likely to be conceivable.

So how do you read this advertisement?



Chandler, D 2019, Semiotics for beginners, viewed 3rd April, <>

Mass Communication Theory 2015, Lasswell’s Model Of Communication, viewed 4th April, <>

Middlemost, R 2020, ‘Representation and Interpretation’, lecture, BCM110, University of Wollongong, delivered 30 March.

‘semiotics’ 2004, in World encyclopedia, Philips.


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