An Approach to Teaching Semiotic Theory: A Tool for Design

By Margaret Urban.

Published by The International Journal of Design Education

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The language and nomenclature of semiotic theory may be a useful tool for undergraduate students in critiques, written self-analysis, and design ideation. When introduced in approachable, example–driven instruction and paired with application in the process of design, students have shown the ability to internalize and utilize this theoretical system. The educational process begins with an introductory reading that specifically avoids the terms “icon” or “symbol” in an attempt to acclimate students to such ideas as the abstraction inherent in the printed page and the viewer as interpreter of information. After this material is considered, a second, more difficult, reading introduces Pierce and Sassure’s theories of meaning formation and categories of sign classification. In the discussion of the second text, it is helpful to reinforce the content through “practical” application. The instructor leads “readings” of the semiotic content in clothing, posters, and even music videos.
This in-class activity is followed by a “scavenger hunt” where students are asked to photograph examples of environmental signage that utilizes iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs. Students classify printouts of their images, explaining and discussing their rational with the class. Finally each student begins to create a four-element symbol system. In a very practical application of theory, students are asked to generate thumbnails using iconic, indexical, and symbolic depictions of their subject matter. As the forms are moved from thumbnails and into working roughs, students and instructor use semiotic terminology in critiques. Students are also encouraged to draw on indexical content in further development of their forms. Once students finish their symbol system, they compose a written analysis of the semiotic content of their final design solution. This pedagogical technique helps many conquer what is difficult content and shows students how it may be applied to the design process in a positive, and useful, way.

Keywords: Pedagogy, Semiotics, Ideation, Popular Culture, Design Process, Music Videos, Peirce, Sassure, Semiotic Theory

The International Journal of Design Education, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp.1-10. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 690.481KB).

Prof. Margaret Urban

Assistant Professor, Department of Visual Arts and New Media, State University of New York at Fredonia, Fredonia, NY, USA

Margaret, or Megan, Urban has held the position of Assistant Professor of Graphic Design in the Department of Visual Arts and New Media since 1998. She has taught at Appalachian State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. In addition to her work as a graphic designer, Megan explores the creation of meaning and myth on personal and cultural levels. Her areas of interest include culturally specific design and semiotics and structuralism as applied to visual communication. Megan received her BA from Wellesley College, also studying at RIT, MIT, and Syracuse University. She holds a Master of Fine Art in Visual Communication from Virginia Commonwealth University.