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FireSigns: a semiotic theory for graphic design

Posted on Sep 22, 2017 at 5:49 pm by Ideal Branding

 

FireSigns is a new book from MIT Press by semiotician, calligrapher, and type designer, Steven Skaggs.

Semiotics is the study of signs and significations, and as graphic designers we create visual signs (dubbed in the book as “FireSigns”) that are meant to elicit a certain effect in the mind.

From the preface:

“A sign of fire: smoke over a tree line, a charred smell in the air, a glow over the meadow at night far from the city. But there is also this: a petroglyph scratched into a rock in New Mexico, a graphic emblem on a grill starter, a warning label on a fuel truck. Or metaphorically further: a website that excites you, a poster that enflames the imagination, and advertisement that really makes you want to buy that dress, a book whose typography and composition so ennoble its contents that you display it in your entryway. This kind of fire sign is a piece of graphic communication that stirs heat in your soul. That’s the kind of fire sign this book is about: something in a visual display that ignites memory, intellect, engagement. How does this happen?”

The author has spent 25 years among people from two professions — graphic design and semiology. Designers manipulate visual elements in order to prompt a response, and semioticians study how things are able to influence people. The books content is much broader than logos, and is heavily theoretical rather than practical, but there are some interesting points on the cultural associations attached to letterforms and symbology.

The following story is shared about a rejected logo proposal.

“I was once part of a team that designed a corporate identity program for a family-owned auto-servicing business. The company was having difficulty being visible in the marketplace, and our design research pointed to a solution that was minimal, bold, and (at the time) distinctive: a white “M” in a red diamond. The presentation of this proposed logo design was going fine until the youngest member of the family — a twenty-something Texan the matriarch introduced as “Baby Bill” — arrived (late) at the meeting, saw the proposed logo, and pronounced, “Them’s the Devil’s horns” to a stunned room.”

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