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The Loyalty of Images

Design as Semiotics

Matt Yow
Matt Yow
Dec 19, 2017 · 6 min read


French artist René Magritte painted The Treason of Images (sometimes, The Treachery of Images) in 1928–29. You’re familiar: It’s a painting of a pipe with the subtitle, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Occasionally the painting even goes by this name.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. C’est un signe.

So… what is semiotics?

Defining semiotics is not terribly difficult. It is simply a study of signs and symbols and their interpretation or use; it is how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated; semiotics is meaning-making. It is the connection between what exists, what we know it as, and how we address it. (There are innumerable branches and fields within the broader study of semiotics.) Defining semiotics is not terribly difficult… right?


What is design?

Design is intentional and premeditated. It serves a purpose of solving a problem — or creating a solution where perhaps there was no problem initially. (Henry Ford’s motor vehicle is an example of design preceding formal problem.)

From semiotics to design

Design is visual communication. Semiotics is the tool used to decode encoded messages. Cultural scholar, Stuart Hall introduced the idea of the Encoding/Decoding model of communication in a 1973 essay. His theory revolved around television communication but can easily be transferred into more general terms of semiotics.

But how does this affect design?

What is the grand takeaway?

So. Pipe or no pipe?


Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, 1981

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