Semantics and Graphic Languages – Research

Researching how to convey emotion or an experience.

Semantics refers to meaning and signification. Graphic design is central to the production and reproduction of meanings in human life. However, graphic design is not a language, it does not possess words, grammar, syntax.

What is Meaning?

Meaning is a product of representation, using one thing to represent, or stand for something else. Cultures, or groups of people, agree upon what meaning things have. Meaning does not belong to objects or events (or typefaces, images and layouts) until we have used words and ideas to describe them and make them meaningful. Meaning is produced by the relationship between a culture’s values (beliefs and ideas held by members) and experiences. Shared values are necessary to produce and understand meaning.

How is Meaning Produced / Reproduced?

Meaning is constructed by individual members of cultural groups. Differing cultures will have differing values, holding differing beliefs and may therefore, assign differing meanings to the same things. Cultures will be interested in reproducing their values through the use of (for example) graphic design. Graphics is also where meaning can be challenged, and the legitimacy of those meanings contested. The beliefs and values of cultural groups generate meanings of graphics.

Example: Benetton’s ‘United Colors’ advertising campaigns during the 1980’s and 90’s. For people with conservative values the meaning of these campaigns was degeneracy and miscegenation. For people with liberal values the same graphic designs meant cooperation and harmony.

The meaning is constructed and generated by the relationship between a person’s values and the graphic designs. The graphic designs are the same, however the cultural groups interpreting, are differing. Dominant cultural groups ensure it’s values and beliefs generate the meanings, continuing it’s dominance.

How is Meaning Challenged and Contested?

Alternative values and beliefs produce alternative meanings, challenging dominant cultural groups. Images, events, phenomena, are given different representations (to dominant economic, political, cultural groups).


Meaning is constantly produced, challenged and negotiated. Graphic design is the name for a collection of processes in which cultural power is negotiated through meaning.

Reference: © Downs, Simon, Oct 10, 2011, The Graphic Communication Handbook Taylor and Francis, Hoboken.


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Shirley Burley

Artwork Craft Writing Graphic Design Photography

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