cars and neon signs

The Study of Signs

What are Signs?

We use written and spoken language to share our ideas, thoughts and feelings every day. When you ask someone for directions in a busy city or write a fantastic response to a comprehension question in English, you are using words and phrases to communicate with other people. Even the babble from a baby and a teenager’s stroppy grunt can convey important meanings.

However, there are plenty of other ways we can express ourselves, including our body language and movement, choice of music and clothing, images, symbols, colours, and the objects we use to tell stories.

These are all signs.

To analyse a sign properly, you must consider both its physical form and how it might be interpreted. For instance, green is simply a colour, but its definition will depend on the context. If you see green on a set of traffic lights, you know it means go. Green is also associated with youth and vitality. Sometimes, it refers to a lack of experience or to suggest someone is envious. It’s also slang for American dollars.

This Not A Pipe

Imagine walking into an art gallery and seeing the following painting on the wall. The simple combination of the background colour, the image of the pipe and the caption underneath is very striking. Have good look at the painting and try to decipher the artist’s message.

Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1929)

No matter how long you stare at the painting, you will still see a pipe, yet the artist is declaring “this is not a pipe”. Rene Magritte is forcing the viewer to consider the relationship between the sign and its meaning. In the same way we look at the painting and see “a pipe”, we take the definitions of words for granted.

The physical object is oil on canvas but it makes us think of an actual pipe in real life. As the artist said, “It is just a representation.”

This is not a pipe. It is a sign.


Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs we use every day to communicate with other people.

Interestingly, one of the earliest examples recorded of this semiotic process comes from medicine. A doctor needs to identify symptoms before they can diagnose the patient’s illness. Put simply, runny noses and sore throats are signs you are suffering from a cold.

Doctors diagnose illnesses by identifying the symptoms (signifers) and understanding their meaning (signified)

Four Theorists You Should Know

For your media or communication studies course, you will be expected to explore the product’s use of signs and comment on its form and representation of people and places, so it is important you are familiar with the key terms and concepts of semiotics. The following three theorists, Charles Peirce and his sign categories, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes, were incredibly influential in establishing different models that will help us investigate how meaning is created through the use of signs.

Using his concepts of signifier and signified, Ferdinand de Saussure explored how meanings are conveyed through signs. There is the physical form of the sign itself (signifier) and then there is its meaning (signified). You can also find out about the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationship between signs in our guide to Saussure’s approach to understanding signs.

In “Mythologies”, Roland Barthes explored the hidden assumptions behind a few of France’s most important signs, especially those aspects of society and politics which caused him incredible frustration. His signification process helps explain how certain signs become culturally important.

Students often find Charles Peirce’s triadic model of communication difficult to grasp, but it really is a very useful approach to understanding sign processes. His division of signs into three categories is essential reading.

Finally, Stuart Hall offers a fantastic outline of the role of signs in the representation process. He also describes three approaches to understand how signs derive their meaning: reflective, intentional and constructivist views of representation.

Signs – A Working Definition

The most concise summary of Saussure’s model of communication comes from Fiske and Hartley (1978) who described signs as a mathematical equation:

signifier signified sign.

For the message to be successful, there must be a physical object, such as “sound, printed word or image”, to which a mental concept is added. If either part is missing, then there is no sign and the attempt at communication will be ineffective. This convenient definition of signs should help you engage with the media texts on your course.


Saussure argued signs secured their definition by being part of a system, or codes. The word “green”, for example, only really makes sense because it belongs to a group of words we use to describe colours. It would be meaningless on its own. Or the colour green on a traffic light is defined by the highway code and its relationship to the other colours.

You can find out more about this concept in our guide to the importance of codes in semiotic theory.


The values and ideology of a group of people are often encoded in certain signs that are then repeated in the media. Barthes called this the third order of signification, or myth. Again, our introduction to his signification process offers some insight into this key term, but our guide to ideology will also help clarify the concept.

Empty Signs

Jean Baudrillard argued signs were based on the “principle of equivalence”. For instance, the word “pipe” creates the mental concept of a pipe we might find in the real world, known in semiotics as the referent. However, the French sociologist drew attention to an implosion of meaning where the relationship between signs and the things they represent has broken down.

This collapse of traditional symbolic systems is clear in the rise of consumer culture and the dominance of media images because signs are now circulated endlessly, losing that connection to reality. Signs no longer have stable meanings. They are increasingly empty. Baudrillard called the final stage of this process the pure simulacra.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!