traffic lights above the street

Charles Peirce’s Triadic Model of Communication

Introduction to the Theory

Writing in 1906 for “The Monist”, one of the world’s oldest journals in philosophy, Charles Peirce described how “three things are concerned in the functioning of a sign: the Sign itself, its Object, and its Interpretant”. The cooperation between these three subjects has become known as the triadic model. The following diagram tries to demonstrate how the elements are connected:

Charles Peirce's triadic model of signs diagram
Charles Peirce’s Triadic Model of Signs

Peirce called the physical form of the sign the representamen. The sign represents its object, or meaning, and this might evoke some sort of mental concept, the interpretant.

Or the viewer might have to interpret the sign before the subject matter becomes clear. Or the sign could be determined by the object which leads to the mental concept. Or we have an idea in our heads and then we search for the right sign to perform an action.

Confused? You are not alone.

The reason this model is often depicted as a triangle is because you can start the sign action at any corner. Hopefully, the various examples in this guide should help to clarify the concept.

Peirce’s Sign Theory in Action

Consider this everyday scenario: you have finished your crucial assignment for media studies, saved the work in the documents folder and now you want to switch off your computer – the interpretant. You reach over for the power icon and press it to shut down the machine – the object.

For this process, we started the sign action at the interpretant. Then we had to find the correct representamen and recognise the outcome achieved by hitting the button:

diagram of Perice's triadic model of communication

The word representamen comes from the Latin repraesentāmen, which meant to display or perform. Interpretant is also derived from a Latin word, interpretārī, which is defined as to explain, translate or interpret. While they both refer to communicating ideas, there is a subtle difference in terms of those thoughts being sent and received. This awareness of deixis (direction) might help to clarify the relationship between the two parts.

Even if you are using other theories to study a media text, the words display and perform are a great way to describe the physical form of the sign or the signification process.

Traffic Lights Example

It is important to note that this approach to exploring signs is much more complex than Barthes or Saussure’s signification process and is certainly not easy to understand because Peirce developed his ideas over several decades of letters and publications.

However, we need a good working definition of the triadic model that we can use for our media studies exams, so let’s look at a straightforward example.

Each time you see a red light at a traffic light, the representamen or physical form of the sign, you know it is not safe to continue and you must stop your car. This important interpretation of the danger ahead is the interpretant, or the mental concept produced by the representamen. You then apply the brakes, the intended object or meaning of the sign.

traffic lights with definitions of key terms

Imagine you wanted to create a sign which informed students in a school that there was no entry allowed down a particular corridor. The object is to stop people walking that way. So you design a red poster with an appropriate icon, the representamen, to call attention to the rule. Your audience will understand its general meaning, the interpretant, and then come to the conclusion that they are not permitted to go down the corridor, the object you wanted to communicate at the start.

Remember, the triangular representation of this model is quite effective because you could start at any corner of the process to develop a new sign or action.

Applying the Theory to Roses

Interestingly, Peirce suggested we only need to use to certain aspects of the representamen to convey the appropriate message of the signified. By ignoring the other parts, meaning is created.

For instance, the signifier of roses creates a mental concept of love and romance. That is why they are presented as tokens of affection on Valentine’s Day. But look at the following image and suggest what are the actual signifying elements which convey that meaning:

bunch of red roses

Peirce would argue the green leaves and prickly thorns are irrelevant and should be ignored. By focusing on the beauty of the red petals, the preferred reading of a romantic gesture is decoded by the audience.

This rationalisation or simplifying of the signifier adds that interpretant stage to the sign action. Put simply, we need to select the relevant aspects of the signifier in order for the interpretation to make sense.

Classroom Activity

Analyse the following road sign in terms of Charles Peirce’s triadic model of communication:

children crossing road sign
Road Sign

You should begin by identifying the preferred reading of the sign. What is the object? Next, consider the representamen: the red colour code and the pictogram of the children walking together. What mental concept is created when these two signifiers are combined and how might they be interpreted by the driver.

Peirce divided signs into three categories: icon, index and symbol. For bonus marks, try to identify the types of signs used in this example.

Exam Practice and Revision

One of the best ways to improve your understanding of this triadic model of communication is to apply Peirce’s concepts to a variety of media products. You can find examples of the different sign-systems to analyse in our semiotics exam practice page, but the IKEA advertisement is a great place to start. The question on the anti-smoking campaign is certainly another text worth analysing.

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