Category Archives: Week 5

Logos hiding symbols

As Dr. Irvine explains in his introduction, a sign or symbol is anything we can express and interpret in physical instances of forms that are used to stand for something else beyond the fact of the physical instance. Signs and symbols are always formed in systems (language, graphical representations, image genres, etc.). Any spoken or written sentence, any graphical or visual representation, any audible composition of structured sounds in a musical genre are perceptible sign-instances (tokens) that are used to take us beyond the information given (beyond sense perception alone) to the meanings, values, symbolic associations, and emotional responses that are activated or enacted, by those in a sign-using community.

In order to interpret and study these different signs and symbols we use Semiotics, which is the study of sign process and meaningful communication, and is a necessary foundation for any kind of media theory. As we have discussed so far, it is important to “de-blackbox” processes or theories in order to study and understand them. Pierce’s method is the approach to develop models for testable hypotheses.

We use symbols and signs everyday, and especially today, being connected to the internet and browsing different web pages, we can see different symbols, from network, wireless and internet symbols, to hardware or navigation symbols.

For today’s post I wanted to take some time and take a look at different logos with hidden symbolism, and how people use design to express a meaning behind a logo.

Let’s take a look at the FedEx logo:

The white space between the ‘E’ and the ‘X’ forms a perfect arrow, suggesting a company moving forward and looking ahead. This is a great design element, using white space, to create a “hidden” meaning.

The company’s pink and blue logo depicts a large “BR” that doubles as the number “31.” Carol Austin, VP of marketing for Baskin-Robbins, in an interview said that the logo is “meant to convey the fun and energy of the Baskin-Robbins brand” as well as the iconic 31. “The 31 stands for our belief that our guests should have the opportunity to explore a fun, new ice cream flavor every day of the month”.

This tech company used the initials “L” and “G” for the phrase “Life is Good” but also used those letters in the design of the logo. In the beginning the logo looks like a winking face, but it’s using the design of the letters “L” and “G”.

This logo appears to be the Tostitos name, but the 2 T’s in the logo make us people, as they dip a tortilla chip into a salsa bowl, on top of the letter i.

Formula One racing is another organization that took the sport’s core values and applied them to its logo. The red color represents passion and energy, while the black color represents power and determination, according to With another play on negative space, the F1 logo is more than a black “F” with red racing stripes; the space between these two main focal points is the number 1.

The largest zoo located in NYC is the largest zoo in north america and their logo wanted to represent the location of this zoo. In the beginning you see two giraffes and birds, but from a closer look, the legs of the giraffes imitate the famous skyline of New York.



Toyota’s representatives said that the three overlapping ovals on American vehicles “symbolize the unification of the hearts of our customers and the heart of Toyota products. The background space represents Toyota’s technological advancement and the boundless opportunities ahead.” And possibly even more impressive, if you look even closer at the overlapping ovals, you’ll see the word “Toyota” spelled out.

The arrow in the amazon’s logo represents the idea that they carry everything from A to Z, and it is also a smiley face.

The iconic NBC logo has a peacock in white with five colourful feathers representing each division of NBC, when the logo was first designed. The peacock is also looking to the right, often associated with looking ahead or forward.

The Tour de France logo actually contains the image of a cyclist which can be seen in the letter ‘R’, with the orange circle symbolizing the front tire.

These are some of the examples of the use of signs and symbols, to give meaning or represent an idea, a message of a certain company. From a graphic designer’s prospective, I really appreciate it when I see hidden symbols in logos, and they shows me that the person who designed it, really took the time to make sure that they’re representing the company and the brand, and a meaning with it.


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.

Giuliano, K. 13 famous logos with hidden messages. Retrieved from May 2015

20 Clever Logos with Hidden Symbolism.  Retrieved from July 2013

Irvine, Martin. Introduction to Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics: Part I


Yang’s note

“[A] sign is something by knowing which we know something more… [A]ll our thought and knowledge is by signs” (Peirce, CP 8.332)

The human history is the history in which we are always making efforts to communicate more efficiently, at the same time, we de-black box the communication procedure and everything that constitutes it to better understand ourselves.

But as Irvine said, “we have to unlearn some things, (re)define words in more precise ways, and learn the vocabulary of the discipline to apply the concepts and learn new things.”, That to be said “In talking about meaning structures as signs, or, rather, sign functions, sign processes, symbolic functions or symbolic activity, we’re not talking about, or modeling problems on, things like street signs, logos, advertising, or everyday things that we often call “signs.” Likewise, by “symbol” we don’t mean the common usage of the term for religious or other cultural signs with some kind of “inner” or “hidden” meaning, or “special characters” like the symbols used in mathematics”

Beyond this, the part that I’m interested in is the “recursive” properties of sign system. “we can always go “meta” and describe what goes on in any system of signs with sets of signs from the same system”

In my understanding, the procedure of human communication, regardless of its form (it could be face to face, text, email, phone call, video etc.), the mechanism of it is the encoding and decoding of the messages that were transmitted via all kinds of mediums. That why metalanguage could be so important.

According to the media richness theory, the face to face would be the most effective way to send to receive information, but even under that kind of circumstances, information inequivalence and misunderstanding seems to be inevitable. Not to mention when we would be using other mediums. That’s why we would keep striving for better affordance in our communication tools. New symbols and meaning systems keep coming up on different media platforms. We have emojis for SNS, we have camera languages like close-up. Then we have a parallel system for us to perceive them. This is the mechanism that maintains the proper flow of information in this society.

Personal Notes pt1 for Semiotics

General Idea about Semiotics

Based on the introduction part of The Grammar of Meaning Systems (Martin Irvine, 2018), I made myself a diagram, reminding me several key concepts and the relationships between them. There are still a lot to add into the diagram but I want to perfect it after gaining clearer and more complete ideas about the discipline.


Symbol & Sign & Icon?

During working on the first diagram, the difference of these three words, especially the two of symbol and sign are not that way of clear. With the explanation in Semiotics: the basics (Daniel Chandler, 2007), it seems to make more sense to me. So I would like to answer my personal question about the three words here somehow with a rearrangement of the material in the book.

Due to Peirce, a symbol is “a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the symbol to be interpreted as referring to that object” (Peirce 1931-58, 2.249). We interpret the symbols according to “a rule’ which can be regarded as part of the conventional association, as Peirce held the idea that symbols are based purely on conventional association.

A sign is an icon “insofar as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it.” (???) An iconic sign represents its object mainly by the similarity.Icons have the qualities which resemble the objects they represent and excite analogous sensations in the mind.We can see several key words about icon, which are like, similarity, resemble and analogous sensations.

Here, it can be easier to understand if we have a look at Saussurean terms signifier and signifies. There are three modes here which are 1)Symbol/ symbolic; 2)Icon/ iconic; 3) Index/ indexical. In the mode of Symbol, signifiers do not resemble the signified, but can be interpreted based on the collective mind (or to say, conventional association). The Icon mode is where the signifier can be recognized through human sense organ as resembling or imitating the signified. The difference between Symbol mode and Index mode is that, the key words of the former one is fundamentally arbitrary while in the mode of Index, the signifier is not arbitrary but directly connected to the signified. A set of examples that help me distinguish the Symbol and Index is that the traffic light is symbol and the phone ringing is index. What somehow confuse me is the distinguish between icon and index here, especially when it “recordings” are regarded as index because from my perspective, the “recordings” to some extents also fit the definition of icon mode. Is the difference here relevant to imitating and directly recording?

Even though there are still questions left to the three modes of Saussurea, with the explanation of the modes, at least we can understand the difference between symbol and icon better.

Semiotics and Movies

As I’m still a bit unfamiliar with the correct application of semiotic knowledge, I will try to use something I am familiar with, movie in this case, to illustrate my interpretation of Peirce’s model.

*Spoiler Alert*

The movie I will talk about is Call Me by Your Name, a mind-boggling movie depicting an overwhelming same-sex relationship in 80’s Italy and having scored many nominations during this award season.

When I read about the three modes of signs by Peirce, I immediately relate the theory to one of the most infamous scene in the movie, where one of the lover boys, Elio performs a sex scene with a freshly picked peach. He allegedly fathom the peach as an intimate body part of his lover Elio and caresses it with his fierce desire.

Image result for call me by your name peach

I would relate this scene to Peirce’s iconic mode of sign. Peach functions as the signifier there while the signified can be the intimate body part of the boy’s lover. This also makes me think of the ‘sexting’ culture, where the peach emoji is extensively used to refer human’s bottom; Obviously the public can associate a peach with a body part, so it must have some perceived resemblance.

Meanwhile, the use of peach can also exemplify how parallel structure grant infinity for signs and meanings. Under the context of this movie, the peach is not merely a peach, or a human body part. The director also alludes it to the pure and crude affection between the lovers. Of course, this is not what most of people think of when seeing a peach, but we should still see the possibility of the movie being popular, and the peach as a sign being incessantly disseminated, reconstructed and reciprocated to ultimately become sign for love and desire. For that scenario, mass communication is a catalyst for the production of meaning, which also shows how interpretants can be multiplied by communications, thereby generating numerous meanings.

As a takeaway, I guess art, media and music all have the potential to signify more objects or materials, and the sociocultural environment will eventually be a hodgepodge of meanings.


Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics: Part I.”

visual art and computing in semiotics

Visual art and computing in Semiotics

It might not be a bad idea to start with the image done by Kara Walker in the latest exhibition Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War for this week. For me this image serves as a great example of the sign as an index. Considering the idea that an index is what calls our attention or what startles us (not necessarily need to be pointing to a physical or material object as is mentioned earlier), for me what draws my attention first is the breast of women, or better, the breast of the person. By catching the breast in this image, I then realize that the author probably wants to express an image of woman, or the whole category of women. My experience is a great example of seeing the representamen (the breast) as the box and label and realize there is something this representamen stands for inside the box, which is the refrent or the object (in this example, women). And according to Peirce’s model, the agency that enables me to correlate the breast with women together is the interpretant. Now the other interesting point is that while already knowing that Kara Walker is a feminist, I almost immediately correlate the image of the person into the category of women instead of specifically one particular woman. However, what if I know nothing about feminist and the only thing I know about this exhibition is civil war? My attention might therefore be driven by the facial features of both the two larger black figures and the smaller white figures. In the former case I am thinking Kata Walker’s intention of showing the power and liberation of women and in the latter case I am thinking about the elimination of slavery. My experience now might be able to explain how intersubjective and inter-individual social bonds of sign users, which are installed by symbolic cognition in lived context are preceding individual understanding of expressed meaning, in other words, meanings are dialogic and context-dependent.

Meanwhile, according to the fact that semiotics is the general discipline devoted to the study of signs and symbols as systems of expression, meaning, reasoning, and cultural memory in any kind of artefact (human-made being), we can also apply Peirce’s model into other fields. Still using this image above, how can we tell computer to represent it? Or broader, for every visual file, how do computer represent it? What we currently know is for an analog image, on computer we digitalize it into thousands of pixels where we give each pixel an RGB color for which we use a byte to represent. Before each color-standing byte we also have a key byte to tell the computer how many pixels are going to be filled with color and if we use one byte to give these pixels the same color or we assign each pixel with a different color by different bytes. From this level if we go up towards the top level we might go through more and more abstract and human readable algorithm and if we go down we are then amazed by how human beings are able to use 0s and 1s to represent ON and OFF which, is achieved by perceptible, physical and materialized combination of transistors. We use 0 and 1 as symbolic signs to represent the real electric states, where we might not be aware of a consensus within at least the community of engineers that such relation is achievable in computer (interpretant), or based on this interpretant, we can go one step further: we can break down analog things into digital one, separate it into several Boolean states and using logic gates on computer hardware to instantiate them. The interesting thing is that if we ask why through every detail of the above process, it might take us forever to answer the question (we are not even able to pause a while on the hardware where we find the exact real thing to interpret one concept).

But back to the idea of seeing a box and realizing there is something inside the box, symbols are not static or isolated things, but are structures of patterns in a dynamic cognitive process for meaning-making, a process about which we can never be consciously aware and cannot be observed except in the perceptible expressions and representations. The first point is that we are able to keep generate unlimited meaning with the help of word which is unique within human beings, the second point is unfortunately we might never be able to touch the object inside the box. That could probably explain why on Peirce’s successive model, the object appears always like the outsider: the line connecting infinite generated representamens and interpretant, probably using language as the agency, can only let us think in signs instead of things. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to bring Lacan’s viewpoint here, but an interesting idea he brings is that unconsciousness is the construction of language and on the symbolic chain human beings are never able to touch the thing. Paradoxically, while human beings are able to live in a second world with the help of language, this second word, somehow doesn’t have an interface with the real world we live in, in other words, we are distinguished from other animals by language, but such privilege later undergoes an abdiction by index signs where we points the real thing find ourselves, like animals, finally pause a while on a real thing.



  1. Lacan, J. 1965. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious” in Ecrits.
  2. Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2018, from
  3. Irvine, M. 2018. Meaning Systems, Communications, Media and Technologies.
  4. Irvine, M. 2018. Introduction to Signs, Symbolic Cognition and Semiotics.
  5. Irvine, M. 2018. Semiotics: Meaning systems, Culture, Technology Key Texts.


Emoji, a Symbol System in Online Communication


Emoji, in the era of social media, is an indispensable symbol system in daily communication. People use these little faces to represent, emphasize, or clarify their emotions and attitudes. Almost every netizen knows emoji, and among them, a lot of people know how and when to use it properly. They never learn emoji professionally, but the whole process comes naturally and unconsciously. I would like to try to utilize semiotics to explain the role of emoji in the process of online communication.

Why do we need emoji?

When people chat face to face, it is not quite possible that people misunderstand each other not only because of the content they say, but also resulting from the assistance of facial expressions, gestures, and tones. These elements are of great necessity that direct talkers to clarify the right context and atmosphere. For instance, whether the talk is relaxing or formal and whether what just said is a joke or not.

The emergence of online chatting, however, blocks people’s sensors to assume others’ intentions directly, which might increase the possibility of misunderstanding. To avoid such a phenomenon, graphics of facial emotions were created. At first, they were just some basic alphabets and punctuations, such as 🙂 and :D. In Japan, there is a popular symbols’ system called “Facial Language”, to name a few, o(╥﹏╥)o for crying and (*^▽^*) for laughing. On the basis of these simple graphics, emoji evolve to be more universal.

How do we understand emoji?

The characteristics of all sign systems can also be applied to emoji. First and foremost, meanings of emojis are “acquired and learned in specific communities”. Although people do not need to attend a school to command it officially, they do learn its meaning while using. Sometimes meanings of emoji are easy to guess, such as smile or anger, but sometimes deeper emotions, such as jealousy or regret, largely depend on context. Secondly, emoji system is also “rule-governed”. Each emoji has an according description to showcase its emotion briefly, and the meaning of it is based on people’s common senses. Thusly, users cannot explain its meaning simply out of their moods, but also need to take the rules into account. In addition, meanings of emoji are “collective and intersubjective”. Individuals have no rights to explain an emoji, though they can use it whenever they want. Nevertheless, popular meanings are still formulated on the foundation of sub-culture of the Internet where people share consensus and form the symbol system.

Emoji, as a symbol system, is not a static thing but a dynamic process. It is developing all the time with increasing numbers of users. They find it difficult to express their complicated feelings with extant emojis, so the company produces more vivid emojis to compensate. Hence, emoji becomes more and more comprehensive, complex, and even abstract than its original version.

From the Perspective of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Basic Model of the Sign

Signified: Emotions or feelings users want to express via emoji.

Signifier: Emoji itself.

From the Perspective of Peirce

Representamen: The relationship between emoji and its according meaning, such as smile and happiness and cry and sadness.

Interpretant: Brief description of each emoji can be its interpretant which is to explain the meaning of emoji graphics.

Objects: Emoji itself is an object abstracted from real facial expressions.



Martin Irvine. The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics

Martin Irvine. Meaning Systems, Communication, Media, and Technologies

Daniel Chandel (2002). Semiotics: The Basics

How We Transmit Symbolically Encoded Meanings

A famous Chinese Writer called Lu Xun once wrote a short story called <Hometown>. In the end of the story, Lu Xun wrote a classical celebrated dictum,

“It’s(hope) like a path across the land—it’s not there to begin with, but when lots of people go the same way, it comes into being.”

I really appreciate this celebrated dictum and when I read this week’s reading about symbolic cognition as the core human operating system, I thought of this dictum at once. Similarly, the process of meaning-making can not only depend on individual strengths or become private. On the contrary, this kind of process depends on social strengths. This dependence reflects on the two sides. First, culture originates in social environment. Similarly, the origin of sign systems, symbolic cognition and semiotics is closely related to social environment. Second, meaning-making functions are fundamentally inter-individual, intersubjective, shared, public and collective. The process of meaning-making and knowledge is a kind of cognitive-social event. In this kind of event, individuals use symbolic cognition as the core human operating system. Individuals take advantage of relevant cognitive symbolic resources and then add the value of meaning on these.

Meaning-making cannot be considered as the natural properties of things, or the material properties of sign vehicles of what we can observed. However, it is the internalized codes and conventions of our language and culture,generate new signs to express our understood meanings to others. At the same time, what we receive from them is the same. Consequently, signs and symbols in the society act like common sense for all the social members to conceive each other’s meaning and point of view, rather than just connect individual thoughts. Their role as a kind of interface is a continuum. This interface allows individuals to think collectively and share cognition. Based on the transmission of symbolically encoded meanings, the culture has formed.

This is like Peirce’s triadic model. For Peirce this knowledge-communication process involves a relationship of progressive adequation between two fundamentally opposed elements (Parmentier, 1994). The meaning of the signs and symbols are not “things” or “contents” located in anyone’s head on media representation but are what results from the processes of interpretation initiated by members of meaning communities. Peirce considers the process of meaning-making, reasoning and knowledge as a kind of product generated based on human sign systems and symbolic representation and interpretation. And this kind of generalizable theory of the process of meaning-making depends on signs and symbols as used in human cognition, communication and knowledge.

Computer science can also generate an insight about our ability to build systematic links between material signals and abstract meaning. The irreducible ground of human thoughts and communication is always reflected in the form of thoughts and interaction, but it is usually unobservable and individuals are always using symbolic faculties. Since computer science is another kind of artefact of human cognition. Consequently, they can be used to model many aspects of thought and perception that are not observable. I came up with an example to prove it, namely Polygraph.

A polygraph, popularly referred to as a lie detector, measures and records several physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity while the subject is asked and answers a series of questions. Whether true or false is unobservable and they exist in human mind and depend on human thought. However, they can be reflected by the measurement of physiological indices. With this kind of technology, those unobservable human thought and communication can be observed and modeled by magnifying their symbolic faculties. Therefore, technology extends and visualizes individuals’ meaning systems to some extent.


  1. Irvine, ed., Signs, Symbols, Cognition, Artefacts: A Reader of Key Texts.
  2. Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.
  3. Parmentier, R. J. (1994). Signs in society: Studies in semiotic anthropology. Indiana University Press.
  4. Rosenfeld, J. P. (1995). Alternative views of Bashore and Rapp’s (1993) alternatives to traditional polygraphy: A critique.