This is a reflection on an old lecture I delivered, discussing the conventions in signified ‘meaning’ behind visual media, art direction, and communication in general.

What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? The connection between the aesthetic and creative choices across all forms of communication, where we can convey powerful messages by loading associative meaning behind and beyond the literal surface value, is the realm of semiotics. I delivered this presentation deck and lecture while working in a design school some years ago, and looking at it now – aside from thinking ‘what the hell was I thinking’ on how these slides could look a lot slicker, or that the case studies could be more current, I feel it still represents a decent summary introduction to the process of semiotic deconstruction in visual media.

A great deal of effort and expertise is poured into the building of consumer goods brands, fashion collections, music video production, or even the casting of models or actors, that most people never consider. Things are often taken at face value, consumed, gazed upon for a matter of seconds, and a judgement made over whether it appeals or not. Looking at these face value signs is often enough to form an opinion, but the most powerful imagery and lasting impact is created by working toward what is signified beyond what we see and hear, with audiences or viewers rarely questioning why or how they resonate so deeply.

Why has Hollywood for so long equated a well-groomed, lean, tight-lipped but well-spoken Englishman with the nefarious bad guy? How does a careful choice of typography make people either want to ‘come on in’, or run for their lives? How does a persons body language or facial expression give you a sense of empowerment and relatability, or create a feeling of profound inferiority and desire to ‘be a better you’?

As time moves on, we become ever more sophisticated; as audiences, consumers, voters, in demanding more powerful meaning in everything we see, hear and touch. Being able to tap into subconscious, cultural and experiential feeling, and pack this all into a tagline, visual composition, brand essence, or indeed any other non-commercial mode of storytelling is a critical part of transmitting messages that connect with people. Of course an entire industry is beavering away to find even more accurate means of garnering public attitudes, tastes, desires, to leverage into engagement, but a firm grasp of how to build deeper meaning beyond the surface is where the game is won or lost.