My abiding impression of this year’s Semiofest is that the event is now maturing into something very special. Our aim for Paris was to bring Semiofest back to a mecca of semiotics and create some scale as well as to continue to grow the brand on behalf of the community who support us. We want to establish Semiofest as a must attend event for all those involved in semiotics and associated techniques. We also want Semiofest to be a place for non semios to get inspired by intelligent content, keep up with innovations and insights in design, communication and brand strategy. In Paris, the standard of presentations was high; the atmosphere was convivial and fun.
WEDNESDAY 3rd JUNE: PROLOGUE: TRAINING
The event started with training on Wednesday with Sam Grange and Luca Marchetti. This was a great introduction to semiotics from two masters of the discipline with over 30 years experience between them in the practice of semiotics and both of whom generate all their income as professionals practicing semiotics. We learned about the three interlocking layers of semiotic investigation. The top layer of Codes, the middle layer of Discourses and the bottom layer of Values which Sam Grange helpfully compared to a Big Mac (which is also how he explains it to clients!). Sam explained that the validity of the method comes from how the semiotician lays bare the systemic relationships between the elements which can then be such a powerful tool used in plotting positioning, brand strategy options for companies. We learned about the Greimassian generative trajectory (which now makes much more sense to me than it did). We learned about the three different types of system that defines a corpus: the competitive category, the geographic locale and the timeline being studied. We saw how useful the semiotic square developed by Jean Marie Floch is for showing the different elements of the consumer mindset, PRACTICAL, CRITICAL, MYTHICAL and LUDIC. We then saw these techniques applied by Luca Marchetti to the luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada and how they apply that to their flagship shops the way they layer experiences for consumers to imbibe. And then by Sam Grange to the way ‘sustainability’ is represented in FMCG products and the codes that we find within the corpus, the premise being that these codes can be said to segment the audience; so are helpful in the marketing mix and positioning.
Luca finished off by discussing the changing nature of luxury with an anecdote about how a pearl necklace sold in the 1920s was worth an entire New York town house but that 5 decades later, (due in part to shifts in aspirational lifestyle and changing attitudes towards status) it had lost comparative value (even allowing for inflation). He used an architectural metaphor arguing we have moved from a society based on order and geometry (typified by Le Corbusier), to a contemporary society based on disorder (typified by Frank Gehry) – and to a luxury based more on multipolar cultural systems, and therefore how luxury has become more multi faceted as well. This, for me, was a classic example of semiotics breaking things down to give epiphany insights. Within Luca’s presentation I appreciated his nuanced awareness of how meaning works to connect with consumers, the Kantian sublime mixing disgust and pleasure in avant-garde perfumery and how ‘ambiguousness’ has itself become a theme in emergent luxury discourses. All this was absolutely top stuff. It left the delegates with the message that semiotics is an engine for creativity via associative thinking and that can identify virgin the rich territories latent in culture.
We finished with a group exercise using the tools we had been taken through to think up innovation ideas for a lipstick manufacturer which yielded such ideas as a lipstick for prophylactic and birth control, ingestible medicines or even a rape alarm.
The training overall has deepened my appreciation of this type of structural semiotics and its utility and made me want to apply it more frequently in my work.
THURSDAY 4th JUNE: CONFERENCE DAY 1
We started off a Keynote speech from Natalie Cottin of Monoprix and freelance designer José Prix. The keynote was interesting from the perspective of highlighting how even masstige brands such as Monoprix, who have some very smart packaging (I checked them out at a local store after Semiofest ended) use star designers to add a halo effect and increase their innovation quotient. It was interesting I think as a stark reminder of how much work needs to be done to bridge a gap between the design and semiotics community. José Levy talked about designing by instinct but it was I think significant that neither speaker mentioned #semiotics as an influence in their work. It would have been great to have some photos to show the design pieces produced by this unusual collaboration as it would have added a valuable context to the Keynote.
The semiotics presentations were kicked off by one on Nigerian nation branding by Adeyemi Adegoju. Who knew the Nigerian government was actively communicating to counter negative stereotypes about the safety and trustworthiness of Nigerians? This was a critical discourse analysis of the campaign and its effectiveness. I also took it as an exposé of how governments can only do so much within a certain policy context.
Max Leefe showcased the challenge of selling semiotics to German clients taking us through various methods she had taken, what worked, what didn’t and how she won her first German client. It was a bold and brave presentation that built empathy with the audience; many of whom are also sole traders selling what can be a difficult to explain methodology to skeptical clients. She explored how we can best convey the value of semiotics and the vagaries of business development. She showed that rather than starting a think tank or endless cold calling, probably networking and getting stuck in to conversations with prospects was more likely to yield more fruit.
Alpana Parida gave an excellent view on the practical common sense semiotics can bring to any brand rejuvenation process; how it can indeed act as the ‘conscience of meaning’ (my words). The India TV brand was losing ratings, and therefore advertising revenues through having lost its way. Semiotics diagnosed packaging of the content as the heart as part of the problem and set out working out how to embed trust cues in the brand identity, setting, anchor appearance, graphics and the imagery. Then, using the analogy of the Thali, how the channel could repurpose its content and recalibrate itself to address connotations of tabloid sensationalism.
Wordless books. I’d never heard of them – Marta Pelligrini presented examples of this niche publishing phenomenon and made us all want to rush out and buy these charming mute comics. She explained wordless books as symbols of reading in an interface with transmedia and digital forms of consumption on mobile platforms. My take out from her presentation was that wordless books are a mélange of the global communication of hyper textual digital media with classic, timeless techniques of film, montage and photography. She showed how this ‘old’ medium is being transformed by a contemporary sensibility. The examples she gave were beautifully rendered. The Arrival by was my personal favourite – so I’ll be getting hold of that.
The first panel discussion of the Semiofest Conference, entitled ‘Falling in Love with Reality’, moderated by Lucia Laurent-Neva, and populated by Luca Marchetti, Carole Lasalle and Xiaojing Huang, was focused on semiotics of design and how it can best be employed to graphic design, product development and insight work.
Francois Bobrie and Jean Henaff lifted the lid on the communication codes of luxury watches showing how embedded in the product design of such luxury items are elaborate narratives about time, complexity and of social belonging. We learned about the different practices and lifestyles implied by both ‘skeleton’ and ‘full dial’ watches and learned about the so called Watch Idiot Savants who tend to buy them.
The presentation by Anna Niewiadomy, Maciej Biedzinski & Paulina Goch-Kenawy on the Uncanny was universally acknowledged as perhaps the best presentation of this year. This was all the more astonishing for being a presentation put together not from ongoing academic research or a paid project, but specially curated exclusively for Semiofest. It looked at the visual representations of physically ‘Other’ (whether the prosthetically enhanced or physically disabled) and how culture tends to try to quarantine or to dissipate our fears of the physically different, the threatening, the maimed or the taboo, through various accommodation strategies. Resolving into some inter-related cultural codes including Dissenting Rebels and Seductive Fetish. I only wanted to see something on robots and the Uncanny Valley; but I’m quibbling.
Janaina Antunes, who made a survey of the atemporal and non-geographical traits of much of our cultural production, showing that the internet and digital culture had eroded our ability to pinpoint the cultural lineage of artifacts, leading to one of my favourite phrases, that we are being ‘ravished’ by data. Antunes says unclassifiable glocal, hypermedia production is “transforming the world into a kaleidoscope of intersecting glocal strongholds for the circulation of information, images and data”.
Ximena Tobi showed how semiotics and sign making could be used in collaboration with qualitative research and Google Maps to map the symbolic occupation of contested spaces – in this case during a university occupation in Buenos Aires. This is in aid of promoting proper recycling in the social science faculty of her university.
Berenice Mariau showed how the television news reports from French television for instance TF1, of how personal tragedies are constructed around certain patterns of discourse and of visual representation and how these enabled journalists to tell a story without much tangible footage of how and why the incident took place.
Marianne Cara presented on an underlying cultural rule of Brazil – that of svelteness and movement and showed how this was expressed through the exuberant antics of Carmen Miranda to capoeira dance to Oscar Niemeyer’s architectural curves to the footballer Ronaldhinho Gaucho’s athletic feints and how this aesthetic of slinkiness made its way into blog photography through comparative analysis of various fashion catalogues. She concludes that the Brazilian nation is an Ethical-Aesthetic project.
Natalia Hoffman talked about how important it is to integrate the cognitive layer into how we practice semiotics – how if we have all this knowledge about the brain it is madness not to integrate this into how we actually process mental phenomena. She went on to describe other instances where this layer would add extra insight.
She started off by discussing the classic Pepsi Challenge and the taste test which tells us important things about how brand preference is formed. What we see is that even those who initially prefer Pepsi, when shown the brands attached to the two cola formulas are revealed revert to preferring Coke because associative memory and higher order parts of their brains override their purely organoleptic reaction. She went on to urge more application of cognitive semiotics within branding.
Finally, Xiajoing Huang, who presented at Semiofest Shanghai, presented on how trends are used to trace the evolution of sub cultural trends in China. We learned that trends now come straight to China from Europe or the US (having previously come via incubator markets such as Taiwan or Korea) and they usually stem from outside China, Japan being a strong source of inspiration having spawned the kuso (reveling in rubbish renditions of things on the internet) trend and ‘loser’ archetype which is very close to the otaku and hikikumori typologies in Japan and then the Muj-ists who take their purchase philosophy from the Muji aesthetic. This was a look at the cultural churn accounting for the trends growth in the world’s biggest market.
FRIDAY 5th JUNE: CONFERENCE DAY 2
Day 2 kicked off with a fascinating discussion on how semiotics can help us make sense of Big Data which is a Wild West world of interpretation and misinterpretation. Tim Stock, Simon Pullman-Jones, Janina Antunes and Gabriela Pedranti discussed structured data, hackers, taxonomies, and the architecture of digital experiences.
Li Fang talked about LVMH and how luxury brands are increasingly using place and place branding to market their goods. She illustrated this through looking at the interaction of luxyr and urban planning in Samaritaine, Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, Journées Particulières in and smaller artisanal brands like Corso Como.
Krzysztof Polak presented a semiotic square of premium propositions and showed how we have moved from a sort of Noble premiumness to other versions of this which play towards constructed notions of Authenticity and Ethical programmes. And he showed how this understanding can be applied to brand positioning and to packaging innovation amongst other areas: he has used semiotic squares 150 times!
Sarah Johnson presented on occult symbols and how these were appropriated by two sub-cultures within the US – the Evangelical Fringe and Millenial Hipsters for very different identitarian strategies: in the previous case to give voice to various conspiracies about the federal government and to name and condemn satanic evil, on the other to appropriate a transgressive rubric of symbols with which to express dissatisfaction and separation from mainstream popular culture. This was a fascinating look at two sub cultures that tell us a lot about American life in 2015.
Gwenaelle de Kerret presented on how we can compare the architectural and spatial semiotics of museums with their graphical presentations, especially their logo types of promotional communications. Taking as her examples MoMA, the Met and the Guggenheim in New York and the Louvre, Pompidou Centre. She showed on a semiotic square how the inter-relationship of elements could be characterized on a gamut from Continuity to Discontinuity through gambits of Mediation and Allusion.
Personally, I think that the Tate Modern provides an interesting example of how a brand identity can effectively unify two aspects of spatial semiotics and graphics
Grant Venner made a bold appeal for us to look at Permaculture as an analogy both an inspiration for how we do semiotics and for considering the ethical dimension of what we do – e.g. how we ensure that we maintain a pluralistic media environment. He started off by looking at the semiotics of the allotment and how they have been rebranded as fashion accessories, but how the reality was often a bit less glamorous. He looked at the dominant discourses within the corporate canon and how they saw nature as something to be bulldozed, then presented permaculture as a more enlightened alternative to all this. He says that just when he was on the brink of despair, he found permaculture. Grant defines ‘permaculture (as) a holistic, sustainable way of living based on observing nature as a complex system of inter-relations a kind of agglomeration of accumulated wisdom of indigenous cultures.” He then went on to draw the parallel: “Rather like semiotics, permaculture is not quite the right name for something infinitely complex, yet infinitely simple. Both developed as critiques, both stressing inter-relationships and multiple disciplines, it feels to me that permaculture is to the green revolution what applied semiotics is to qualitative or quantitative research or what semiotics is to any dominant discourse.”
For me permaculture is also like semiotics because it is an enlightened philosophy. It put me in mind of Petrilli and Ponzio in Semiotics Unbound arguing for semio-ethics. Grant said he is moving away from mechanistic code models towards something more sensuous and rhizomatic. He showed how he had applied eco-semiotics on a government sustainability project. He ended with a plea to create a semiotics that is natural, purposeful and grounded. “Bear in mind that that word ‘culture’ that we throw around all day comes from words meaning ‘tend, grow, cultivate’. Inspiring.
Tim Stock followed up on his excellent presentation from 2012 with a look at the fluctuations of cultural resonance of two concepts: luxury and indulgence and looked at how they had waxed and waned from the 17th century onwards. The broad temporal view put me in mind of French economist Thomas Piketty’s magisterial historical sweep in his book Capital. This was an alternative, but equally compelling definition of luxury (as something I share), vs indulgence (something I know). What I found particularly interesting in his account was the way he looked at how cultural trends become embodied in behavior, namely in symbolism, badging and ritual. He concluded with a rallying cry that: “the future of brand management requires cultural literacy for a more sustainable approach.” Another impressive and inspiring outing for Scenario DNA at Semiofest. We also gather that Tim has been granted a patent in the US for the algorithm – so, who says semiotics cannot do numbers???
Emily Groves presented on emoticons, their evolution, how they have influenced and influenced other forms of culture since their emergence in Japan in the early Millenium. The word emoticon derives from a Japanese word emoji from an entirely different derivation [the Japanese compound derives from the character for picture e and the character for written words, moji). 絵文字 Emily briefly explored whether emojis were culturally universal intuitive forms of communication we might assume or whether in fact they were culturally specific (showing the ironic use of certain emoticon in certain context and speech act and how emoticons that had accreted obscene meanings were banned). She also looked at how emoticons might evolve to incorporate other elements. Having done some work on emoticons (versus other transmitters of affect), and iconic triggers using neuro-metrics it would be interesting to see which set of emoticons communicate most intuitively in terms of attention, emotional intensity, memory encoding or approach (indicating cuteness). It would also be worth considering how Chinese emoticons develop the rubric of these signs.
Vladimir Djurovic , the organizer in chief of Semiofest, Shanghai, then gave his view on how we can fall in love with our own hunches in semiotics, and how we can, and indeed, should guard against that and whilst doing so he also talked about the imperative to integrate human sciences, methodologies such as behavioural economics (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow), neuroscience and the dawning of artificial intelligence and Singularity (with the news Google has declared it’s in on the act).
I moderated the final panel discussion of the Semiofest Conference, entitled ‘Falling in Love with the Extraordinary’. This was populated by Gwenaelle De Kerret, Alienor Spillman and Grant Venner. We discussed how semiotics can be used as an approach to being aware of the virtualities in each stage of a creative work, in the process of midwifing campaigns to reality and how semiotics can be used client side too.
Having just used social semiotics in a project as an expert in a legal case it was great to meet one of the main exponents of the social semiotic view, Theo Van Leeuwen and to hear his view as an academic invited to an applied semiotics conference. He had been given the task of giving his impressions of the conference. The main idea I took from his excellent Keynote was that semiotics is not a canon of stale theory, but a living, breathing craft, with a set of practices associated with it. He underlined the fact that what distinguishes semiotics (particularly the applied form celebrated by Semiofest) from philosophy is its object centred basis. It is principled observation of phenomena grounded in inventorying semiotic resources and pattern finding about how they are used by people in certain social contexts and situations. In many ways, Theo is the prototypical academic ambassador for Semiofest – he, himself, by his own admission has been working to convince academic peers that semiotics needs to be seen as a set of practices and that it has a practical usefulness to understand new media beyond the rehashing of well worn scholarly theory. He has vowed to stay in touch and to promote the event amongst networks of open minded scholars.
SATURDAY 6th JUNE: EPILOGUE: THE SEMIOTIC BOOTCAMP
But it seems that the best was saved till last, after many delegates had already left.
The highlight for me was the Boot Camp, which involved teams of semioticians working together, and, within 2 hours to create a programme of research and some embryonic solution to a client problem. The clients problems were: PSA Citroen overcoming cultural barriers to driverless cars and Essilor, the world leader in corrective lens manufacturing positioning themselves as future vision specialists.
The experience, for me, was exhilarating for a number of reasons. Firstly, we were a group who had not worked together before, or different nationalities, German, British, French, Ukrainian, Colombian – and we given only 2 hours to bond, divide up into teams and come up with solutions. Secondly, being in the group given the Citroen brief we were given a tough problem: how can we model the optimal relationship of trust and partnership between the passenger and car in the epoque of the driverless car? The task was not to focus on design innovation or competitive positioning, but just to address the core barrier to bonding with and even falling in love with the driverless car. We took a while to get going, but before long we had formed ourselves into teams of pairs each working on an aspect of the problem – the aspects we felt urgently needed to be addressed in order to overcome the trepidation people may feel about driverless cars. These were: Fears around new Technology, Social Relations, Trust and Partnership and Sensations and Emotions.
So in my pair we dealt with Fears and how we could move towards Trust – elements like feeling like cargo in a car, shorn of active agency, objectified by the mode of transport, and fear of the uncanniness of these cars (in the same way drones now have a sinister nature to them as they are a hybridity of computer, plane and camera) and fear of loss of control and the animalistic relationship we have had with cars. Another group identified the need to address the metaphorical hold ‘driving’ has in idiomatic speech as a mode of channeling individual power e.g. ‘I’ll give you a lift’. Tackling this would we argued help relieve the dread of this relinquishing of power and its translation into a virtue. Then another group made a provisional model of different types of Trust, Partnership relationships, for instance professional, personal, pet, sparring relationships in order to think through the sorts of ties of mutuality desirable between the so called ‘drissenger’ and the driverless car. Finally, the sort of emotional world and the experiential realm envisaged by us for this car would involve a paradigm shift from libertarian propulsion to the idea of a 4th space such that getting into any driverless car is more akin to entering a portal giving us access to a zone of habitation and location – a sort of ‘divine ubiquity’. This was represented by another sub team who drew a semiotic square drawing attention to the Mythical and Playful quadrants. The idea here was that this would help Citroen in overcoming resistance to the concept via thought out communications strategies.
Both clients said that they were impressed by the speed with which this virtual team had arrived at such creative, lateral conclusions and the conviction and level of detail with which they were presented. For me the Bootcamp was an absolute triumph – the fact that all these teams could come together and put together such insightful, practical solutions by blending theories is resounding vindication of the semiotics methodology as a profound and effective communications solving tool not enough end user clients know about, appreciate or use as part of strategic planning.
So, once again, Semiofest has justified all the hard work and recharged my batteries. For me it is a way of reconnecting with my métier. It is an affirmation that others out there not always appreciated or understood, are doing useful work identifying signs in society that no-one has yet identified, helping midwife great strategies into great creative, helping to salvage and re-position brands or to rethink product portfolio strategies. It has sent me scuttling off to forge new ties, pursue new theories and techniques, to study new media, and with renewed confidence in this thing that we call semiotics. I know that this sentiment is shared by quite a few other participants.
And the proof is in the pudding. Scanning through the feedback forms lets us know that we have had some of the best feedback we’ve ever had. Participants commented that they found the event inspiring and those practitioners of semiotics found that it replenished their batteries and re-energised them around doing semiotics, knowing that even though it may feel sometimes like they are toiling away in obscurity, they are in fact part of a supportive craft community. What emerged from the feedback forms are that people appreciate the fun atmosphere, focus on informal networking and sharing of ideas, the unusual mix of practitioners and academic researchers, and the varied presentations on topical issues in visual culture and brand communications. It seems this year that we scored highly with the training on the day before the conference, proper, began, and the Boot Camp event on the day after it finished. These are both elements that look set to become fixture in all the Semiofest events to come. Furthermore, we got universally top marks on being both ‘well organised’ and ‘helpful and courteous’ and that really means a lot to us.
As a non-profit organisation we are extremely focused on the WHY of what we do.
Our main focus is very simply to nurture and propagate top level semiotic thinking.
We set up Semiofest in order to create a forum for people to celebrate semiotics in all its forms and to allow sharing of ideas and networking between people involved in semiotics. Our values are INNOVATIVE, CRITICAL, COLLABORATIVE, OPEN and FUN. We feel that our values were certainly expressed within the 2015 Paris edition.
And finally, the litmus test, the vast majority said they intended to attend next year and all, without exception said that they would recommend it to others. What I find most heartening is even where the feedback was critical or quibbling (rare), the attendee signalled they’ll be coming back next year or recommending it to others.
We know we cater for different audiences and we still had some wanting more pure semiotics and some who were craving more applied case studies. We always try to balance these imperatives, and it’s a tough balancing act which we don’t always succeed in meeting, but we feel that the majority of our participants want the rigour and theory AND the practical outcomes, not EITHER OR. This is what we strove to stress in our Call for Papers and apply as a filter in our ultimate selection process.
We feel that the Paris edition of Semiofest has indeed helped people to fall back in love with semiotics. We know that Semiofest is not perfect, but through what the Japanese call kaizen, or constant improvement, we are committed to putting on an even better event next year by retaining the best things, building on our virtues and addressing the flaws to continue to improve and make prototype # 5 the best yet!