By Hamsini Shivakumar

The fourth edition of Semiofest finished on Saturday, June 6th in Paris.   This was the biggest event so far, a true celebration of semiotic thinking that stretched out over 3.5 days.   It began with a whole day of advanced training for practitioners in the French structuralist methods.  The training was followed by the Conference for two days.  Finally, there was a half day, Semiotics Boot Camp - an innovation to demonstrate the value of Semiotics to big clients, clients facing challenging marketing issues and in the middle of business transformations.

In the training day, Luca Marchetti and Samuel Grange, both veterans of the French and Italian tradition, generously opened up their practice to share with 28 of us, their international colleagues, their ways of working.  They shared what they do and how they do it, in the fields of retail, luxury and innovation.  There is no other platform in the world except Semiofest, where practitioners can learn from one another in this manner.  The content was interesting, the debates rich and stimulating. Enter the first gate of semio-heaven.

The conference content was broadly of four kinds. The first kind comprised a number of presentations that showcased case studies.  These used the well known tools of applied marketing semiotics - signs, codes, territories and the semiotic square.  There was also a case study of Object Analysis, a structural deconstruction of the meanings embedded in luxury watches of different types. These were examples of applied marketing semiotics at its best, carried out by seasoned professionals, the best of the best.

The second kind had presentations that demonstrated applications that stretched the boundaries of the practice via newer methodologies.  These included applications of critical discourse analysis, Semio-Qual and Cultural Trend Tracking.  Semio-Qual is qualitative research (workshops with users) using the concepts of semiotics to generate deeper insights into the narratives of a sub-culture, in this case, university teachers in Argentina.  CDA is a well established methodology in the study of media discourses. Cultural trend tracking of the kind done by Scenario DNA, New York takes a dynamic and adaptive view of culture and tries to map this generative aspect of culture using big data analytics, qualitative insight and textual interpretation of the classical kind.

The third kind had presentations that showed applications outside of marketing such as architecture and urban planning, museums, books etc; attempts to search for fresh metaphors for structure via Eco-semiotics,  well as inspirational content in design thinking and trend tracking that was outside of Semiotics itself.

The fourth kind were about the digital world in which we now live - a study of emojis and how they work, an identification of the defining characteristics of the digital world and the difficulty of classifying, categorising and placing it into fixed structures.

Finally, there were panel discussions on design, creativity and digital.  There was also a presentation on the need for self-reflexivity in practice.  All of these took a questioning and dialogic approach to practice - let us ask provocative questions and exchange views on the challenges and opportunities facing us all.

All in all, the two days showcased the state-of-the-art in Semiotic Practice from all around the world.  It was a true global conference, inclusive in its ethos, with quality of ideas and usefulness to practitioners being the key criteria for inclusion.  Presenters were men and women, rookies and veterans, practically oriented academics as well as business practitioners - from Brazil, Argentina, China, India, Nigeria, USA, Canada, UK, France, Italy and  Poland.  It was a shining example of "open-source" philosophy applied to the practice of Semiotics.  There was enough material and content there for practitioners to aspire to raise their standards, try out new methods right away, reflect upon more deeply and just to feel excited about.  The second gate to Semio-Heaven.

We had invited Professor Theo Van Leeuwen, a leading authority in Social Semiotics to observe our Conference and offer his insights and suggestions. He said he was enthused by the state of the practice, the quality of the thinking and the ability of practitioners to present complex concepts and ideas in 15 min. He believes there is a lot of merit in engineering active collaboration with academic Semioticians, although there are challenges to making it fruitful for both.  And he encouraged practitioners to enlarge their tool box.

The Semiotics Bootcamp was a successful experiment to bring Client Engagement with Semiotics for mutual benefit.  One of the comments we have consistently heard from practitioners is that we are inward looking. We need to look outward and broaden our interface, as a collective, with Clients and Users.  The struggle has been to find the right/ best format for it, working within the Semiofest vision.  With the Bootcamp, we believe, we have made a great beginning.

Two large, French global companies, Peugeot and Essilor agreed to participate from the Client side. And 16 semioticians from around the world signed up for working together on live briefs. On a spring, Saturday morning, senior clients from the companies (Global consumer research head of Peugeot and global marketing team of Essilor) spent half an hour sharing their brief with separate teams.  After working together for 2.5 hours, the teams had to show the Clients how semiotic thinking would lead them to a superior solution.  Immediate feedback to team presentations indicated that the Clients were indeed impressed with the power of the discipline and its tools and methods to open up new ways to address tough challenges and find effective solutions.  Further positive developments are awaited to this "taster session".

Personally, I am encouraged by the potential of the Bootcamp concept to introduce Clients to the Power of applied semiotics.  For practitioners, it presents a unique experience of team work and collaboration; learning more by working together.  For the most part, Semioticians are used to working alone, studying the corpus by themselves.  Harnessing the power of collective minds is a new experience for them.  The global part of the practice is used to the research industry's value chain model of gathering data and integrating it under the banner of a leading research firm.  Semiofest as a platform is uniquely placed, as an Open Community Forum, to offer global and large or mid-sized clients a "rent-a-semioticians-think tank" service.  It could open up a whole new way to practise applied semiotics for the mutual benefit of Clients and Semioticians.

To those who did not attend the Paris edition of Semiofest, you missed a wonderful celebration.  Hope to see you at the next edition.  To those who attended, please keep on coming and do spread the word.