PhD project

Semiosis: Semiotic Enhancement of Visual Communication for Improved Audience Engagement

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Application deadline

30 June 2024

Principal Supervisor

Dr Dave Wood

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Visual communication (graphic design and illustration) outcomes communicate to real people. 

Semiotic sign-action affords the designer or illustrator opportunities to craft their visual language, to ensure their aesthetic choices connect with the primary audience, to retain audience attention, allowing more time for the designed or illustrated outcome’s intended or desired action to be suggested e.g. turn the page, buy this, go there, do that.

Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce says, “nothing is a sign until it is interpreted as a sign.” This suggests that a creative’s visual language is semiotically dormant until our target audience perceives something as something else. This opens visual communication’s impact to connotatively enrich the depths of sophisticated meaning that can be shared.

How can creatives enhance their effectiveness as visual communicators, through embracing a Peircean semiotic model of Semiosis (sign-action)?

Peirce’s semiotic determination flow is between three conditions: what needs to be visually communicated; how this can be visually represented: and then interpreted by the audience. This determination flow offers the graphic designer or illustrator a semiotic theoretical model to improve how to enhance audience communication.

Professor Jorge Frascara proposes that the outcomes of visual communication can change audience behaviour. How can Peircean semiotic theory facilitate this in visual communication’s primary audiences for mutual benefit?

Peirce’s Semiosis is different to the Semiology of Saussure and Barthes. Semiosis is not based on the dyadic structure of signifier and signified, but has a triadic relationship between Object, Representamen and Interpretant.

To put this into more designer-centric terms: a Concept, its Representation, and Interpretation.

 The triadic nature of Semiosis continues with each stage of the determination flow, as each part also has three levels of complexity. The most quoted (but easily miscommunicated) representation levels are Icon, Index and Symbol. Peirce’s terminology can be very technical and obfuscating to non-philosophers.

 In designer-centric, we can refer to these three levels of semiotic representation of a Concept, as Iconic representation (lowest), Indexical representation (middle) and Symbolic representation (highest). 

How can these three levels that semiotically represent a Concept to be visually communicated, be applied to help creatives connect at deeper levels with their intended audience?

A creative’s final aesthetic is intended to be active. The aesthetic decisions need to hook audience attention. The aesthetic is competing against over-saturation of visual communication outputs in our society and environment. The semiotic encoding of connotative meaning helps retain that attention.

Peirce’s semiotic theory is philosophically Pragmatic. It is predicated on a bedrock of Phenomenological understanding of how we, as humans, relate to the communicational space that semiotics operates from within.

 What role can the audience’s lived experiences play within a semiotic enhancement of visual communication’s effectiveness?

 What can be learnt from other creative disciplines who apply Peirce’s semiotic theory to connect with their audiences?

This PhD project is aimed at researchers who can explore the themes above, to discover new knowledge that enhances visual communicators’ practice through applying a Peircean philosophical semiotic framework to that creative practice. How can you use semiotic signs to hook attention and facilitate desired actions? What new designer-centric language can be found to translate Peirce’s language that centres semiotics into creative practice?

Diversity statement

Our research community thrives on the diversity of students and staff which helps to make the University of Dundee a UK university of choice for postgraduate research. We welcome applications from all talented individuals and are committed to widening access to those who have the ability and potential to benefit from higher education.

How to apply

  1. Email Dr Dave Wood to
    • Send a copy of your CV
    • Discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date).
  2. After discussion with Dr Wood, formal applications can be made via our direct application system. 
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Principal supervisor

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