Semiotics/Reading an Image

So this was all about meaning.  What is someone trying to achieve with the image?  What is its purpose?  The emphasis on today was trying to look at something in a great deal of depth to try and understand more about its meaning.  This was the image we were given.

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As you can see it’s one of those pictures that depending on which way around you view it, there is a different image.  For the life of us we couldn’t find out what this is called, so for now it’s just a turn-around picture thing…

We were given several things to try and figure out about the image.

What is it?  How is it made?  The image is a reversible portrait of two men, depending on how it is viewed.  One portrait is possibly an image of a police man, the reverse being a solider perhaps?  Both are wearing hats with a serial number or issue number on it.  What is the significance of this number?  The image looks hand drawn or etched, with a sketched quality.  It is not known why it has been made but could be satirical or for a cartoon.

What’s the context – what’s around it?  Could be satirical, possibly a political drawing in a publication.  It’s reasonably hard to figure out what each of the men are or what they represent, but it could be some sort of social commentary.  There is no physical context, the image is cut out and its source is unknown.

Who made it, their motivation?  Unknown illustrator, motivated possibly by some contextual factors but they are obviously unknown.

When was it made?  It looks sketched, possibly from an older publication or magazine.

For whom was it made, what for?  Possibly made for a wide audience and not just for one person.  If from a publication as we suspect then the audience would presumably be fairly large.

Is it an event?  Contemporaneous?  Viewpoint?  Could be part of a wider image or possibly a series of reversible portraits but there is no context at all.  The two faces could represent a split personality but we obviously do not know who.

Is it a concept or an idea?  Could be representative of some wider contextual goings on, but without original publication or even a date it’s incredibly hard to tell.  It could have legitimacy as an old etching, or it could be a modern drawing in an old style.

As you can probably tell, they’re quite thin answers to some fairly meaty questions but when provided with an image that you know nothing about, without so much as a date to go alongside it, you could expect as much.


During this ‘image’ portion of our module, semiotics reared its head in the form of an in-depth tutorial with Olwen.  There are a series of infographics on Behance which explain it a great deal better than I can.  There are vast differences between signs, icons and symbols, and each have their rightful place in the world of graphic design.  Use at your peril, but for God’s sake use correctly.

  • Signifiers – the physical form of a sign (denotation).
  • Signified – the meaning or thought that a sign expresses (connotation). These are dependent on our own personal and cultural beliefs.
  • Icon – a physical resemblance of the signified.
  • Symbol – a mark or representation that may not necessarily look like the signified.  This is culturally learned.
  • Index – describes the physical connection between the signifier and the signified.
  • Syntagms – building blocks of communication.
  • Paradigms – the groups which the syntagms fit into.

(REMEMBER – Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure)


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