This Means What?

In today’s lecture, Andrew and Andrea introduced structuralism and semiotics to the class. The term ‘Structuralism’ originated in the works of Ferdinand de Saussure, an influential Swiss professor of linguistic.

The definition of structuralism can be referred to what Terence Hawkes had once said, “The world is made up of relationships rather than things, constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking which can properly be called ‘structuralist'”(Hawkes, 1977). Saussure stated that there’s an arbitrary relationship between the ‘concept’ and the ‘sound image’, meaning this language state “can be defined only in terms of their relationship within the system” (Holdcroft,1991).

This arbitrary relationship could be explained via Joseph Kosuth‘s work, One and Three Chairs (1965). In this piece of work, a photograph of the chair, definition of a chair, and the chair itself are presented adjacent to each other. Both the photograph and printed texts of definition represent the physical chair itself, however they are not in equivalent to the chair. They are only a reference to the physical chair, showing the conceptual idea of it.


One and Three Chairs

One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth, 1965


In 1998, a French sculptor Pierre Vivant created a public sculpture in London, titled Traffic Light Tree. ‘Traffic light’ is a simple semiotic system, in which ‘semiotic’ is thought to be conventional and understood as part of a cultural system. This means individuals cannot change this meaning in the value system. We perceive what the colours of the light represent in the same way as the others due to semiotic system, but Traffic Light Tree shows that “The arbitrary cycle of light changes is not supposed to mimic the seasonal rhythm of nature, but the restlessness of Canary Wharf” (Hackett, 2008).


Traffic Light Tree by Pierre Vivant, photo by Jelena Danis

As a graphic design student, the idea of structuralism and semiotics is rather vital when we’re making design decisions. I personally think considering the connocation and denotation of my design works is important, since one of the purposes of creating design pieces is to communicate with the audience, therefore having a deeper message that I wish the audience to perceive in my creation would overall make it more interesting and purposeful.


Hawkes, T. (2005). Structuralism and semiotics. 1st ed. London [u.a.]: Routledge.

The Museum of Modern Art. (n.d.). Joseph Kosuth. One and Three Chairs. 1965 | MoMA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

Virtue, R. (2014). Traffic Light Tree returns to Canary Wharf. [online] thewharf. Available at: [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].


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