The Practice & Art of Thinking

Signs and symbols – triggers from Bhutan

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Posts like this are always difficult as they can be quite long and the attention span can wander. However, I still think they are important, especially if one is making links and exploring ‘newish territory’. One can always come back and refer to parts of the post over time. I hope so.

Before writing about my recent trip to Bhutan, I decided that a post on terminology would be useful. I will be exploring culture, particularly from a visual perspective and will be looking at meaning expressed through signs and symbols.

The obvious assumption is that humans are primarily meaning makers; we make meaning through our creation and interpretation of ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’. We use the terms symbol and sign interchangeably but they actually mean different things. It’s important to clarify and it’s also important to note that some authors swap the meanings but there remains a distinction.

The term sign, as I will be using it, designates something that stands for something else, following the Triadic theory as developed by Peirce and later refined by Umberto Eco (Italian philosopher and author).

In this theory, signs can be words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects. However, these things have no natural meaning and only become signs once humans construct meaning around them. Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions.

 Charles Sanders Pierce

Charles Sanders Peirce

For example:

Using a silhouette of a man or a woman to indicate a restroom/toilet.


The simplified picture of a fork and knife used to identify a restaurant.

Indicating a public telephone (payphone) by using a silhouette of a handset.


These signs are therefore able to communicate information to the person interpreting or decoding the sign.

There are essentially two theories that explain the way signs acquire the means to transmit information; the Dyadic and Triadic models. Both theories agree that the property of a sign is the relationship between a number of elements.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist theory, the dyadic model (self-contained model of the sign) explains the sign as consisting of two parts:

  • the signifier (significant – the form that the sign takes – being a sound or image) and;
  • the signified (signifié) as the meaning that is conveyed or concept it represents.

The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified.

Using a linguistic example of the word open – if we encounter the word open hanging on a shop door, the invested meaning becomes a sign consisting of:

  • signifier: the word open;
  • signified concept: that the shop is open for business.
Image by David Bleeker

Image by David Bleeker

Saussure saw this relation as being arbitrary and created by social convention. This theory is mostly used in the study of linguistic signs. Of interest to note is that a linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name; but between a concept and a sound pattern. The value of the sign is dependent on its relationship with other signs within the system – a sign has no ‘absolute’ value independent of this context.

The other major semiotic theory developed by Peirce, and elaborated by Umberto Eco and others, defines the sign as a triadic relation as “something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity”. The diagram below shows the definition of the sign as a triadic, using an example of the traffic light.

C.S. Peirce's  triadic definition of sign. Image by Rui Martins

C.S. Peirce’s triadic definition of sign. Image by Rui Martins

Peirce uses specific terminology, which I have changed in the diagram but the original is:

  • An Interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign. The term is also referred to as Concept, which is the same as signified. CONCEPT = Signified. However, it has a quality beyond that of the signified: it is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter – the mental concept.
  • The Representamen: the form the sign takes. It is also referred to as Vehicle, which is the same as the term signifier. VEHICLE = Signifier.
  • An Object: to which the sign refers. What the sign ‘stands for’ or represents – the things to which the sign refers. It can be anything from a concept, object, place, thing or person. Object = Referent.

Having briefly outlined the two theories, the second one (Triadic) is of particular relevance to visual thinking. Unlike the Dyadic model, which approaches the understanding of signs from a linguistics and phonology perspective, the Triadic model enables us to characterize the sign as the means to understanding where all thought is in signs according to Pierce. The result is a theory of the production of meaning, and it rejects the idea of a static relationship between a sign and that which it represents, its object. It is holistic in my opinion and incorporates the notion of complex adaptive systems.

The aspect of interest to me about this theory is that it is not limited to linguistics. In fact, the theory has been elaborated on by Goodman’s ‘Language of Art’ and Mitchell’s ‘pictorial turn’, where they draw largely on non-linguistic sign system, with emphasis on the point that creation of meaning is not solely dependent on language. Mitchell proposes that semiotics is “a host of new figures or theoretical pictures that must themselves be interpreted.”

Roland Barthes goes further and explicitly includes the visual image, linking back to Pierce’s icon-index-symbol. The point of departure is the acknowledgement of the fact that meaning is not created from a linear mode, but from a complex interaction of the sign itself; the code or the systems into which signs are organized; and the context/culture into which these codes and signs operate – the complex whole, where learning becomes the emergent property of the sign creation – the process of sign creation and the way it is absorbed into the cultural milieu.

I agree with Mitchell’s notion of ‘new visuals that need to be interpreted’. The process itself becomes the sense making process of learning and creation of new knowledge in the form of a visual image. Umberto Eco and Rosalind Krauss agree and propose that every cultural phenomenon (including the visual) can be internalized as a form of communication. To me, this means that meaning is emergent from the image and forms a discourse between the visual, context and observer – my interpretation and understanding the sign in visuality.

Model by Rui Martins - visual / context / observer

Model by Rui Martins – visual / context / observer


Now that we have an understanding of icons, let’s explore what is meant by the term symbol.

A symbol is a system of signs, which has multiple layers of meaning. In other words, a symbol means more than it literally appears to represent. Signs have a specific meaning, whereas symbols have layers of meanings, often composed of a system of signs. The emergent property is the meaning that settles around the symbol, which is agreed by the society through its usage and reference.

The more layers the symbol has, the denser the meaning is with its interwoven stories and references. The units are signs and these combine to form visuals expressed as pictures, emblems, paintings, dance form or rituals. Architecture and sculpture can be symbolic expressions of the culture and society.

Often symbols will have at least three associations:

  • Personal: We all have associations with things in our experience.
  • Cultural: Different symbols may have quite different meanings in different cultures. A lion can represent Christ in Christian culture; in Sumerian culture, the sun represents the god Marduk. In Chinese culture, dogs represent devotion and faithfulness; in Islamic culture, dogs represent impurity.
  • Universal: Jungian psychology, along with other theories, argues that some symbols have universal meaning, for example, Lions suggest deity in a variety of cultures.

A symbol should not be confused with metaphor.  Symbols are used more consistently and widely than metaphors. Symbols can be private or universal; these then become archetypes, like for example Jung’s archetypes; and they occur across cultural boundaries. The common element in symbols and metaphors is that the literal, conventional meaning is exceeded or negated by a non-literal meaning.

In the next post, I will look at the National Emblem of Bhutan and, in the following few posts, I will look at a few festivals and architecture in Bhutan from the symbolic and iconic point of view.  My objective being to reinforce and explore the power of visual sense making and its importance in our ability to solve problems, make decisions, surface complex interactions and capture fleeting knowledge and give it its rightful place of importance in our global civilization.

Author: Rui D S Martins

Creative Director and founder of MindVision Technologies

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