Some time ago I talked about media and gave you a short definition. This time I’ll take a look at signs.

First of all, there are three different types of signs:

  • Icons (depicting and actually representing the object shown)
  • Indexes (signs which are connected to what they represent through some kind of  a sensory feature like smelling, tasting, feeling, hearing, directly seeing EXAMPLE smiling facial expression is an index for happiness to us humans and sourness in milk products is an index for them being bad)
  • Symbols (having a deeper meaning and representing more than what is simply shown)

Here’s an example: Save Icon I bet you’ve seen this “icon” before now!  It’s one of the most famous save icons. Well let’s actually assume it is an icon. Every time you click on this icon you should get a floppy-disk since icons depict AND represent what is depicted! But since you do not get a real floppy-disk every time you click this image it’s obviously not a real icon (yes, this means the guys who started calling it this way didn’t do their homework). Naturally it’s not an index either since you do not have any direct contact to a floppy-disk in whatever way. So the only type of sign left is a symbol and this is exactly what most “icons” on our computers are: symbols. The floppy-disk represents the “action to save a file”.

I hope this example somehow helped you understand the distinction between the three kinds of signs 🙂

But let’s continue! What’s the difference between a sign and a medium you ask? Well as we already know a medium tells you about more than what it actually is. A sign on the other hand describes something it’s not itself. An example would be the color red in a traffic sign which certainly doesn’t just mean “red” but “ATTENTION! “ Or when your facials muscles pull together and form a smile. This doesn’t simply mean “flexed facial muscles” but more something like “I’m content and happy”.

But how do signs get their meaning? It’s very simple: As soon as you are taught a meaning to a sign it gets one! Let’s say you’re an analphabet then all the letters here would be just meaningless signs to you. Hence signs depend on your experience to get recognized! That’s the reason why the same symbol has different meanings for different cultures (or has none for some). A sign is useless without the necessary knowledge to be interpreted with!

Especially as a designer and artist you have to be really careful and thoroughly consider what reaction a sign (-combination) is going to evoke in the subject it’s directed to!