Making meaning

Have you ever thought about our desire to make meanings, signs and connections with each other?

We do this every day but never really think about it. We take signs from words, images, sounds, smells, flavours and objects that have no intrinsic meaning and only become signs when we invest them with ‘meaning’.

Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign and yet anything CAN be a sign provided someone interprets it as signifying something.*

We make meanings largely unconsciously by connecting them with a familiar set of
pre-programmed mental conventions. It is these conventions and systems that should
be managed and designed.

A sign can be expressed in a variety of ways and should be supported with design research to prove that the ‘sign’ has been interpreted correctly, and include all audiences.

An example of a ‘signal’ failure was the BA tailfin livery in 1997. My opinion is it was actually a good idea and instilled cultural meaning, unfortunately the execution was misunderstood. So when Margaret Thatcher covered a model of the design with her handkerchief, that was it, lots of money for the wrong meaning. No one could justify or articulate the intended meaning and overlooked native signs in favour of more cultural signifyers. Virgin Atlantic then took advantage of the controversy by applying a Union flag scheme to the front end of its aircraft!

When creating a sign, (brand, mark or a collective set of visual metaphors that symbolise a business) perspectives are very important.

During a recent design research project with an SME engineering company, their perspective of their organisation was inside looking out (focus on technical ‘feeds and speeds’), and not as their customers looking in (benefits and uses). Both of these perspectives are valid, but they must be considered together if staff were to be taken along the same journey as their customers.

Internal brand alignment is just as crucial as external brand expression, otherwise ‘brand gap’ occurs (when a company says one thing and customers experience another).

For business, making the right meaning is always a challenge. But, with skilled help and careful planning, you should be able to signify intended meaning through strategic design and brand management, and make those important connections with future customers.

Go on…go and make real meaning!

Andy.

* Extracts taken from Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics, Published by Routledge © 2002

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