Skip main navigation

Hurry, only 9 days left to get one year of Unlimited learning for £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Finding meanings

Explore Roland Barthes' approach to semiotic analysis - how signs and symbols create meaning and shape our perceptions of the world around us.
A young person walking along a log through trees
© RMIT Europe, EIT Community and New European Bauhaus

Semiotics is the investigation of how meaning is created and communicated. Its origins lie in the study of how visual and linguistic signs and symbols create meaning and how they shape our perceptions of the world around us.

Roland Barthes in his books Image Music Text and Camera Lucida, is commonly known for pioneering theories and skills used for semiotic analysis. A semiotic analysis of an image looks for three elements: signs, symbols and signifiers.

Signs

A sign according to semiotics, refers to something which conveys meaning, for example, a written or spoken word, a symbol or a myth. An example of a sign is a cross to symbolise or refer to a certain religion.

According to Barthes, signs can be both a signifier, being the physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses; and the signified or the meaning that is interpreted. For example, an image of a train might be a sign which signifies mobility and trade; and can be signified as a greener form of travel than aeroplanes. Thus there is room for interpretation in the analysis of semiotics.

An easy way to break down the analysis of semiotics can be done by:

  1. looking at the sign (which contains, icons, indexes and symbols)
  2. decipher or interpret what the signifier and the signified is.

This is shown through this image.

There are three categories of a sign:

  • icon – directly resembles the object – an image of a tree, the icon is of a tree
  • index – has an implied association with the object – the image of smoke around the tree represents a forest fire
  • symbol is not inherently connected to the object, but is a matter of societal interpretation – an image of a burning tree, or forest fire, could symbolise global warming or forest devastation.

Watch this video to explore further ways of analysing using semiotics.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Practicing semiotics

Next we’ll look for intersectional symbols and signs of belonging through using a semiotic analysis using Superkilen Park in Copenhagen explored in week two and then the Barcelona Superblocks. This will support how we can integrate belonging with an intersectional approach into planning, design, and everyday life.

© RMIT Europe, EIT Community and New European Bauhaus
This article is from the free online

Building Belonging in a Globalised and Mobile World

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now