Lesson 4: Visuals and Semiotics

I don't know who discovered water but it certainly wasn't a fish – Marshall McLuhan

The Power of Visuals

As you have noticed in the previous lesson, images can influence the way we feel and think about certain topics and events.  

One way of analyzing images is by using Molly Bang’s visual principles. Another and more common way of analyzing images is by using semiotic analysis. Molly Bang’s visual principles relate primarily to shapes, colors and placement of objects within a frame and how that affects our feelings towards these objects. Shapes, colors, and placement of objects cannot fully explain the meaning people attach to images and objects. Molly Bang’s principles do not take into account concepts such as stereotypes, myths, symbolism, and ideology we can find in images. While these shapes, colors, and placements are certainly a part of semiotics, semiotics goes further than that and is concerned with the meaning and ideological aspects of these objects. It takes into account that the meaning that people attach to these objects varies as it takes someone’s cultural and historical context into account. This means that different images can mean something different to people based on their background and context.


Semiotics is the study of signs. Rather than looking at “what is,” semiotics is the study of how meaning is created. In semiotics it is assumed that anything we see in an image, video, or other visual is merely a representation of a concept. It is not the real concept.

Responsive image

For example, when asked what you see in the image above, most people would say that it is a house. However, what you see is not a house. We cannot touch it, we cannot feel it, it is flat, rather than 3D, we cannot enter the house, and it consists of pixels rather than bricks or wood. It is a representation of a house. We cannot see certain parts of the house, such as the back of the house. This representation may not even resemble the actual house, as the house may or may not exist anymore. All visuals that we see are therefore constructions and representations of reality. In semiotics, the signifier (such as an image, logo, a word) is separated from the signified (the actual concept that the signifier refers to), even though they do usually have a relationship with each other. Dr. Thomas Streeter has developed an introduction to semiotics in which he explains these and other semiotic concepts very well.

Assignment 4.1: Introduction to Semiotics


Please read Dr. Streeter’s introduction to Semiotics and learn about the basic concepts of semiotics. You can find his introduction by following this link. As you may not have heard about semiotics before and may be unfamiliar with the main concepts of semiotics, please write down the following words on a sheet of paper or in a Word file:

  • Semiotics
  • Signifier
  • Signified
  • Sign
  • Codes
  • Denotation
  • Connotation
  • Paradigm
  • Myth
  • Ideology

As you read through his online tutorial, write down your own definition of each concept and an example for each of the concepts. After you finished reading Dr. Streeter’s introduction, please also read the first chapter (Chapter 1: Signs and Myths) of Jonathan Bignel’s book entitled Media Semiotics: An Introduction. This author explains the same concepts in a more elaborate way. While you read this chapter, please revise or improve any of your definitions and examples of the above concepts. You will need to know the meaning of these concepts for the next assignments.

Submit Your Assignment

You will submit this assignment together with assignment 4.2 at the end of this lesson. Prepare both assignments for this lesson (4.1 and 4.2) into a single Word file. Make sure the file is named “Assignment 4”. At the top of this document you should have the lesson name, and underneath that should be your name, email address, and the date. Below, write “Assignment 4.1” and type out your definitions. Do not submit this assignment until you have also completed assignment 4.2. 

Grading Criteria

  • Definitions are written in your own words (5)
  • The definitions demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter (10)

Points: 15