Is semiotics the answer to subjective decision making in brand design?

By Nick Dormon

In design decision making, there will always be the need to embrace subjectivity. Through a close partnership, belief will replace the need for proof. 

Marketers spend much of their time making decisions with empirical, tangible data – charts, columns and  figures on growth, costs and market penetration. Then along we come with our artistic endeavours and ask them to choose which design they like best. Senior management and the visually literate tend to go with their instinct, but the people with stakeholders to please need something to justify their decision and the pragmatists need data to decide. Consumer research is the first port of call for most marketers with both quant and then qual available to help them decide and justify decisions. But we know that this approach can mute more exciting and provocative designs as averages and medians win through and take time and money.

But now semioticians are providing marketers with a new emphatic way to decide on the best design approach. Coming from a long and distinguished academic background their recommendations carry weight. Ground-breaking designs now have a chance to win through with compelling rationales built around their symbology, with the added benefit of faster and cheaper turnaround. So everyone’s happy? – no, not quite.

As brand designers we already live and breathe semiotics. After all, everything we create is thick with meaning – the words we write, the colours we choose, the shapes we form. Our skill is in selecting each element and weaving them together to create a cohesive brand story. We rationalise the use of each element drawing on our training, experience and intuitive ‘feel’ for design. Ultimately though, in combination the collective message is essentially subjective. That combination has not been seen before – it is a one off – if it wasn't we wouldn’t be doing our job properly  - creating unique and ownable designs.

We are comfortable with this subjectivity, but our clients need more and semiotitions are there with a helping hand and a strong opinion.  From what I have experienced, there is usually a compelling, if debatable, explanation of the various parts of a design and their cultural and historical significance. They do a much better job of this justification than designers usually do, perhaps due to our reluctance to elaborate, with too many of us rather liking the idea of branding being a dark art. I have not however seen a believable justification for the totality of those elements.  They fundamentally cannot justify a whole design any more than a designer, or a marketer, or a consumer group can.

As each design is unique there is no historical prescience for it. Yes, there may be a significant symbol within a design, but its presentation and context can radically alter its perception. A pure red can be aggressive where as a fraction warmer and it becomes passionate. A cross in the foreground bars entry, pushed slightly further back and it becomes a target. Very subtle changes can change the meaning to be the absolute opposite.  So when you have a design that contains a complex mix of words, typefaces, colours, textures, symbols, forms, finishes and even actions and behaviours, all interacting, the variables become infinite and it is quite simply impossible to be so definitive.  So, sorry marketers, you still need to embrace subjectivity. By all means bring semiotics into the mix – it is a fascinating and informative subject and its application to design thinking is very useful but it won’t make your decisions for you.

It is worth noting that your designers are already practitioners in semiotics and have a great deal to offer on the subject. We are far more comfortable with the subjectivity of our work because we spend more time living with it. Our confidence grows as we evolve and develop our ideas. The clients who come along with us on this journey find the same - they start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. They get a chance to explore and experiment with the meanings in design and we are happy to facilitate that. Their understanding and passion builds as we share, discuss and debate the paths and opportunities available. Through a close partnership belief starts to replace the need for proof.

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