Hear me talk about branding at Lemesos semiotics conference

I’m headed to Cyprus next week to talk at the 3rd International Conference on Semiotics and Visual Communication (ICSVC). It’s being held at Lemesos by the Cyprus University of Technology.


I will be talking about brand personalities and their relationship to the design process in newspapers. I got a slightly ambitious plan to include some points about how these can be seen through Husserlian phenomenology or Schön’s theory of metaphor use in creative work. So I have to make the presentation quite carefully and practice a lot to manage it all.

Just a bit ambitious? Crazy? Probably. But I thought this way it would fit to the topics of the conference which revolve around branding and semiotics. Besides, I seriously dislike conference presentations where the content is very thin.

Last time I was in Cyprus in 2010 for the 4th International Conference on Typography and Visual Communication. Back then I was speaking about news graphics and journalism, as it had been the focus of my MA dissertation. Based on that experience I can tell you that Cyprus is a nice place and the people are great.

The are also lots of other very interesting sounding presentations on the schedule. So if you have the time to spare, I recommend warmly coming along.


Twitter favourite button and meaning of symbols

Twitter changed their favourite button from a star to a heart. According to them, their test groups loved it. Perhaps it makes more sense to new users. Perhaps it reflects our contemporary culture where Facebook sets the standards with their ubiquitous like-button. Maybe, in the long rung, the change might be a good thing from an UI/UX perspective. But several people have expressed that they feel uncomfortable with the change. They note that favouriting something is not the same as loving. While others might not see what the fuss is about. After all, stars are also often used to express love and admiration.

What I find interesting is how, with this seemingly simple change, Twitter has hijacked and distorted the past actions of their millions of users. Because a rose is not a rose by any other symbol.

I think the main problem here is not just that the symbols – or signs to be specific – would have different meanings, but that they differ in the range of their meanings. A heart is more monosemic while a star is more polysemic. Monosemic sign has a unique meaning that everyone agrees on. Like our everyday Indo-Arabic numerals: we do not need to have a debate about what 3 means. In contrast, a polysemic sign has multiple meanings, leaving its interpretation somewhat ambiguous and subjective. We could also talk about pansemic signs, like abstract art, which do not have any precise meanings but are completely subjective. (Read more about this, for example, in Jaques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics.)

Some treat these three as distinct categories, but I think it’s better to see these as points, or areas, with fuzzy boundaries on a continuum. Even the basic numerals can mean different things depending on the context. Mostly they are clear and unambiguous, but there are occasions where they take on numerological, mystical, or metaphorical meanings. For example, think about trinities in many religions, a 1% badge, or 88 which can be used to express good luck, love and kisses, or xenophobia and hate.

So I wouldn’t say that a heart is fully monosemic. It can have some different meanings. But among these meanings, at least in today’s Western culture, the link with love is quite dominating.

In comparison, the star does not seem to have such a strong link to any single meaning. Instead, it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can be used to express love and admiration, but it can also be to simply mark something as important.

This latter meaning has been reinforced in recent decades by software and web interfaces. The star has been a symbol of bookmarking in Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers. Also in Gmail you can mark messages with stars to signal that they are ‘important or to indicate that you need to reply to them later’.1

This is far from loving things. There might be content that you would never ever endorse, but might want to bookmark. Actually, you might sometimes bookmark content because you vehemently oppose it. For example, you want to show the unbelievable stupidity to other people, or you want to store it for criticising it later.

No wonder some people are rattled. Suddenly Twitter claims that they love things that they merely bookmarked in the past. Of course, to those who always saw the star button as comparable to ‘like’ on Facebook, the symbol change does not make a big difference.

I myself belong to the first group. The change made me feel horrible. I wasn’t even sure what was in my old favourites, but I just didn’t want to take a chance that there was something I object to.

And by hijacking my past actions, Twitter suddenly turned into one of the bad guis. I felt similar disgust towards them than I do towards politicians who promise something before the elections and then do the opposite when they are in power. While Twitter’s actions are hardly as significant to what happens in politics, there are similarities. Both cases are about distorting past opinions of their supporters/users.

The solution? Delete all past favourites. You can do this individually by clicking them, or you can use something like unfavinator to delete them in bulk. Googling will also offer you other alternatives.

  1. Of course, this is not an universal UI convention. For example, the Character viewer in OS X is the opposite, using the heart symbol for Favourites. []

Lévi-Straussian sleeplessness

It’s 3 am and I can’t sleep. I’ve had a stressful week and now I’ve spent almost the whole evening preparing for tomorrow’s lecture. And now I’m having a sleepless night. My mind is buzzing with all the stuff I’ve been reading.

I’m doing a lecture series on Design / Communication theory for designers. The course is one of my favourites. It’s my own concoction combining all kinds of theories which might benefit designers in their theoretical thinking. Communication theory, semiotics, media culture, memetics, etc. I run it once a year, and every time I try to improve it. So while I already have good slides and materials, I’m always rewriting the course and adding content etc. I know, being a perfectionist sucks.

This time I’m including more details from structuralist theories, for example from Claude Lévi-Strauss. I might not personally agree with his theories, but he is such an influential name in culture studies & semiotics that a course like this cannot ignore him. And while I might find his stuff somewhat outdated, it might be just the thing for some student. And structuralism is one of those things that design students should know about, even if they cannot really use the theories anymore. At least they won’t be surprised if someone conjures up these famous names at a cocktail party or elsewhere.

I’ve been thinking all evening how ridiculous Lévi-Strauss’ idea is about how everything could be divided into binary opposition. Apparently, he based the idea on research of the brain’s neural functions of his time. I feel that one of his biggest mistakes was not to check on how the later findings completely changed the way we see the brain. Unlike he thought, the brain is not a computer. It does not operate in binary opposition.

Even if you just think about it with common sense, it feels very very unlikely that your thinking and culture would be always constrained into binary pairs. Yes, our world is often divided into binary oppositions: us/them, good/bad. But it doesn’t take a genius to realise how much more there is to our culture. And the concept of “anomalous” categories is not enough to explain it. Quite the opposite. There are so many occasions where one wonders how easy it is for us humans to see, feel and adjust to gradual shifts. It feels impossible to fit our culture into black-and-white settings where all the gray areas would be “anomalous”, taboo or special in some other way.

Anyway, I wasn’t planning on ranting about his theories right now. I intended to do that only later. But what I’ve been chuckling about now for the last hour is that in this sleepless state Lévi-Strauss’ binary opposition makes quite a lot of sense.

So according to the theory the world can be divided into a binary pair of sleep / being awake. And what makes sleeplessness so troublesome is not that you feel miserable, both physically and mentally. And not that realise how tired you will be tomorrow, which makes you even more stressed. And not that you can already see how this one bad night will ruin several days of your week when you try to recover from it. But the real cause is that you are now being in the “anomalous” category. Somewhere in-between. 😀

So how do you solve the situation? You need a ritual to cross the boundary between the binary pairs. Some well known rituals are marriage, graduations etc. My ritual right now is listening to soft relaxing music. Here’s my playlist called “binary sleeplessness”:

  • Is That What Everybody Wants, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • First Sleep, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Can I Sit Next to You, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Will She Come Back, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Death Shall Have No Dominion, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Maybe You’re My Puppet, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Don’t Blow It, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Wear Your Seat Belt, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • We Don’t Have to Think Like That Anymore, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Noah Visits, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • What Are You Asking Me?, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • Will You Help Me?, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • I Cannot See His Color, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • Rituals, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • The Gravel Road, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • Race To Resting Rock, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • The Vote, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • The Coral Atoll, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • The Lagoon, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Journey To The Line, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Light, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Beam, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Stone In My Heart, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • The Village, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Silence, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Spiegel Im Spiegel, Arvo Pärt, Fratres – Tabula Rasa – Spiegel im Spiegel – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
  • Tabula Rasa: Ludus, Arvo Pärt, Fratres – Tabula Rasa – Spiegel im Spiegel – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
  • Tabula Rasa: Silentium, Arvo Pärt, Fratres – Tabula Rasa – Spiegel im Spiegel – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

And sometimes cultures create mediators to move between harsh oppositions. Such as werewolves (man – animal), vampires and ghosts (living – dead), Jesus (man – god). So I’m using red wine as a mediator to take me to the other side. 😛