Communication Semiotics 01

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Communication Theory and SemioticsGraphics 1

Introduction information theory - Shannon and Weaver application to visual communication; process theory noise: redundancy, entropy limitations of process theory

conclusion - process theory and semiotics .

Warren Weaver American scientist and mathematician director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, 1932 - 1955 influential in the application of science; genetics, agriculture, medicine and molecular engineering and many other fields

early work on machine translation and mass communication - tower block analogy

co-author with Shannon of The Mathematical Theory of Communication, published 1949 .

Claude Elwood Shannon American mathematician and electronics engineer

1937, aged 21, his Masters thesis established mathematical basis of digital circuit design and hence the modern computer had varied interests created a mechanical mouse that could learn a maze invented a motorised pogo stick beat blackjack and roulette at casinos using game theory and computation applied his theories to the stock market and was very successful! .

Shannon and Weaver, 1949 during WW2 Shannon joined Bell Telephone Labs worked on fire-control systems (anti-missile targeting) and cryptography

met and worked with many great scientists; people involved with earliest satellites, signal theory, first digital computers, the inventors of the transistor became friends with Alan Turin, discussed cryptography with him

treated the problems he encountered as the need to distinguish signal from noise by considering the role of data in contrast to signal processing he founded the field of information theory hence laid the foundations of all modern communication .

Shannon and Weaver, 1949 The Mathematical Theory of Communication based largely on the work Shannon had published previously Weaver added a philosophical context to the work, showing its wider applications, and used his influence to popularise it

theory focuses on the best way for the sender to encode information before sending it realised that all communication, including human language, could be measured in the form of a rate of bits per second and that all channels of communication had their own maximum capacity, also measured in bits per second considered the role of noise in disrupting integrity of information limited channel capacity and noise lead to uncertainty developed the concept of information entropy as a measure of uncertainty in a message .

Shannon and Weaver, 1949

Hazard warning: Corrosive materials

Mandatory: Wear protective clothing

Prohibited: Do not touch

what limits the capacity of the channel? where might noise be introduced between sender and receiver?

process theory Shannon and Weavers contribution has been applied to many areas communications systems computer science linguistics cognitive science sociology media studies critical theory marketing and advertising

if graphic design is concerned with effective visual communication then information theory may help us analyse and discuss our work; process theory

process theory all communication can be considered as a process in which message follows path from sender to receiver






designer noise



communication problem levels Shannon and Weaver discuss three levels of communication problem: technical, semantic, effectiveness technical level how accurately can we communicate the message? which system to use to encode the message? can the receiver use that system?

semantic level which language to use? how accurately does our language convey the meaning we intend? how much can be lost whilst still preserving the meaning?

effectiveness level does the message have the effect we want to achieve? what can we do if it doesnt? .

communication problem levels - graphics addressing the technical level; scope; which information, how much, and its extent medium; eg newspaper adverts, direct mail, tv and radio demographics, identifying the audience, cultural norms

addressing the effectiveness level often considered as an ongoing aspect of the technical level: previous lessons learned demographic information market research, focus groups

relationship between technical level and effectiveness level can be described as feedback specification adjusted and fed back to designer Shannon and Weaver did not include this in their original work

communication problem levels - graphics

client company charity government organisation agency

designer media producer design studio individual

medium print broadcast delivered signage


customer traveller / visitor


noise: redundancy and entropy noise - anything added between sender and receiver obvious source of noise is reproduction; eg newspaper print; technical noise at effectiveness level comes from things like audience distractions, product placement, dimensions of signage, etc

redundancy - repeating all or part of the message newspaper headlines contain little redundancy; Child Killer Held redundancy can clarify the message; providing pictogram and text

entropy - measure of uncertainty contained in message an ambiguous message has a high entropy noise dilutes a message and hence increases entropy a long message does not necessarily contain a lot of information redundancy makes the message longer, but usually reduces ambiguity, so can reduce entropy .

the semantic level Shannon and Weavers model was based in mathematics and communication engineering; grounded in a field where the semantic level is largely predetermined choice of language depends on application, eg; a human language, an electronics communication protocol accuracy of language informs choice - you wouldnt chose a human language for a fire-control system or vice versa! robustness of the language (and hence how much information can be lost without losing the message) are engineering constraints;

so the process model tends to treat the message as something to be encoded, transmitted and received does not have much to say about the message itself

limitations of process models models like Shannon and Weavers treat communication as a linear process; a message needs to be passed from A to B encode the message in a suitable format anticipate problems such as noise and compatibility build in robustness with redundancy analyse the result with measures such as entropy

as a result the meaning of the message is determined before it leaves the sender process models consider minimum and maximum factors required to maintain integrity of the meaning such as; the minimum redundancy required the maximum information that can be carried by a channel etc .

process theory and semiotic theory as weve seen, semiotics considers the role of the reader when interpreting the text, eg; red can be associated with evil or with good luck depending on culture red can mean danger and stop, or can mean romance and passion depending on context, within the same culture

in semiotic approaches, the meaning of the message is fixed by the receiver, not by the sender! this takes into account noise introduced between sender and receiver also takes into account differences in culture also takes into account different associations in the same culture

when combined, process theory and semiotics provide a complete framework for analysing effective visual communication

Sources Noble, I. & Bestley, R., 2007. Visual Research: An Introduction to Research Methodologies in Graphic Design, AVA Publishing. Crow, D., 2003. Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics, AVA Publishing. Baldwin, J. & Roberts, L., 2006. Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice, AVA Publishing. Chandler, D., Semiotics for Beginners, - biography of Shannon with links to his papers