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When you write something, it’s usually a good idea to share or whats the point. When I entered grad school I wrote up a little book proposal for a book called “Design by Sign” focusing on the roll of semiotics in the design of Advertising. Below you will find a sample chapter on what I’ve termed the Aesthetic Construction Model, it’s a little heavy reading and somewhat experimental, but thats what grad school is about right. Enjoy.

Chapter 3 Semiotics in Practice: The Aesthetic Construction Model

Once you understand the importance of semiotics and the role signs play in communication, you have to know how to effectively use those tools. When designing, all aspects of your piece should work towards communicating your message. Viewers today are always searching for meaning in your piece. It’s the job of the designer to make sure that each element cohesively works toward communicating that meaning. Formalism or art simply for arts sake has no place in today’s design world. Elements that exist without meaning can only serve to distract or con- fuse the viewer. The Aesthetic Construction Model is a system or set of guidelines that will help ensure that each element of your work is semiotically informed and works to best communicate your message to its intended audience.

Define the Project
Many times we can become blinded by the content of our projects and miss the true goal we are trying to accomplish. Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “ When IBM discovered that it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in the business of processing information, then it began to navigate with clear vision.”1 It’s this clear vision that we must seek before beginning a project. First define what the project is and what your ultimate goals are. Don’t be afraid if this goal seems to ambitious, break it down into smaller steps that are more achievable and will help lead you to completion of the project.

Define Your Message
You can’t communicate with your audience until you have a message. By clearly defining what you want your audience to take away from your design you create the foundation from which to work. Start by writing, as you think about the goal you’re trying to accomplish it may be helpful to work through exercises like mind mapping. By writing out possible solutions and linking those to other ideas you can start to focus your message.

Define Your Target Audience
According to the U.S census bureau the world has over 6,670,000,000 people and rising. 2 Most likely you won’t need to communicate your message to everyone, and even if you do it may be too ambitious a goal to try and transcend all language and cultural barriers. For this reason it’s important to define who your target audience is or who you want to communicate with. Try to narrow your audience as specifically as possible. This will allow you to tailor your message accordingly and increase its effectivness.

Analyze Your Target Audience
Once you have narrowed your target audience it’s time to analyze that audience so you know how to best communicate with them. A vital part of understanding your audience is having a grasp of the dominant ideology of that group. An ideology is often used to describe a collection of ideas. 3 Ideologies are also specific to particular historical periods and cultures. 4 Understanding your audiences belief and value systems will help you tailor your message so it best connects with your audience. Knowledge of your audiences signification system is also vital to communication. The way a message is decoded will change from culture to culture. An example of this is white carnations. In western culture white carnations may be a symbol of purity or used as part of a wedding, but in Japanese culture they are a symbol of death. 5 As a designer you have to be aware of what signifieds your audience will connect with the signifiers you use. One way to get an idea of this is to analyze your audience’s semiosphere or cultural matrix. This is their vocabulary and culture. If your message isn’t written in a language your audience understands then it won’t communicate your message. This is true for more than just linguistic signifiers. If your target audience can’t decode the signs you use because they aren’t exposed to them on a regular basis they wont understand or may be con- fused with what your saying.

Deconstruct Your Message
Now that you’ve gone through all the trouble of focusing your message, it’s time to break it down. Deconstructing your message to it’s main points or ideas will give you direction for building your design.

Decide On A Concept
This is the stage where a lot of designers start their process, or lack of process. Coming up with an idea is easy; coming up with the right idea may take more work. How can you creatively convey your message so that it is clear, persuasive, and memorable? A popular way of communicating an idea is to make a connection with something your audience is already familiar with. One tool for doing this is intertextuality. Intertextuallity, often used in reference to literature refers to the relationships between differ- ent texts. In our case it refers to the meanings that signs carry because of their relationships to the way they were previously used. We won’t go into depth on concepting in this book, but I recommend further readings on the subject.

Build A Library Of Signifiers
There’s more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to tell your story. Once you’ve identified your main points you want to start compiling a library of possible ways to convey those points. By building a library of signifiers you create a large pool of options to choose from when designing. This process may also spark new ideas. If this hap- pens don’t be afraid to revisit your concept and make adjustments. I recommend building your library of signifiers by creating mood boards and word banks. A mood board is a board that you attach images to that are simply different ways of saying the same thing. Create a mood board for each main point. If you are trying to say that something is “hot” attach as many signifiers for “hot” as you can to the board, whether they’re as simple as a picture of fire or an attractive co-ed. Word banks will also help you write any text that may appear in your work. Using a thesaurus or brainstorming write down all the words or phrases that communicate the main point or idea you want to communicate. As you come up with new ideas revisit this stage and create new mood boards for each as- pect of your design.

Choose The Best Medium For Your Message
Your content and your audience will dictate what the best medium is for your message. When analyzing your target audiences semiosphere or cultural matrix notice what types of media they expose themselves to most often. What forms of media do they seem to be most effected by. This will help you in choosing a medium that connects best with your audience. The content will also factor into your selection. If sound is a large part of your concept or vital signifier in your message then a radio or television component may be needed. Each medium also carries its own message. 6 An example being that while a newspaper is often associated with factual information, television is connected with the theatrical. If you want your message to be viewed in a certain context then the selection of your medium can assist in this.

Construct your concept using the identified signs
Its finally time to construct your design. Build your design utilizing the signifiers you’ve collected, keep in mind the basic principles of design, historical references, and stylistic preferences of your target audi- ence in your aesthetic construction. By using signs that you’ve collected earlier, you can ensure that each aspect of your design is semiotically informed. When every aspect of your design works together to- wards communicating your message you’ve created a successful design. Remember that your signifiers shouldn’t be secondary to the aesthetic of your piece, but that your aesthetic is constructed from your sig- nifiers and carries as much meaning as anything else. The Aesthetic Construction Model is a cyclical process and any stage should be revisited as your message or concept evolves during this process.

Aesthetic Construction Model Checklist

— provides a framework for our knowledge of media theory and semiotics in making informed design decisions not only in our message, but general aesthetic

  • Define Project Think about what your really trying to accomplish.
  • Define MessageWhat do you want to communicate to your audience?
  • Define Target Audience Who do you want to communicate with?
  • Analyze Target Audience – Ideology
  • What is the dominant ideology of your target audience? – Semiosphere
  • What types of environments and media do your target audience intereact with daily? What is their signification system?
  • Deconstruct Message –Identify main points or concepts in message
  • Pick out the key points that you want your audience to go away with.
  • Define a Concept What is your angle?
  • How can you creativly convey your message so that it is clear, persuasive, and memorable?
  • Build a Library of Signifiers Collect words and images for each main point that represent the thought or idea that you want to convey.
  • Choose the Best Medium for Your Message Each medium carries its own connotations so be sure to choose one that both communicates your intended message and fits into your audiences semiosphere.
  • Realize or Construct Your Concept Using Identified Signs Build your design utilizing the signifiers you’ve collected, keep in mind the basic principles of design, historical references, and stylistic preferences of your target audience in your aesthetic construction.

1. Marshall McLuhan,.Understanding Media (Bos ton: MIT Press, 1994) 18.
2. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Clock; avail able from
www/popclock.html; Internet; accessed 24 May 2008. 3. Brenda Downs and Steve Miller, Media Studies
(London: Hodder & Stoughton,1998) 22. 4. Jonathan Bignell, Media Semiotics (Man-
chester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002), 32
5. Eco Umberto, “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See.” In The Communication Theory Reader, ed. Paul Cobley (New York: Routledge, 1996) 148.
6. McLuhn, 15-30


Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics. (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002).

Downs, Brenda and Steve Miller. Media Studies (London: Hodder & Stoughton,1998).

Eco, Umberto. “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See.” In The Communication

Theory Reader, ed. Paul Cobley, 148. (New York: Routledge, 1996)

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

U.S. Census Bureau, Population Clock;

clock.html; Internet; accessed 24 May 2008.

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