Assignment 2: What Images Mean

Polysemy is the idea that things (words, phrases, images, signs) have many meanings. In The Rhetoric of the Image, Roland Barthes details three different types of meanings that can be garnered from images. The first type of message you can get from an image is the linguistic message – the caption or slogan in an advertisement, and the labels of the product advertised. The second type of message is the symbolic one (or the coded iconic image) – a tin of soup, for example, will invariably have lovely bright pictures of whole vegetables on the label, symbolising how ‘fresh’ and healthy it is. The third type of message is the non-symbolic one (or the non-coded iconic image) – the obvious message: you’re selling a tin of soup.

“All images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others.”

Here Barthes is saying that as soon as you see one meaning in an image, you ‘unlock’ many others – an image of a crying person might signify sadness, loss, physical pain, happiness. If you choose one (happiness) you close off the other possibilities but unlock new ones – happiness due to good news, finding something that was lost, ‘happy tears’ at a wedding, etc. Different people often see different meanings, due to differing backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures; adding text to the image fixes the meaning, anchoring the image within the context you choose for it.

The workshop we participated in last week introduced us to this concept, and this week we have performed a little experiment in order to help us understand this whole polysemy thing better. The experiment entailed us picking three random images (or rather, the randomiser at sxc.hu picking for us) and asking members of the public what information they got from the image, what (if anything) the images made them feel, and if they could think of a story that linked the images together. Our results were quite varied – all together we asked 9 people, and heard a number of different stories.

We chose one of the stories we’d gathered to work with further: the three images are part of an ad campaign to promote ecotourism and volunteering. Our next task was to add a fourth image to the set, to see if that would help people see our chosen story more clearly. We found this somewhat effective – the image of people digging, along with that of the women washing clothes in a stream, definitely gave people more of an idea of travelling, working hard, and helping or being charitable. However, there was still some variation in the stories we heard.

We then went back to our original three images, but added the word ‘volunteer’ into the mix. This very quickly led people to understand our story, and most of our participants got it straight away. One female participant said, “Well, this image says ‘volunteer’, so obviously she’s volunteering.” Which, I suppose, is exactly what you want to happen. You wouldn’t be very happy if you were trying to get people to volunteer in Peru but actually your advert inspired everyone to go and book a nice holiday in the south of France. From this result we can definitely see that text fixes a meaning to the images.

I find it really interesting how these randomly chosen images now have a sequence and a story behind them. Now all I can see when I look at them is this imaginary advert!

So what does all this tell us? As a designer, I think it all boils down to the context into which you place your designs. In textiles you have to take into consideration fabric choice, colour, print, stitch structure, construction, and most of all where your design will be seen. Fashion or interiors? If fashion, will your models be in a bright white studio (which might signify “artiness”, high fashion, unaffordable), or a more gritty “street” scene (which might signify wearable, real-life, accessible)? If interiors, what sort of lifestyle do you want to depict? Where do you want your designs to fit in?

Doing this experiment and thinking about Barthes’s explanation in terms more closely related to what I do day-to-day (we’re always being told to think of our designs “in context”) has definitely helped me to understand the concept of polysemy, and the experiment itself certainly made Barthes’s points clearer in my mind, as The Rhetoric of the Image isn’t the easiest read.

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About Hannah

I'm Hannah, a twenty-something-year-old textile design student from Scotland. I'm learning a lot, and I want to learn more.

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