Early Theories of Message

  1. Earliest Studies
  2. Theories of Communication
  3. Theories of Semiology
  4. Theories of Perception
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The study of signs and messages had a good start already in antiquity although the name of the science, semiotics, is of later origin. Modern researchers use still many of the concepts of the earliest authors. It has to be admitted that the first authors did not much consider industrial products but instead architecture and pictorial arts; nevertheless many of their findings can easily be applied to modern products, as can be seen on the page Message of a Product.

Earliest Studies

In antiquity, an eminent researcher of the symbolism of art was Plotinus (204/5-270). His essay On Beauty (Peri tou kalou) follows the lines of Plato, and declares that every work of art must present an "idea". "An architect transforms an idea in his mind into a house on the outside of his mind."
A work of art is a sign which refers to the world of ideas. On the other hand, what is characteristic of ideas is simplicity, or, one could even say, "unity", which implies that uniformity is also typical of a good work of art.

The Middle Ages loved allegorical symbolism. This manifested itself for example in the fact that people wanted church buildings to symbolize Biblical objects: the roof of heaven, the heavenly Jerusalem or perhaps the temple of Salomon. Columns in a church symbolized the prophets or the Apostles. It was possible that proportions were found beautiful not so much because of their beauty but because of the numerical symbolism hidden in them, which was supposed to refer to the liturgic calendar.

The Renaissance further developed symbolism suitable for church buildings. Palladio (IV, II) thought that circular forms were suitable for a church, because they symbolize the unity, infinity and fairness of God. Others thought that the proportions and forms of the human body were suited to the church because, according to the Bible, a human being was created in an image of God. On the left, you can see a 15th century drawing by Francesco di Giorgio Martini following this line of thought.

Although instructions on the symbolism used in buildings had been published since the times of Vitruve, the basis of the instructions seem to have been rather arbitrary. The earliest real study on the logic of symbolism is a book called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke (1729-97) from 1757. It sets out to create a "theory of passions". In it, Burke gives numerous examples of architecture that generates either elevated or other kind of feelings.

Studies of symbolism began in the modern sense of the word only when people had learned to analyse the content of a work of art separately from the form. G.F.W. Hegel (1170-1831) made this distinction into a cornerstone of his aesthetics, and it laid down the road for later research in the field.
Hegel thought that especially the first, primitive phase in the development of arts, which had predominated in the ancient realms of Babylonia and Egypt was characterised by symbolism. Hegel considered architecture as the best exponent of symbolic art of that early era, not because of its sophisticated symbolism but because in that time there were no pictorial arts which would have been more suited to presenting symbolism. This early symbolism of architecture expresses still formless, general matters and only inadequately distinguished abstractions of nature mixed with religious thoughts.

In the field of architecture, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) got slightly closer to details. In his book Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (in the part "Zur Ästhetik der Architektur"), he stated that the most important message in architecture was the opposition between the load and the support (German: Stütze und Last). The tensions and the burdens in the parts of a building symbolize the manifestation of willpower in substance whose message the public receives by emphatically identifying themselves with parts of the building.
This thought was a forerunner of the emphatic theory of art which was later carried further by German aestheticians.

"Architecture turns matter into visions that breathe in front of us... Is there anything more lifeless than a vertical or a horizontal line? Don't we feel our imagination rise with the vertical line?" (From the lectures by Friedrich Vischer, 1807-1887, cited by Miloutine Borissavlievitch, 148.)

The emphatic theory of architecture was developed first by Theodor Lipps (1851-1941), especially in the book Raumästhetik, and by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-95), mainly in his thesis Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, 1886.

Empathy (German "Einfühlung", French "imagination sympathique") means understanding the mental life of others. In it, on the basis of the expressions and other outer signs, a person imagines himself in the place of somebody else and tries to feel as he feels.

According to the emphatic theory of art, a human being can feel that he understands not only other people but also works of art.

"We look at every object comparing it with our own body. In our minds, it becomes a being with head and feet, front and back; if it is slanting or if it looks as if it was falling, we immediately guess that it is feeling bad; in any configuration at all, we can feel the joys, struggles and troubles of being... Everywhere we expect to find a corporal figure resembling ourselves; we interpret everything in the outside world with the same means of expression that we feel in ourselves" (Wölfflin, 1908-56).

Examples of products with emphatical reverberations can be found in the book Om vackert och fult, by Brochmann (1953, p.59, here on the left).

Especially in architecture man tends to project the structures of his own body: the closed shape of the body and the contrast between inside and outside; the supremacy of front side; balance of left and right; the placement of openings; decoration of clothing; appending a hat and shoes, etc. Moreover, buildings can make us recall the dynamics of our motion: being cramped but protected in the womb; the dramatics of entering and exiting; the rhythms of our steps and heartbeats; climbing and descending; standing upright or hunched; carrying burdens.

Oswald Spengler's theory on symbolism in architecture (1918) occasioned considerable remark in its time. In Spengler's opinion, every culture has a picture of the world of its own, a so-called initial symbol. It is especially visible in the fields of mathematics and architecture. The world vision of Egyptian culture is symbolized by the road, that of Arabs by the cave, the symbol in antiquity was the piece, and that of our culture is infinity. Spengler mentioned a number of buildings aptly reflecting these initial symbols, ignoring, however, all the buildings that did not fit his theory.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) marked out a fruitful direction for research with his writings on subconsciousness and psychoanalysis. His pupil Carl C. Jung (1875-1961) emphasized the fact that the reserve of symbols was largely common to people from the same culture. Part of it may even be innate, or at least acquired during the first years of life before the development of active consciousness and in conditions which for most people are the same. Jung used the name "collective unconscious" for this symbolical heritage common to most people.

Basic symbols common to everyone were called archetypes by Jung. Such archetypes are for example myths about heroes, about birth through water and reincarnation. Jung thought that some figures have also acquired an archetype-like position. Such figure is for example a mandala (figure on the right) which has been used to help meditation in some religions. There are contrasting figures, a square and a circle, combined in a way which can be called mystical, and which probably arouses interest just because of that contradictory character.

Other usual archetypal symbols applicable especially in building:

Rudolf Arnheim (1977) has also looked into the subconscious symbolism of architectural forms. "The strongest symbols are derived from our most primitive perceptions, because they have to do with such basic experiences of a human being that serve as a basis for everything else" (209) Arnheim found that dynamic forms which refer to movement were the most expressive whereas dynamics and expression are almost hampered if buildings imitate the forms of other objects too obviously (for instance if a church were built into the shape of a fish).

Theories of communication

The emphatic way of perceiving is probably one of the original faculties of man, and at first it operated on a subconscious level. In the course of time some artists learned to create works which were consciously intended to arouse emphatical sensations. This development in the direction of explicit messages and knowledge was soon followed by researchers.

Theories of communication and language. Study of conscious symbolism in art benefited greatly from advances in the study of communication. The year 1909 was the turning point when the English version of a book on aesthetics by Benedetto Croce (1866 - 1952) was published. According to Croce (1909), art was a language, and aesthetics was the linguistics of art. What does art then express with its language? Croce thinks that art is, above all, intuitive impressions of expressions (Croce 21 and 234). Other researchers have later found many other things that art can express.
Studying art as a language became possible after the lectures by a well known researcher of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913) (Cours de linguistique énérale) had been published. Saussure tried to study the logic of verbal or written language as a special case of semiotics (or semiology), that is, in such a way that the results could be applied even to other than textual codes. Some central concepts in his theory are:

In the research of communication, language is usually divided into two components:

Communication as a process is often described by the theoretical model proposed by Claude Shannon (1948), figure on the right.

Shannon originally developed the model for the purposes of communication technology, but it is nowadays also used in the research of artistic communication. Shannon's model shows how a message is always "coded", that is, interpreted, at least twice. The artist first puts the message into the language of the work of art, and the public then interprets it into its own language. The message reaches the receiver only in so much as both the codes are congruent. Moreover, Shannon's model shows how "noise", i.e. disturbances usually modify the message and affect the receiver's interpretation of it.
Shannon's model was originally rather abstract and mathematical, and the central work to develop it better suitable for products was done by D.E. Broadbent in his book Perception and Communication (1958).

The available vocabulary is different in each field of art and therefore the possibilities to express hidden content are different. Perhaps easiest is the task in the art of poetry, and in fact the first known instances of premeditated layers of meaning can be found in a Sumerian fable from ca. 2000 BC:

A dog tried to snatch dates but the gardener drove him off.
"Bah! Sour dates" scorned the dog.

Quite probably, Sumerians already were able to translate this short but long-lived fable on several levels of meaning, e.g.

  1. What happened to the dog.
  2. What could happen to you.
  3. Try to content with whatever you got.

In the field of pictorial art, corresponding levels have been studied under the denomination of iconology. According to the theory of Panofsky (1939) usual levels of meaning in pictorial art are:

  1. what physical object the painting represents (e.g. a wounded dove on a minaret)
  2. which generalizable story or allegory it wants to tell (e.g. recurrent wars between Western and Islamic countries)
  3. what kind of vision of the world, or conviction, it is based on (e.g. peace and fraternity).

In poetry like in pictorial art, it is not too difficult to invent and use symbols which have an easily understandable relation to human life or to anything that the artist wishes to express. In other arts, the language of symbols is much more limited. Possible "languages" of industrial products are discussed on the page Message of a Product and of architecture on the page Building as a Message.

Theories of Semiology

Semiology, the science of signs, studies the process where a product brings to the spectator's mind an object of reference outside of the object itself. In this process the product acts as a sign to this second object.

There are several possible mechanisms which can attach symbolic significance to a work of art or to a product. Many of them were originally defined by C.S. Peirce (1932). Note that despite the common name 'sign' that Peirce assigned to them each of them is based on a different logic. According to Peirce, the most important origins of symbolic significance are the following three:

  1. Because of similar appearance with the thing being signified,
  2. Because of a physical or logical connection with it,
  3. Through social convention. Its origin can be immemorial (e.g. religious signs) or recent (e.g. international standards defining the sign of emergency exit) as well as a private company's publicity campaign (e.g. a trade mark).

Accordingly, signs are often classified in three types:

  1. iconic signs, where the perceived form of the sign resembles the object of reference. Typical iconic signs include:
  2. indices, which have real and dynamic connections with their objects. These are often physically connected, e.g. a machine may have a handle or a pointing arrow which serves as an index of possible operation of the machine. The archetype of an index is the pointing hand or finger, which today reappears in various forms of pointing and directional arrows.
  3. symbols are conventional signs which are used and learned in society. Often such conventions are age-old and the modern researcher can only guess their origin if it cannot be found in documents. In some cases there has originally been a practical and functional connection to the signified object, which connection has later vanished and the connection has stayed on as a symbolic one. Examples are money, entrance tickets, trademarks and brand names of products.
    Because each symbol is now used by a great number of people, they are relatively general in nature; i.e. a symbol does seldom point to any specific object but usually to a species of objects.

The above division gives a good starting point, if the objective is to study the semiotics of a given type of products. In Products as Representations (68 pp, 93 pp) Susann Vihma amplified the division by adding a sub-division consisting of a total of twenty "modes of sign functions". Her list is as follows (the explanations edited by P.R.):

Vihma's list can be used as a checklist when analysing typical design products; however such lists can never be universally valid. Already the physical size of a product modifies the available vocabulary in the language of signs: hand-held gadgets cannot duplicate the messages produced by e.g. the monumental artifacts of architecture (see Building As A Message).

In the research of signs and symbols these have mostly been examined in isolation from their original context and often in laboratory environment. This has helped to cut down disturbances, but the disadvantage is that the findings have not been very realistic. In real life the perceived meaning of a sign will be greatly affected by the context and the available clues for deciphering the message. For instance, the meaning of a beckoning hand depends on whether the person is a friend of yours or not, a small child, a policeman, etc.

Modification of meaning occurs also when the sign is presented together with text or another sign. Such premeditated associations are often used in advertisements: the product gets appreciated when presented in a favorable context, for example when it is being used by celebrated people. The favorable attitude tends to expand through association. There is also the opposite possibility of presenting a competing product in negative light. See Advertisement As Message.

Theories of Perception

A weakness of the symbolic message of art and, at the same time, its strength, is lack of precision. Symbols are usually more or less ambiguous, so their interpretation allows some dispersion. In art, this room for speculation is useful because it makes the application of the message to the varying needs of the public easier. Moreover, it adds a little mysterious excitement to the work of art and thus makes it more interesting to the public.

Gradual discovery of contentAnother reason which justifies ambiguity is that the content of a work of art often uncovers itself gradually, and we at first can take for ambiguity such information which later will be revealed as important content of the work. The very aesthetic pleasure that a good work of art brings to us seems to result from our effort to perceive and from the success when we find the initially hidden content. In the best masterpieces of art we even can uncover several successive layers of hidden content. The uncovering of each new layer adds to our pleasure and it increases thus the total aesthetic value of the work, as the diagram on the right indicates. This psychological explanation of the pleasure of aesthetic perception is further discussed under the title Beauty of Discovery.

The message of a work of art is dependent not only of the work itself but as much of the public. It is necessary to take the expectations of the public into account. This concerns not only objects of fine arts, but perhaps even more the industrially designed objects in homes and offices. These are rather institutionalized in every community, and the members of the community thus have strong expectations concerning them. Every deviation from the expectations conveys a strong message; one could almost claim that it is the deviation from expectations, the "surprise", that is able to convey the strongest messages.
In the Storybird jars on the right, for example, the message of the "expectation deviation" has been skilfully used. As we know, the public has strongly established expectations concerning jars:

The designer, Kati Tuominen, deviated from both these expectations, which makes the spectator ask immediately: "Why?" "What is the meaning of all this?" In other words, the public expects a message.
In this case, the marketing department provided the "missing" messages and devised an ingenious message for each advertisement which consists of a line of text seemingly uttered by one of the human-looking vases. (In the ad shown above the line says: "I wonder if they still have the same welcome drink?") We do not know if these lines are what the artist herself wanted to say; we could ask her, of course. In an interview, she once said: "I cannot create anything if I don't have anything to say." (Source: Form Function Finland 2/1995). Anyway the Storybird vases show that seemingly lifeless industrial products can be made to carry messages which concern intimately human psychology.

It is vitally important that the first impression from a work of art has the right relation to the expectations of the public. In this respect the artist is facing two different pitfalls. If the first impression of the work is quite near to what was expected, the work will be deemed trivial, but if it is very far from the expectations it becomes incomprehensible. In both events the work loses its interest and gets rejected at once. The artist can try to avoid this disaster by foreseeing the expectations of the public and adjusting his work accordingly, but the difficulty is that the public often is heterogeneous. The expectations of connoisseurs of art usually differ widely from those of laymen (see Beauty of Discovery), which means that it is almost impossible to please simultaneously both of these groups of public. In fact, on many fields of art there are today at least two genres of works: "popular art" and "avant-garde art" or art for the critics.

Some artists have tried to bypass the dualism of art by making the message in their works double coded so that certain messages are meant for the general public and others for art connoisseurs. This trick is well known in the field of music: the best composers have always known how to make their work multi-faceted in a way that allows many different interpretations. Similar attempts in architecture have led to the birth of the post-modern style which is discussed elsewhere.

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi