Signs and Symbols

Other than for the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, for the purpose of a grounding in these concepts its not particularly necessary to familiarise yourself with the work of any of the Post Structuralist writers ( Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze) etc. For those interested in becoming conversant with these ideas in detail, David Chandlers Semiotics for Beginners would be a good place to start.

The following web document gives a brief overview of what these terms refer to and this post will elaborate on those terminologies in more detail. All mentions of signs in this text refer to ‘digital signs’

Signs & Symbols


In brief; understanding ‘Signs’ in art works like this.

Everything in an image, painting, drawing, print, photograph etc that can be considered representational is regarded as a sign. A ‘sign’ is usually anything in an image that stands in place of an object or thing. Hence figures, objects, structures etc can be ‘signs’. Any shape that can be assigned a meaning is generally accepted to be a ‘sign’.

For example, the shape above is immediately recognisable. The shape consists of straight and curved lines with a number of circles. We understand what it is because it’s in our memory. Shape / signifier + assigned meaning (which could come from a number of sources) / signified = bike / sign

Meaning does not have to be elaborate, it can be as simple as ‘this is a river’ ‘this is a haystack’ ‘this is a fence’ In the case of paintings / photographs such as ‘portraits / self portraits’ the ‘sign’ = figure” may carry more content in terms of meaning / reading. i.e., this is a portrait of Elvis in ‘X’role; this is a self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. The ‘sign in this case being a combination of the figure,+ the assigned content. Included in the sign system of the image would be anything else that stands in place of a thing, either real or imaginary, in the scene. In the triadic diagram below the signifier is the visual representation of anything recognisable in an image. The ‘signified’ is whatever is assigned to the signifier. The ‘sign’ is then the combination of the two. A sign can be read from the signifier ‘up’ or deconstructed from the ‘sign’ back to the signifier.


In an image a ‘symbol’ is any sign that carries an agreed meaning. Things can function as symbols. However colours and non specific groupings of lines etc cannot. Colours can be symbolic but cannot be symbols by virtue of the fact that a symbol has to be a sign first. This is straightforward structuralist semiotics.


Codes are systems used to decipher / decode any sign system. In the Visual Arts, sign systems include paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, installations etc. The codes used to decipher these vary considerably and can in some instances be multi layered depending on who is ‘unpacking’ the sign system.

For example most viewers will decode images according to their aesthetic sensibility. Artists will decode using their knowledge of a range of principles and contexts. Students will understand this as the ‘Structural Frame’. Historians and Critics will apply ‘codes’ that are relevant to their area of practice and study. Art dealers and buyers will apply different codes that are likewise relevant to their respective professions along with personal codes or art-world codes where relevant.

Instances where viewers cannot unpack a sign system often result in negative responses in relation to a work.

Traditions and Conventions