Episteme
SEMIOTICS OF DESIGN

By: K. G. SREENIVAS             Dated: September 01, 2014

“There is aesthetic design, there is design that structures and harmonises, and then there is strategic design that shapes behaviour. Decoding the consumer culturally and encoding the design with culture based insights is what makes for truly successful design,” says Alpana Parida, President, DY Works, in a conversation with Creative Brands.

You say the “strongest brands are rooted in culture”. What to your mind are those intersections between brand and culture?

Culture determines our acceptance of newer concepts. Yoghurt sought to enter the Indian market since the mid-'80s; when Milkfood launched it in India. It was served by Indian Airlines in their breakfast service. However, it never took off in numbers. It was not until packaged yoghurt became to be called Dahi — that the market took off. Our behaviours are encoded largely due to culture and if brands bring in cultural insights, they can penetrate the market and bring about shift in behaviours rapidly.

While designing the logo for IMCG, you sought to distil its brand essence through what you called a “dichotomous proposition” (‘A Certain Future’). To extrapolate, what are the inherent contradictions or shall we say essential dichotomies in a brand or an idea you often encounter or experience while seeking to distil brand essence?

Reconciling opposites takes us to newer places. Expected outcomes are not memorable. You can reconcile opposites such as beauty and ugliness — by finding a space such as inner beauty, or ‘real people’ — as Dove has. When dichotomous propositions reconcile — they create uniquely memorable proposition, going beyond the obvious.

We haven't really created our own idiom. We see the Hinglish idiom in communication more and more. As well as in other art forms — notably cinema and art. But in design, it is curiously missing. There is a very western world view of design…

In applying the semiotic methodology to understand the consumer better, Alpana, you say you use the anthropological lens to data to “define residual, dominant, and emerging discourses”. Could we say that design as an idea can create or influence or direct discourses?

Design can make an emerging discourse mainstream. In the earlier yoghurt example, fruit yoghurts have not found their positioning yet. Culture tells us that dahi is not eaten during breakfast (except Aloo Paratha and dahi — there is no tradition of dahi for breakfast) nor with dinner (you might catch a cold!). However, dahi-cheeni is the default dessert at lunch-time. Design signified that the small fruit yoghurt/sweetened yoghurt market could explode from an emerging to a dominant discourse.

We haven't really created our own idiom. We see the Hinglish idiom in communication more and more. As well as in other art forms — notably cinema and art. But in design, it is curiously missing. There is a very western world view of design…

semiotics-of-design

Do you think, to again extrapolate the “Semiotics Square” you apply to brands to understand its values or value systems, could we subvert the principle of “utopian valorisation” to create a “dystopian valorisation” of what design could be?

The semiotic square is a logician's tool and is best used to determine oppositions and contradictions for a brand. When encoding design semiotically, it enables accuracy and takes the guesswork out of design.

Is aesthetics a function of culture?

Oh, absolutely. Our understanding of colour, form, language, fonts is entirely rooted in culture. When I see a lot of international firms branding Indian corporate conglomerates in lower case — it is outside of the Indian belief system. We seek authority and respect gurus — we are not in the space where we distrust giant conglomerates. The lower case branding does not work for Indian conglomerates just as yet.

Are we as a nation on that cusp of transition where we see flashes of brilliance in public design amidst a considerable amount of design decidedly devoid of either aesthetics or aspiration, especially in our public spaces and institutions? What ails conception and execution of design in India?

We haven't really created our own idiom. We see the Hinglish idiom in communication more and more. As well as in other art forms — notably cinema and art. But in design, it is curiously missing. There is a very western world view of design and sadly a lot of design awards etc — including Kyoorius — have that lens as well when recognizing design.

Finally, to go back to the basics, what to your mind are the fundamental underpinnings of design?

There is aesthetic design, there is design that structures and harmonises, and then there is strategic design that shapes behaviour. Decoding the consumer culturally and encoding the design with culture based insights is what makes for truly successful design.

CB

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