Signs and symbols, portents, meanings, divination. It could be the start of a mystical discourse, a discussion on cartomancy, perhaps…..

Semiotics is how we describe the world we live in visually, the interpretation of cultural and visual clues which resonate with our individual and collective consciousness.

In advertising, this subtlety is understood on a psychological level; the influences are everywhere, subliminal.

The billboards in every corner, the bus stop shelters, shop windows, even if and especially if we are not paying attention, the mind is absorbing and digesting visual imagery everywhere. The advertisers and designers of this media are using our insecurities and longings to create an anxiety or need; the advert does not say, for example, ‘go buy this  ***** drink, or X perfume, it will make you thinner, sexier, happier, this car will make you fearless, your family will be perfect, happier. We are smarter than that, or so we think!

But although the words are not there, the messages are still explicit, and we are always in search of that product, that thing which will make such dreams come true. We are buying happiness, not a new lipstick, or perfume, or whatever.

Bearing this in mind, and becoming actively aware of how these visual clues are powerful symbols and metaphors for our daily lives, as images makers there is a need to be mindful of the images we produce and the clarity, or not, if that is the intention, is understood first in the mind’s eye before the interpretation can be proffered.

There are image makers who do this in a very explicit way, such as Gregory Crewsdon and Tom Hunter. I find the these artists work with modern archetypical mythologies, Crewsons film-still type imagery create whole narratives, the scenes are carefully staged and there is enough clues in the images to direct the viewer’s imagination.


Crewson, G., The Shed (date unknown) Available from: 

Hunter tells stories through urban histories, often relating to his immediate surroundings creating an archival set of works which serve as a documented series or body of work.

There are others who work in a more subliminal way, offering a subtle meaning or a variety of meanings. Some are cultural-specific, whereas some work on universally understood principles on a humanistic level.

Other turn the imagery on themselves – the underlying principle being that the message is being broadcast in an effort to be understood – putting oneself forward as exhibit, allowing the outside world in instead of vice-versa.

One commonality with all successful image makers is they are successful message senders, whether the work is understood on a conscious level or not.

How often to we hear ‘I didn’t understand what that was all about, but I felt moved by it, somehow’ or words to that effect.

Musicians who write for film understand the effects of different key signatures on the psyche – why is some music ‘uplifting’ and other music evokes melancholy, longing, sadness. We understand this effect on ourselves without ever knowing how to write or read a single note of music.

So to apply these principles, then, is the goal of all artists. Even when dealing with image making as direct representation, we can argue, that although no meaning is intentional, the subject matter, place, position all have been chosen and produced form some level of resonance, so even these images must also be taken into account as provoking a response.

So to be able to produce this kind of work, as artists we must learn to observe, read and interpret the signs and symbols around us with thoughtfulness and intelligence.