This is a group assignment – choose your own group which should consist of three or four people, ideally from different disciplines. We recommend you work with partners from assignment 1.
In this assignment, you will test a theory by conducting an experiment. To do this you’ll need to collect some images and interact with members of the public (see the note below).The theory you’re testing is one that has been mentioned in a lecture in semester 1, and is a key aspect of semiotics – the idea that images mean more than one thing (polysemy), but that text fixes meaning.
Two variations of the assignment are explained below.The important thing to note here is you are not doing the experiment for the assignment, but to understand the concept of polysemy. You can change the experiments if you want to (and two options are suggested at the end of this brief), but need to have a reason for doing so.
Carrying out the experiments may take some time, so plan ahead. Do not leave this till the last minute as you need to leave plenty of time for discussion and, possibly, repeating the experiments.
Remember to document your progress – keep notes, recordings and so on and use your blogs to "think out loud" as you go.
You must not use art and design students as subjects. There is a very good reason for this – feel free to speculate on your blogs…
Don’t introduce yourself by saying "can you help me with a class project", or tell people what you are studying, or why you are doing the experiment. You need to make sure you don’t give them any clues to what you are trying to do, or set them a challenge to "outwit" you. Simply start off with "could you help me with a simple experiment, it won’t take more than a couple of minutes?"
You should also prepare some small flyers to give to those who’ve helped you saying something like "Thank you for participating in this experiment. which I carried out as part of my course at The University of Dundee. You can see the results at (blog address)"
Deadline: 21 February 12 noon
Activity 2A: Roland Barthes: The Rhetoric Of The Image
Read The Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes (an e-text version is available at http://tinyurl.com/barthes2010 – it starts on page 192 and if you access outside the university you will need to log in with your normal details).
The chapter is not exactly an easy read but it discusses an important concept about the relationship between images and text. However the idea is quite abstract, so by carrying out this experiment you should be able to understand it better.
In the essay, Barthes subjects an advertisement to a semiotic analysis. The image he is discussing is reproduced above.
This assignment offers an opportunity to try an experiment to test the concept of polysemy. In doing so it should help you understand it. The purpose of the assignment is not only to help you grasp a key theoretical concept in visual language, but to see how experimenting with images and objects can be used as a research method.
When you read the essay, make notes and try to translate it in to your own words (Barthes wrote in academic French and the English translation is rather stale). Identify key points and terms and summarise them. Remember: you will probably find it difficult to follow the text. That is fine – the experiment you carry out should help you understand it better.
When you have read the essay, get your group together and discuss the essay and what implications it has for your discipline. Hint: it has many! Even though Barthes is discussing advertising, the concepts translate into all areas of visual culture. In fact if you were to read the rest of the book from which this essay is taken (Image Music Text) you would see that Barthes applies it to steak and chips, wrestling and much more. It’s one of the most famous books in linguistics and visual culture, and this essay one of the best-known.
Read the essay before reading my discussion below.
The essay suggests there are three types of message in the advertisement he is analysing: the text (the linguistic message), the symbolic image which represents something – "Italian-ness, freshness- (the coded iconic message) and the non-symbolic image – a bag of pasta and some sauce – (the non-encoded iconic message). The last type of message is the "obvious" image; it’s selling pasta sauce. The middle message requires some cultural skill (Barthes points out that the name suggests "Italian" to a French audience, but it wouldn’t to an Italian audience – remember in lectures 1 and 2 about the use of language, appeals to certain audiences, and Bourdieu’s idea of "class" which doesn’t just mean social class but also nationality). The first type of message simply requires the ability to read the language it’s in (in this case, French).
So we have cultural knowledge which allows us to "decode" an image, lingustic knowledge which allows us to decode another level of meaning, and a sort of "common sense" knowledge which kicks in no matter how good we are at the other two.
To give an example not from advertising, imagine if I were wearing a scarf. You might think it was cold outside – that’s the non-encoded message. But someone in touch with trends might realise that the type of scarf I were wearing is rather fashionable, and so they "read" me as being trendy – that’s the encoded message. But a third person, who knows their designer labels, spots that the scarf is by a famous designer and so "reads" me as not only trendy but knowledgeable… That’s the linguistic message which in this case requires the ability to be able to read "designerese".
Here’s another example: in a stately home, your mother sits on a chair and remarks that it isn’t very comfortable. Your dad tells her to get off it, because it might be old. You notice it’s a William Morris original. Three layers of meaning: chair, old chair, special old chair.
But what of "polysemy"? What does that mean?
Put very simply, Barthes is suggesting that images have more than one meaning, and that the moment one meaning is understood, it unlocks lots of other meanings "all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others" (page 197).
A picture of a crying girl, for example, could represent sadness, loss, happiness, love, memories, physical pain, grief, despiar – the moment you "choose" one, some of those avenues get closed down while others are opened up. And when a meaning is chosen ("loss", for example) other avenues of meaning open up (is it loss of a pet? A family member? A favourite possession? Departure of a boyfriend?)
This is the "chain of signifiers", one meaning after another that if you were to map out would form a complex image (which you could try if you want!)
Barthes then suggests that while images are polysemous (they have more than one meaning), the moment you add text you "fix" the meaning. It’s no longer open to interpretation. You can test this very simply: take an image (like the crying girl) and write out several labels (grief, happiness, loss etc) then lay a label on the image one at a time. You should see that each time you do this, you fix the meaning of the image. There’s still some leeway but the general meaning is now set in stone.
Why is this important? Well for one thing it’s really rather interesting but it has enormous implications for designers. Most obviously, it means advertisers can use images to represent all sorts of abstract meanings that are fixed by association with a product. Take the crying girl – add a photo of a box of tissues in the bottom corner and the words "There, there, all better" and you’ve fixed the meaning of the image to mean one thing which is rather trivial, but add a logo of a cancer charity or life insurance company and you’ve got a very different meaning, yet it’s the same picture. Note that a logo or pack shot can often have the same function as text.
Illustrators and picture editors need to be aware of the concept of polysemy for obvious reasons. But what about other design disciplines? How does polysemy apply to your discipline or (as I’ve given the answer to the graphic designers) to other disciplines? Clue: it applies to all disciplines, but in different ways, and "text" doesn’t always have to be written, or consist of characters. There’s another word that ends in "-text"…
(Photo by Bartisz Wacawski)
Activity 2B: Select random images
Now your group needs to find three images that have no text on them. They should be photographs, not drawings, but they can be colour or black and white (that choice may affect your results, so bear it in mind later). Make sure you keep a record of where you got the images from but don’t label them just yet as you need to make sure nothing distracts your subjects.
Tip: Visit "Stock.xchng" http://www.sxc.hu and select the “randomizer” as in the image above. This is a site well worth bookmarking for future use.
Activity 2C: Talk to people
Now take your images and find a selection of people. Ask them to look at the images and tell you what is going on in them. They should try to produce a story that links all three images. Don’t sequence the images for them – let them put them in their own order.
For each person, write down the story they tell you, along with key information about them – for example, age, gender, occupation and so on. As you found in assignment 1, you can often make quite useful judgements based on appearance alone, but maybe don’t rely too much on instinct. Think: what information will help you determine their visual literacy other than just age etc? Work this out beforehand and balance your need for useful information with the need not to overwhelm someone with questions!
It is recommended you “pilot” this experiment first. If you don’t get useful results, you can change the way you phrase things and start again.
Hint: don’t use art and design students as your subjects! However, for this assignment, you should probably restrict your questioning to people you know because of the time that might be involved.
When you have collected enough stories look at them and edit them so they are brief (a line or two each) and contain the key information.
How many is enough? Well read the Barthes essay again and work out what the concept of polysemy tells you should happen. At what point do you have enough evidence? Three people won’t be enough. Thirty-three will be too many. You have to decide but here’s a clue: it’s not as many as you might think…
Activity 2D: The fourth image
Now here’s the tricky bit. It might not work but sometimes it does!
Choose one of the stories you got from activity 2C. That is going to be your “target” story. Your task now is to add a fourth image so that everyone you show the images to will come up with the same (or similar) story. This will require a bit of searching and, if it gets too difficult you may even have to create an image yourself (a sketch, a photograph, a collage, whatever is easy and useful).
Now go back and ask a different group of people to interpret the images. Do they come up with the same story?
If not, start to give the images in the “right” order. Does that help?
If people don’t come up with the correct interpretation, consider adding a fifth, or sixth image if you have time.
Activity 2E: Adding text
Return to your original three images and this time add one word to one of the pictures. Does that help people interpret the images in the same way? What if you add another word to one of the other images? How about one word per image?
Continue the experiment until everyone comes up with the same, or similar, stories.
When you’ve finished, discuss what you discovered, then re-read the Barthes essay. Has your experiment agreed with Barthes? Has it contradicted him? Has your understanding of polysemy improved?
ALTERNATIVES TO ASSIGNMENT 2
The assignment above is "Option 1". The alternatives below may be more appealing depending on your own preferences for mark making or understanding what images represent (for example, in advertising) – they each explore the same area discussed by Barthes but in different ways.
For both the alternatives, you should carry out activity 2A as above, then replace the rest of the assignment with these instructions which are less detailed than normal. Remember the purpose here is not to carry out the experiments, it’s to use the experiments to understand the concepts in the Barthes reading.
You are free to adapt the experiments and you should be prepared for them to go wrong. Consider piloting them and making changes before doing them for real.
Option 2: Ink blots
Create some random “inkblots”, and ask people to interpret them. Record the different interpretations. Then choose one and, step by step, add something to the patterns. How little can you add before everyone sees the same thing? How detailed do you have to be? Do you actually have to add words before everyone sees the same thing? How does Barthes’s explanation of polysemy explain this?
(By the way, your blots don’t have to be symetrical – otherwise you risk getting lots of butterflies…)
Record each stage in the experiment. i.e. Take photos or scans as you add detail.
Option 3: Advertising
Select three or four advertisements from colour supplements. Choose ads that make use of big images that don’t include the product being advertised.
Cover up all the text and anything that tells you what the ad is for (e.g. If it’s for cereal, cover up the cereal). Try to select ads where it’s not obvious – e.g. A picture of a line full of washing is probably going to be guessed easily as an ad for detergent, but a cute kid with a muddy face is not.
Now ask people to describe the images.
Important: Don’t describe them as advertisements, and don’t ask people at the start to guess what the images are advertising, but how they make them feel, or what they make them thing about.. Write down what they say, the way they say it. Remember they should describe the images, not guess what they are used to advertise. It is the way they interpret the images that is important.
As above, do not use art and design students or your friends or classmates for this – the results will be invalid.
Finally, you can ask them to guess what the image might be advertising.
When you’ve finished, consider what your experiment tells you about the way people read images, and how they are used in advertising.