FireSigns: A Semiotic Theory for Graphic Design

Semiotic Review of Books
By David Lidov: Steven Skaggs.  FireSigns: A Semiotic Theory for Graphic Design.
  1.  [ In the series “Design Thinking, Design Theory” edited by Ken Friedman and Erik Stolterm]  MIT Press.

ISBN 3543 97802620

Steven Skaggs’s FireSigns is addressed both to graphic design students and semioticians.   He warns semioticians that there are simplifications and abbreviations in his theoretical framework, and he warns students in graphic design that they may face unaccustomed intellectual exercise.  The semiotic theory Steven Skaggs develops is original and challenging and an advance; but the structure and originality of his theory is partly veiled by adaptations to pedagogy.

The territory is not lonely and not entirely new.  The last 50 years have brought extensive and wide ranging contributions to visual semiotics.  Sonesson’s magisterial study of pictures precedes (1989) and to some extent informs this book.  As does Martin Krampen’s audacious and stimulating perspective on graphic design (1965). Skaggs diverges from Sonesson, inter alia, in his recognitions of what Morris would call pragmatics—design as a solution to a socially embedded problem of persuasion, and Skaggs diverges from Krampen with his project of developing an independent theory, for Krampen’s delightful excursion is essentially a series of sketches, often very brilliant, adapting or translating motifs from the semiotics of language and literature.  Skaggs starts with notions from Peirce and Morris as his foundational concepts but develops them with an surprising twist that would probably be unthinkable for Peirce.

Skaggs acknowledges but prefers to background the controversies of semiotics philosophy, finding plenty of work to do on the ground.  Once past the introductory chapters, his focus is to articulate semiotic principles facilitating the comparison of different graphic works with each other.  Missing from this antithesis of philosophical and specialized semiotics but not entirely missing from the book are the general semiotics issues of the comparison of media.  Although not explicitly invoked in Skaggs’ global framework, his contribution to this central task arises in his sensitive examination of the qualities of verbal texts within graphic works, as was the case with Krampen also.

The central themes of FireSigns are clearly focused by the Series Forward (dealing with the scope of design), the author’s Introduction (clarifying not only intent and motivations but also the genesis of contemporary design) and an Epilogue (reflecting on innovation).  The core of Skaggs’ book unfolds in four Parts.  Part I: The View from Outside Sign Action provides an overview of some contexts for the study of graphic design including the problems of visual perception in general.  Skaggs envisions semiotics as a bridge connecting perception sciences with rhetoric and social sciences. (Why he regards rhetoric as an “outgrowth” of sign studies rather than intrinsic to them is not clear.)  Part II: The View from Inside Sign Action provides an exposition of Skaggs’s adaptations from Peircean Theory and from Charles Morris.  Part III: Conceptual Tools and Part IV: Analysis and Implications comprise the culmination with rich studies of specific cases.  Perhaps those titles are a bit off the mark, for the first chapter of Part IV introduces a major new conceptual tool and Part III is rich in analysis.  

As I do (1999/2017) Skaggs situates semiotics almost exclusively within consciousness.  Part I introduces two key terms “visual entity” (“visent”) and “display”, the first a visible item available to consciousness, the second an item which receives attention and interpretation.  When the visent is structured or situated to command attention then, and only then, it becomes a display and functions as a sign. An issue the distinction between them brings sharply into view is “presence”—not a la Derrida—a concept Skaggs later makes vivid by contrasting foregrounding with camouflaging.  Both the visent and the display may be complex or atomic. That is to say, either can support a componential hierarchy. [Questions: Ought not this capital distinction between potential percept and sign, along with its auditory and other counterparts, figure in general semiotics? Is not something lost if it is not so treated? Perhaps some other special terms are analogs, but I cannot bring to mind any precedents developed so astutely as here.  The author, in private correspondence, suggested the parallel of Peirce’s “ponecept”, but the issues are not really the same.]

Part II: The View from Inside Sign Action provides an exposition of Skaggs’s adaptations from Peircean Theory.  First Peirce’s Categories. Here lurk dragons. Skaggs leaps over Peirce’s clear orientation to ontology—What kinds of realities exist?—by translating the Categories as answers to his question, What kinds of things can be visual signs? We note that in an earlier publication (2010) Skaggs had preserved Peirce’s orientation more persuasively.  In the context of this book, the same translation is not bad, but because it omits Pierce’s terminology, it sows confusion by dissipating the force of Peirce’s search for universal foundations and we will trace consequences anon. [Later in the book, Skaggs will make matters still stickier with another translation, one that Peirce, a mathematician and logician, did try out himself, that of taking Categories of being as equivalent to categories of relations.  That, my friends, is very ambitious, but let us merely raise our eyebrows and let it pass. Nothing gained or lost.]

When Skaggs’s pedagogical angle leads him to substitute familiar terms for Peirce’s terms that restrict applications exclusively to visual signs, some of the logic encapsulated in Pierce’s terminology disappears along with a superb opportunity, one that I would expect to be very engaging for students. We lose the opportunity to ask, Did Peirce get it right? Are his classifications sufficient to encompass all signs including visual signs? As a philosopher, Peirce sought universals.  As a working scientist in applied physics, did he acquire biases which led his system to fall short? We can be sure of one thing about Peirce’s scientific bias, he thought ideas should be tested. I should think this task would tempt students, but I have never worked with a class of design students and can easily imagine them as excessively oriented to paying jobs and resistant to non-profit intellectual conundrums. Skaggs’ idiosyncratic manner of introducing the problems of Peircean semiotics may in fact be very effective in its own way in fueling lively classroom discussion.  I can not know.

When it comes to Peirce’s systems of sign classes, the ground seems firmer and many adaptations quite inventive.  It is delightful to see Peirce’s dicent indexical sinsign renamed as “evidence”.  There are, naturally, openings for quarrels about details.  David Savan liked to insist at meetings of the Toronto Semiotic Circle that iconic correlations are the basis of similarities.  Skaggs gets it the other way around, but if this is an error, he is hardly alone. A question that needs more attention from semioticians collectively is the role of classification.  Peirce’s classes are deductive, being deduced from the Categories themselves which are inductive (observed in experience) or a priori.  Or perhaps induced from observation via an a priori prejudice in favor of triplets.  Our task as analysts is to determine whether signs in the world, our raw data, validate his system of classification by the modes of action they exhibit.  Pigeon-holing signs was not an end in itself for Peirce.

The final chapter of Part II abandons Peirce for Morris, taking syntax and semantics as its framework.  It would have been helpful to retain and, if needed, critique Morris’s striking definitions for these concepts.  Within semantics, FireSigns opposes specific and generalized reference, a productive innovation.  Again, we wonder how and whether Skaggs’s continuous axis of specificity is evident in other media or is special to graphic expression.

In Part III, Conceptual Tools, we find out what Skaggs wants systematization to accomplish.  His scheme of oppositions is deployed to create classifications.  He draws on the parameters he has developed, like specificity and presence, to define a typology of displays.  In general, Skaggs’s polar opposites are not binary features but rather the end points of continuous axes. Although, with its emphasis on polarities, much in Skaggs’s structuralism is reminiscent of distinctive feature theory in phonology, it is not the same.  His oppositions are not yes or no but more or less. He works from independent dimensions (“functions”) of the display which are, at least initially, evaluated by what he terms high or low valency.

Valency is the degree of forcefulness with which a display exhibits each of these semantic functions.  A display with high valency in presence has more ability to gain attention than one with low presence.  Highly expressive displays strongly engage the feelings, highly denotative displays have very specific referents, and highly connotative displays can be expected to evoke strong associations.  (p108)

(My italics indicate terms formally defined in his previous chapters.)

Part IV , which is largely concerned with typography, makes a radical rupture with Peirce, and it is difficult to tell if the author appreciates what he has accomplished.  Here Skaggs’s insistence on acknowledging continua comes home to roost in the Categories themselves. Chapter X posits and explores a continuum between index and symbol.  The move is not arbitrary. The primary example is the distortion of a symbol (here, a letter) so that it becomes an expressive mark. Others have observed these communicative distortions.  Krampen comments on it. And, again, it is not exclusively visual. Dealing with both visual art and music, I think I was dealing with the same phenomena when I wrote: “In art holistic elements are framed and manipulated so as to become concept-like; concept-like elements are transformed and inflected to convey holistic inflections” (‘99/2017 p238).  But my formulation does not impose on any categorical foundations, and Krampen’s observations do not produce a generalized principle of semiotics. Skaggs’s approach makes us think about just that. Once so opened up, Skaggs’s continuum ranging from expressive marks (indexical) to letters (symbolic) is like the continuum of pitch in music and can support a scale articulated as discrete steps. (Skaggs uses the term for scale from Medieval music theory, “gamut”).  His examples in typography are arranged on a scale on the edge of a triangle, a triangle generated ultimately by foundational categories. We must therefore take note that the notion is incompatible with Peirce’s logic. Moreover, it is more productive than Peirce’s own style of detour when his examples (a.k.a. applications) encounter ambiguities that he is wont to characterize as “mixed cases”. I have always found this vague idea of mixtures a bit of an embarrassment.  Skaggs’s gamut is bold both as theory a practical device. My friend, Anthony LeBaron, a painter and working designer with no prior initiation to semiotics found this book overall too heavy and cumbersome, but when he at last encountered this gamut, the study was newly illuminated for him. It pinpointed language for a perceptual transition he has been occupied with in his own recent art.

Regard the diagram (p64), reproduced with this article, which Skaggs has used as his logo for this stimulating book.  One needs no further evidence to know that Steven Skaggs loves both design and theory or, to say that another way, that he dwells with the aesthetics of theory.  In the text, FireSigns is bashful about this matter.  Skaggs makes it almost a mantra to remind us that “good theory is useful theory.” The phrase is a bit worrisome to me, menacing the sort of pragmatism that Peirce was passionate to distance himself from when insisting on one more syllable, pramaticism.  The author was kind enough to dig up for me a copy, now a bit rare, of his earliest essay on this theme (1997), and really, it is harmless.  Pure understanding is not excluded from the “uses” he seeks in theory, and where understanding is a desiderata, elegance and beauty are almost implied.  I don’t doubt that his students catch on to the attitude but wish the book foregrounded it more explicitly. Good theory attracts us because it is good theory and may even hide its practical benefits.  In my experience, good theory stimulates students who are susceptible to its glitter and resonance and they show wonderful creativity in misunderstanding it.

A final question that I might address to the series editors as well as this author: The word “design,” as they acknowledge, is coveted and contested.  Not only ads and magazines but also tasks and machines and clothes and much more are designed. In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong emphasized the central role that rhetoric played in oral communication and education and conceptualization and that it continued to occupy even well beyond the wide dissemination of printing technology—rhetoric was the path to clear and persuasive organization.  Is not what we call ‘design’ today, in its widest sense, just what we called ‘rhetoric’ three hundred years ago? FireSigns limits its scope to be sure; it concerns graphic design only. At the same time, FireSigns offers a fine platform from which to contemplate and explore widely and rethink fundamental issues of semiotics.

In the spirit of disclosure, just in case anyone missed it, I write out of a conflict of interest.  It is those “fundamental issues of semiotics”, i.e. a general and comparative semiotics, that capture my loyalty.  The author of FireSigns could respond to some of my queries and hesitations by noting that he stated explicitly his intention to construct a special semiotics for graphic work, rather than a special application of a general semiotics.  By prejudice, I’m a non-believer in special semiotics, elephant guns for rabbit hunts. After all, what inspired Dr. Skaggs? It wasn’t a special semiotics, it was global semiotic theory. That is why I urge him, here and there throughout this review, to place his excellent findings on the alter of a one all-knowing theory where they will cast their light more widely.



Martin Krampen, (1965) Signs and Symbols in Graphic Communication.  Design Quarterly No. 62, , pp. 1-31.  Walker Art Center

David Lidov.  1999

Gören Sonesson. (1989). Pictorial concepts. Inquiries into the semiotic heritage and its relevance for the analysis of the visual world. ARIS Nova Series. Lund University Press.

Steven Skaggs.  “Do Designers Ever Construct an Argument?” Chinese Semiotic Studies 4 (2) 2010: 301-308.

_____ “Good Theory Is Useful Theory.” p7, AIGA Journal 15 (2) 1997:


Steven Skaggs


Professor Skaggs is head of the Graphic Design BFA track. His research in graphic design theory and visual semiotics explores ways in which verbal and visual meanings intersect. His work over twenty-five years in providing a semiotic theory for graphic design has resulted in the book FireSigns from MIT Press which appeared in 2017. An earlier work, Logos, (1994) tells the story of the development of a single symbol through 254 developmental drawings.

Professor Skaggs also designs fonts for specialized purposes. Rieven, a postmodern romanized uncial with italics, received a major international award, the TDC2 Certificate of Typographic Excellence in Typeface Design, in 2010. Maxular Rx (2017) is the first font designed specifically for people who suffer from macular degeneration.

A longtime proponent of the experimental possibilities of calligraphy, his fine art often explores expressive improvisation. His work is in the permanent collections of the Klingspor Museum, the Sackner Archive of Visual Poetry and the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

His first volume of poetry, Poems From Elsewhere appeared in 2006; his second, a collaboration with five other poets is called Six Voices and is available starting in October 2017.

Course Offerings

ART 205: Foundation Design Methods
ART 371: Introduction to Graphic Design
ART 571: Letterforms I
ART 572: Letterforms II
ART 573: Identity Systems
ART 574: The Book Form
ART 575: Packaging
ART 579: Directed Study in Graphic Design
ART 590: Visual Semiotics
ARTH 501: History and Issues in Graphic Design

Research Areas and Projects

Graphic Design Theory
Visual Identity Systems

Honors and Awards

FireSigns: a Semiotic Theory for Graphic Design (2017)
Poems From Elsewhere (2006)
Logos–The Development of Visual Symbols (1994)

His typeface, Rieven, available through Delve Fonts, was awarded the Medal of Typographic Excellence in the TDC2 international type design competition in 2010.

Author of Logos–The Development of Visual Symbols (1994), Poems From Elsewhere (2006).

His calligraphic fine artworks are included in the collections of the Klingspor Museum-Offenbach (Germany), the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry (Miami), and the Akademie Der Künste, Berlin.

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