There’s a Zen story of a debate between a senior monk and a novice.
The novice isn’t too smart and has only one eye.
To avoid embarrassment, the Abbot tells them to have a silent debate, in private.
The subject was to be ‘Buddha’s Sublime Teachings’.
After a few moments the Abbot saw the monk walking away.
He asked him how the debate went.
The monk said “That is a very clever novice, he beat me.”
The Abbot asked him what happened.
The monk said “To start, I held up one finger signifying Buddha in perfect simplicity.
The novice held up two fingers to signify Buddha and his perfect teachings.
So I held up three fingers to signify Buddha, his teachings, and his followers.
Then the novice held up a closed fist to signify that all was one in perfect, sublime realisation.
He defeated me so I left.”
The Abbot then went to see the novice.
He asked him what happened.
The novice said “First he held up one finger to make fun of my single eye.
So I held up two fingers to show him he should be grateful for having both eyes.
Then he held up three fingers to show how many eyes we’ve got between us.
Then I got angry and held up my fist to punch him, but he ran away before I could.”
That’s a lesson in failed semiotics.
Semiotics is basically the study of signs and symbols for communication.
Pretty much anything that communicates is a language.
At my art school in New York, we had a class called Visual Communication.
Communicating without words.
I had the same lecturer George Lois had years before, Herschel Levitt.
He was brutal.
If he didn’t understand your visual communication it got torn down or set light to, on the wall.
It didn’t work, so that was that.
No excuses, no explanations, no discussions.
Just like real life.
If it needs a verbal explanation it doesn’t work.
The purest example might be road signs.
They have to work fast, simple, clear, without a written explanation.
If they don’t, someone dies or gets injured.
Which is even more brutal.
So semiotics is communicating without words.
What it isn’t, is an unchanging mathematical fact, a set of rules.
Communication is a malleable relationship between people.
Signs and symbols change as people change.
Semiotics is the observation of how communication works, not the rules by which it must always work.
For instance, current communication shorthand is blue for a boy and pink for a girl.
Because currently that’s the way we see those colours.
But it wasn’t always so.
This is from ‘Earnshaw’s Infant Department’ a publication from ninety years ago.
“The generally accepted rule is pink for boys, and blue for girls.
The reason is that pink, being a stronger colour, is more suitable for a boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for a girl.”
So semiotics is not a science, more of an art.
And we can’t just rely on a rigid set of rules.
We have to use our brains, because the people we’re trying to communicate with will make the rules.
And the only rule is “Did it communicate?”

As George Bernard Shaw said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

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