Symbol-Minded

Marks of Excellence - Signs, Symbols and Icons
May 30, 1997

Charles Sanders Peirce's dictum: "A sign is something by knowing which we know something more" stands as the epigraph to Per Mollerup's book, which bears witness throughout to the influence of Peirce's theory of signs. But that cannot be said of Signs, Symbols and Icons. Although there is a Peircean ring to Rosemary Sassoon and Albertine Gaur's title, his name is not even mentioned in their text. Could this be a sign?

Received wisdom among postmodern semiobuffs has it that zero is a sign and absences speak louder than presences. The absence of any reference to Peirce, Saussure or even to the subject area of semiotics certainly says a great deal about Signs, Symbols and Icons. The book claims to be an account of "iconic communication'' that takes us from "pre-history to the computer age''. It also claims, somewhat puzzlingly, to "report new ideas that extend the barriers of communication''. This latter may be nearer the mark than the authors realise. For their publication turns out to consist of two maladroitly sutured parts which do not even share a consistent terminology.

The first part comprises three chapters of historical survey by Gaur. The graphics create a sense of deja vu, since they recycle illustrations already used in her previous books on writing. The text itself suffers from trying to cram a quart into a pint pot. As a result, none of the topics Gaur touches on receives adequate treatment. They include Stone Age art, cartography, proprietary designations, numeral systems, heraldry, calligraphy, crytography, signatures, mnemonic devices and - of course - "communication''.

The latter term is never defined, but is trotted out as if we all knew what it meant. It is something "essential to support the infrastructure of society''. But so are the availability of water, food, shelter and umpteen other requirements. This is where at least a perfunctory nod in the direction of Peirce and other theorists might have prevented the "barriers of communication'' being extended further than they need be.

The result is an enigmatic classification of signs. Thus, for example, drawing the crescent moon as a manuscript convention to indicate the first day of the week is put by Gaur under the heading of "abbreviations'', a term which also covers writing the letter n with a stroke over it to stand for the Latin word non. Anyone who treats these two quite different devices as somehow on a par has already left most readers floundering. Similarly, regimental badges and national flags are lumped together as "property marks'', a class that Gaur takes to include the branding of cattle. Almost anything appears to count as "iconic'', ranging from question marks and illegible signatures to the squares and circles in Ben Nicholson's paintings.

These conflations are symptomatic of a more general muddle that is never satisfactorily sorted out. Gaur writes as if the terms "sign'', "symbol'' and "icon'' were more or less synonymous, as if "communication'' was a matter of conveying "information'' (a term she does not define either), and as if the fundamental problem about communication was the inadequacy of human memory. Worse still, she appeals to the koan of Zen philosophy, which in turn produces gibberish like "the icon impacts direct understanding'' - a proposition calculated to make Peirce turn in his grave.

Sassoon begins her section of the book with a belated attempt at damage limitation, acknowledging that we need a few sensible definitions here. Retrospectively, she also tries to lend Gaur a helping hand by explaining that "the nearest definition of iconography or iconographies that would help to describe the other contents of this book was "symbolic representation through. . . (a) system of iconic representation''. For good measure, Sassoon adds: "That is why we have used the term symbols as part of the title; it might be better understood.'' Readers thankful for small mercies may greet this with a sigh of relief: those less tolerant will reiterate the complaint that neither author has so far explained what a symbol is, let alone an icon. At last, on page 64, we find the first attempt at a definition of "an iconography''. It reads: "a symbol system designed to convey ideas independent of words and therefore of language''. As an exercise in question-begging, this could hardly be bettered. All the weasel words are back in the definiens, namely, "symbol'', "idea'', "word'' and "language''.

Sassoon attempts to rescue the second half of the book by incorporating snippets from other contributors in specialised areas. There are accounts of projects designed to help the blind and the deaf. No one could do other than wish such projects well, but it would be disingenuous to believe that they or their designers throw any new light on the basic problems of signs and communication. Labanotation, the most detailed and complex system yet devised to record the movements of the human body, gets a brief mention. But Laban, inspirational as he may have been as a teacher, hardly counts as a towering intellect in the history of the subject. In this part of the book there is much talk of computers and development and research, but applications like the "prototype for an interactive hotel booking system'', described here in a chapter called "The way forward'', do not exactly open up visions of a communicational future one can wax very enthusiastic about. Tourists of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your deposits.

Marks of Excellence is a rather more serious affair, but heavily disguised as a coffee-table glossy. In view of the ostentatious level of design consciousness this volume displays, it is unfortunate that author and publisher did not get their act together and decide on the subtitle. This varies from "The history and taxonomy of trademarks'' (on the cover) to "The function and variety of trademarks'' (on the title page). In fact, neither is entirely appropriate.

Nor does the introduction get off to a very promising start. The first major image that meets one's eye is a red full-page frontal of a London bus. This is supposed to tell us that, for instance, the vehicle is owned by London Transport (see the logo on the radiator grille). We are also supposed to gather that the bus was made by Leyland. A side view of the (same?) bus advertising a Picasso exhibition is described as telling us that "the Tate Gallery is sending us a message''. Which presupposes that the sender of the message is whoever paid for it.

This naive identification of "senders'' and "receivers'' already puts a query against the author's model of communication. What is arguably the main "message'' visible on the bus qua bus - that it is a number 77A bound for Euston - is passed over in silence. Leaving us with the uncomfortable feeling that the analysis is somewhat out of touch with the needs of the consumer. Do you wait at a bus stop to discover who made the vehicle or what is on at the Tate?

All this is rather less surprising in view of the confession de foi which is spelled out with commendable honesty on the next page. We are told that the main purpose of Marks of Excellence is "to look at the nature of trademarks'' and, in so doing, to "be conducive to encouraging clients to commission trademarks that are both distinctive and descriptive and inspiring designers to design them''. Less surprising still when we find that the author is himself in the conducive business of offering such services. He is the founder of a "leading Scandinavian consultancy'' in the advertising industry.

In short, we are looking at an attempt by a streetwise marketing man to establish his academic credentials. The attempt is impressive. Unlike the authors of Signs, Symbols and Icons, he has gone to the trouble of thinking to some purpose about how his enterprise relates to semiotic theory. He has heard of Peirce, Jakobson and Saussure, and tried to apply their analyses to his own field.

It is a pity that he makes a mess of explaining how motivated signs differ from arbitrary signs, and that when he proposes a redefinition of the term "trademark" he ends up with one that is far too broad. It would include just about every kind of identificational device, taking us deep into areas of culture where an anthropologist would be a better guide than a design consultant.

Nevertheless, when Mollerup keeps to the business he knows best he can make acute and theoretically relevant remarks. He notes that Apple's polychrome stripes may be seen as a "playful reference'' to IBM's monochrome stripes, and that the "fox'' trademark for J. C. Penney's polo shirt would not have existed but for the prior existence of the Lacoste "crocodile''. The term intertextuality does not feature in Mollerup's vocabulary, but he is clearly not unaware of the phenomenon or of the role it plays in structuring patterns of signification. One feels he could have had some interesting things to say about the flourishing market in "look-alike'' products. Was the omission a lost opportunity or merely professional discretion?

What is missing from both books is any attempt to unpack the complex complementarity of speech, writing and drawing. Some such analysis is a prerequisite to understanding the forms of communicational symbiosis characteristic of literate societies. None of the authors shows any signs of having absorbed what can be learnt from the work of the late Paul Rand. Perhaps the most brilliant "iconographic'' designer of the 20th century, Rand made the important observation that "the designer does not, as a rule, begin with a preconceived idea''. Only when that difficult lesson has been thoroughly understood can much progress be made towards a proper appreciation of relationships between the visual and the verbal arts in the sphere of modern design.

Roy Harris is editor, Language & Communication.

Marks of Excellence: The History and Taxonomy of Trademarks

Author - Per Mollerup
ISBN - 0 7148 3448 3
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - £45.00
Pages - 240

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