Kress on Design

Gunther Kress, Professor of Semiotics and Education at the University of London, tells a story about his young son to demonstrate how individuals assign meaning to signs based upon their own interests and experiences. This process he calls ‘design’.

A three-year-old, sitting on his father’s lap (mine, as it happened), draws a series of circles, seven to be exact. At the end he says: ‘This is a car.’

How is, or could this be ‘a car’?  While drawing, he had said ‘Here’s a wheel…Here’s another wheel…That’s a funny wheel…This is a car.’  For him the criterial feature of car was its ‘wheel-ness’; it had (many) wheels. Two steps are involved in the making of this sign. At the first step, ‘wheels’, the signified, are represented by circles, as apt signifiers. At the second step, the signified ‘car’ is represented by the apt signifier of ‘(arrangement of) seven circles’. To represent wheels by circles rests…on the principle of analogy:

Step one:

analogy > ’circles are round; wheels are round; circles are like wheels’;

Step two:

analogy > ’a car has many wheels; many wheels are like a car’.

The outcome of the double analogy is two metaphors: ‘circles are wheels’, and ‘many wheels are a car’. The complex sign ‘car’ is made here, is the product of the making of two signs conjointly, a double process of analogy, resulting in two metaphors: ‘circles are (like) wheels; and ‘many wheels are (like) a car’; and finally as one metaphor ‘this (the complex visual sign) is a car’.

To see how or why wheels could be the criterial feature for ‘car’, we have to adopt the point of view, literally, physiologically, psychologically, culturally, semiotically, of the three-year-old. If we imagine him looking at the family car (a 1982 VW Golf, with prominently bulky wheels, especially at the eye-level of a three-year-old) we might conclude that this sign-maker’s position in the world, literally, physically, but also psychically, affectively, might well lead him to see ‘car’ in that way. His interest arises out of his (physical, affective, cultural, social) position in the world at that moment, vis-à-vis the object to be represented. His sign reflects his ‘position’. Generalizing, we can say that interest at the moment of sign-making arises out of the sign-maker’s position in the world; it shapes attention; that frames a part of the world and acts as a principle for the selection of apt signifiers.

Clearly, the child’s interest is partial: there is more to a car than wheels, even for a three-year-old. Theoretically we have a choice: we can treat this as an instance of childish representation and dismiss it; or we can take it as a central feature about representation in all instances. That is the route I have taken: all representation is always partial. What the sign-maker takes as criterial determines what she or he will represent about that entity. An adult’s choices are more shaped by a history of experiences in various social environments; and adults have greater awareness of and access to the resources for representation available in their culture. The principle of sign-making however remains constant. Partiality of interest shapes the signified at the moment of the making of the sign. At the very next moment the sign-maker’s interest is likely to have changed; something else about ‘the same’ phenomenon or object has now become criterial. Nevertheless, there is nothing anarchic or arbitrary about interest or about attention or about the formation of signs as the motivated relation of a signified and an apt signifier.

At the moment of the making of the sign, representation is always partial; yet it is always ‘full’, ‘complete’. It is partial in relation to the object or phenomenon represented; it is full in relation to the sign-maker’s interest at the moment of making the sign. That is the case with this ‘car’ as much as with the representation of any car in any advertisement. Interest produces attention. Attention frames the world to be represented. Analogy translates interest and selects what is to be represented as the signified into apt means of representing it, the signifier. The result is a sign, formed on the basis of the relation of analogy. The outcome of that process is a metaphor. All signs are metaphors, always newly made, resting on, materializing and displaying the interest of the maker of the sign.

Representation—the meaning that I wish to realize, to make material—is not communication: the two are quite differently focused. Representation focuses on my interest; communication focuses on the assumed interest of the recipient of the sign. My sign needs to be shaped for the person or group for whom I have intended it to be a sign. That leads to the demand for transparency in communication. …

The term design has quite recently come into widespread use—fashionability even—in areas of the Humanities and the Social Sciences. As with any term that erupts into high visibility, one needs to ask about the reasons. Is there more than just fashion?  Is it an indicator of corresponding changes in the larger social environment? …

In thinking about ‘semiotic production’—whether in relation to language or much more widely—it is possible to delineate a path, over the last seventy to eighty years, which begins with (adherence to) convention; solidly, unchallengeably established—other than in fenced-off areas such as the creative arts, grudgingly too in advertising and more recently in popular culture. In that environment, production was seen as composition in accordance with well-understood and accepted rules.

The mid-1950s witnessed a turning in that path. Serious challenges began to be made to its direction, above all in popular music. From the 1960s on and moving into the mid-1980s, the path of adherence to convention gave way, so much so that critique—being a ‘critical reader’, for instance—has now in turn become a comfortably mainstream road, as semiotic motherhood and apple pie. Now design is challenging to become the central term in semiotic work.

To take two concepts—text and knowledge—as examples. Texts, as essay, as report, or ‘story’, were composed, guided by relatively well-understood and settled generic conventions. From the late 1960s, these conventions began to weaken, the rules began to fray. It became an urgent academic enterprise to subject generic conventions to critique, to challenge the power that seemed entrenched in and supported by conventions, seen to work to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. When critique replaced convention, composition became problematic. The ‘linguistic turn’ (Rorty, 1967) marks that point, with its challenge of the ‘innocence’ of language and of processes of ‘composition’. Yet critique can work only in relation to stable structures and environments; its task is to bring these into crisis. Environments marked by instability, provisionality, fluidity do not lend themselves to critique; the political needs of such environments demand the shaping force of design.

In contemporary conditions, knowledge is made in many sites: in wikis, in blogs, but also—without fuss or notice—in everyday conversation, in instances of unremarkable, banal interaction; in the compilation, of instance, of personally downloaded music libraries. When knowledge is made anywhere, by anyone, ‘knowledge’ ceases to be ‘canonical’: witness the increasingly bitter disputes around accounts of evolution. Canonical representations of knowledge become unstable, whether as mode (Should I use writing or image?) or as genre (Which is apt, the essay or the narrative or the cartoon?). Writing, previously the canonical mode par excellence, is giving way to image.

The ‘school’, as society’s designated purveyor of hitherto canonical (forms of representation of) knowledge, has an impossible task. When knowledge is made by anyone anywhere, what is, what can and should be the place of school?  The school has the task of upholding canonical forms of knowledge and of representation without the support of clear direction from state of society….

The debate of the 1990s, around information versus knowledge, has abated somewhat and settled into a new sense that ‘knowledge’ is always newly made rather than being communicated. What is communicated in is ‘information’. Knowledge is produced by individuals according to their interest and their need in their life worlds at the moment of making (Boeck, 2004). Knowledge and meaning, as much as the texts and objects which are their material realizations, are seen as the outcomes of processes of design motivated by individual interest.

…[T]he instability of social environments has destroyed clear and acceptable models for action and behavior. In the neo-liberal capitalist market, individuals are assumed to take and have responsibility for their actions. The resumption of agency by individuals—urged by the state and forced by the market—means that the shaping of meaning and of identity, becomes a matter of individual design. A multiplicity of resources provides the means—for those who can act in the market—for their ‘individual’ shaping of identity, even though the means are those made available to all by the market.

Even those with lesser means or few, are subject to the requirement to assume responsibility for the shaping of meaning in their social environments. The convergence of social conditions, changing semiotic means and affordances in production and dissemination come together to make design the usual, normal, taken-for-granted, the necessary and essential semiotic disposition and practice. …

Design accords recognition to the work of individuals in their social lives and builds that into the theory. In my use of the term, design is a theory about communication and meaning, based—at least potentially—on equitable participation in the shaping of the social and semiotic world. Design, by contrast with competence, foregrounds a move away from anchoring communication in convention as social regulation. Design focuses on an individual’s realization of their interest in their world.

Kress, Gunther. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communcation. London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 70-71, 133-134, 6. || Amazon || WorldCat

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