From Design Thinking, Design Theory


A Semiotic Theory for Graphic Design

By Steven Skaggs

Semiotics concepts from a design perspective, offering the foundation for a coherent theory of graphic design as well as conceptual tools for practicing designers.
rent ebook Rent eTextbook





Semiotics concepts from a design perspective, offering the foundation for a coherent theory of graphic design as well as conceptual tools for practicing designers.

Graphic design has been an academic discipline since the post-World War II era, but it has yet to develop a coherent theoretical foundation. Instead, it proceeds through styles, genres, and imitation, drawing on sources that range from the Bauhaus to deconstructionism. In FireSigns, Steven Skaggs offers the foundation for a semiotic theory of graphic design, exploring semiotic concepts from design and studio art perspectives and offering useful conceptual tools for practicing designers.

Semiotics is the study of signs and significations; graphic design creates visual signs meant to create a certain effect in the mind (a “FireSign”). Skaggs provides a network of explicit concepts and terminology for a practice that has made implicit use of semiotics without knowing it. He offers an overview of the metaphysics of visual perception and the notion of visual entities, and, drawing on the pragmatic semiotics of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, looks at visual experience as a product of the action of signs. He introduces three conceptual tools for analyzing works of graphic design—semantic profiles, the functional matrix, and the visual gamut—that allow visual “personality types” to emerge and enable a greater understanding of the range of possibilities for visual elements. Finally, he applies these tools to specific analyses of typography.


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262035439 296 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 86 color illus., 25 b&w illus., 2 tables


  • FireSigns invites students of graphic design to explore the signs of their métier. Steven Skaggs convinces his readers with creativity and didactic talent that a semiotic approach is indispensable in this endeavor, and offers semioticians a gold mine of graphic signs, the careful analyses of which convey the insight that graphic design is indeed a semiotics laboratory.

    Winfried Nöth

    Professor, Postgraduate Program in Technologies of Design, São Paulo Catholic University; author of Handbook of Semiotics

  • This book blends ideas from semiotics, psychology, and graphic design into a truly remarkable model of how design evokes the interpretation of objects. Using visual semiotics as a basis, the book highlights the importance of visual cognition in the processing of meaning. It also shows brilliantly how we are all guided by patterns of form in coming to perceive objects as functional signs.

    Marcel Danesi

    Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto; author of Brands and The Semiotics of Emoji

  • I perused with pleasure FireSigns by Steven Skaggs. It is a masterful, richly illustrated theory of graphic design that doubles as an excellent introduction to semiotics.

    Paul Bouissac

    Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto; editor of Encyclopedia of Semiotics

  • At last we have a well-conceived, well-articulated excursion to harness the gamut of relational factors involved in our search for making meaning in graphic design. Particularly valuable for its down-to-earth style, FireSigns unravels and illuminates, with sensitivity, personality, and authority, the complex network that is graphic design. Students, theoreticians, and practitioners will appreciate the value of semiotic theory for design presented by this book.

    Thomas Ockerse

    Professor, Graphic Design Department, Rhode Island School of Design