My father in law is quite curious about what I do, and as a man getting on a bit in life and who has experienced a fair amount of bullshit from younger people in his role as a teacher, I can also tell he is a little bit sceptical about what I claim do. This scepticism is exacerbated by the fact that since I’ve been impregnating his lovely daughter, I’ve been a graphic designer, then an art director/creative director, then I suddenly became an illustrator, and now I use the word ‘semiotician’.
It took me about 4 years to explain to him the fundamental difference between design and illustration in a way he could understand clearly. He seemed quite suspicious about it all and refused to acknowledge that I had changed career. He questioned me at great length each time we met, and the process of explaining the difference took years.
Just as he was finally ‘getting it’, the distinction became violently confused once again thanks to his best friend discovering he could treat his digital photography to a microsoft paint filter that made photographs look like very shit wood cut illustrations. All the years of careful explanation were swept away in an instant the moment his friend proudly produced his portfolio of shit digital woodcut photographs of the lake district, prompting my father in law to challenge me to explain my ‘claims’ in light of these shit woodcut photographs, in a vaguely accusatory tone.
he had finally begun to grapple with the fog and comprehend the first vague outlines of distinction that separated and defined the disciplines of design and illustration just as I switched career again and became a cultural analyst, known in short-hand as ‘a semiotician’.
So each time we’ve met since then I’ve tried to explain what it is I do, and he remains sceptical and suspicious and questions in the style of a patient person who knows he’s dealing with a liar, but wants to play the long game in order to allow me to talk myself into a corner.
One of the first times I tried to explain to him what commercial semiotics was about, I talked about ‘encoded meanings’ and he wanted to know what they meant, so I said ‘everything we make and produce carries with it a layer of implied meaning in addition to, and often supporting, the intended meaning’. he needed a few examples, and then I said to him ’ We all use codes to understand the nature of the thing we’re interacting with. At its most simple level, nature offers us sets of codes that we understand almost subliminally… the wasp, for example, is encoded with signals that warn us of danger… yellow and black stripes. We understand yellow and black stripes as being an urgent warning.’
We met again fairly recently, and he confessed that he still wasn’t entirely sure what it is that I do, and that nobody he ever speaks to has ever heard of ‘semiotics’ (the implication being that I may have made it up as a cover for my drugs and people smuggling business). He asked me if I had thought of a better way to explain it to him, so wearily, I told him about a few projects I’d worked on over the last year, and explained what I did and how it was beneficial to the client.
His frown grew with each explanation. Eventually I ran out of projects to tell him about and I fell silent. He continued frowning for a while, then he looked up and said, “none of what you’ve just just told me has anything at all to do with wasps. Last time you tried to describe your job, you told us very clearly that you dissected wasps.”