Apologies in advance for the length of this post…
The aim of this research project was to find out what images mean to different people. We were to basically test the concept of ‘polysemy’ which is a key aspect of semiotics. (It basically means that images mean more than one thing but by adding text we can fix the meaning of it – manipulate it.
I did the experiment as part of a group, ideally the group should have been around three to four people who came from a mix of design disciplines… We somehow ended up with seven of us (guess we were just popular). The greater number of us meant that we had a wider reach of disciplines (Graphic Design, Textile Design and Interior and Environmental Design), more initial research and more people to discuss and bounce ideas off of. It made the research quicker and allowed us to do more of it – I don’t think it affected the results.
So, what was this ‘research’? Well, we used the randomizer on a free stock exchange website to give us three random images, we got: a guitar, a rose and a latte. We then walked around the university campus asking people to help us! We showed them the images, in no particular order, asking them to “look at the pictures and tell us what they think is going on”. We were told “not to ask any art or design students” – I can assume this is because they have a cultural knowledge of imagery, deeper than your average Joe and Jane Public. We also never revealed to them what subject we were studying, incase they tried to second guess what we were looking for them to say.
To make things a little less conspicuous I made up little thank you leaflets with our blog addresses on them. I did this because I have recently learnt what it feels like to be ‘the guinea pig’. Many of our subjects asked what it was for so, I was very aware that by not telling them they might feel a little bit uneasy. We of course told them we were design students once they were finished – most of them guessed we were psychology ones! Giving them our personal blog addresses was a way of, I guess making them feel less vulnerable? They were giving us their personal thoughts so to make things a bit more even we gave them our addresses and let them know they could find out the results of our experiment.
Here are the images we showed them (and the leaflets):
Here are the results (we also noted their gender, age and occupation/course):
Female (20’s) Student and Part time shop work
Don’t like the coffee picture as much as the other two.
→In a cafe, a having coffee, table has a vase with a single rose in it. Man is playing a guitar in the corner, like in friends.
Female (50’s) Office worker
Coffee – Nice warm cup of coffee waiting on you – have a break.
Rose – Sunny day, summer heat, picking up a rose.
Guitar – Wonder why the guitars at that angle, beetles.
→Someone husband taking them out for coffee for Valentines day and serenading them with a guitar then giving them a rose.
Female (20) Nursing student
→A wee man gets up and has a coffee and then plays guitar then trims his rose bush
Female (31) Home-help assistant
Seem unrelated – no obvious story
→Musician had a cup of coffee then walked home and saw a rose
Female (52) Administrator
Everyday objects, things taken for granted, taken in an unusual way to make you think about it differently.
→Nice Day, gardening, cuts rose, brings rose indoors, plays music and has a cup of tea.
Female (40’s) Housekeeper
Rose – A person looking/admiring a rose – not growing it.
Coffee – Someone preparing a hot chocolate
Guitar – Wants to play the guitar/repair it.
Male (20’s) Works for a housing company
Rose – Small red rose
Coffee – I need a coffee right now
Guitar – Learning to play the guitar would be a dream come true.
Female (18) Student
Rose – First day after the snow has cleared and it’s the most noticeable thing in the garden.
Coffee – A quiet individual owned a coffee shop looking out onto a busy road, bustling rush hour traffic.
Guitar – They have rediscovered their love for music after putting it off for years.
Female (19) Student
→A nice warm sunny day when someone is playing a song with friends, relaxed atmosphere. Very vibrant, pretty image of someone taking a walk and spotting a pretty flower.
Female (50’s) Computing
→Out gardening, looking at pretty roses so gets partner to take out for a coffee and their was a guitar playing.
Male (50’s) Planner
→Out for a cappuccino with partner, surprised to be serenaded by a man with a guitar. Handed a red rose over as a token of affection.
Male (19) English Student
→Stays up at night playing guitar, has coffee to stay up. Falls asleep and in love, has an American Beauty type dream.
Male (15) School pupil
→Valentines, takes someone out to get to know them, for a coffee, write a song for them and give a rose.
Female (49) Former British Consulate Officer
Rose – I picked this red rose especially for my loved one.
Coffee – My favorite drink of the day is a latte.
Guitar – I can play the guitar.
→I am a famous guitarist and am famous for my top hit song “red roses”. It doesn’t matter where I am I have to have a latte first thing in the morning.
Female (44) Aroma Therapist
Rose – Man needs to go and get his girl
Coffee – Woman is waiting for dumb-ass to find her!
Guitar – Sweet song to remind them to remember that they love each other!
→A couple have split up and neither knows why. They both know that they want to and should be together. Neither knows how to tell the other. She is sitting in a cafe, wishing that there were two cups and he was sitting opposite her, his sapphire blue eyes sparkling with happiness. She has no idea where he is. He at that same moment is walking down the road that the cafe is in, holding a single red rose and wishing he could give it to her, see her face light up and then he would know that they were ok again, no words needed, simply a look that said everything. Music starts to play and she looks up to see a guitarist on the small stage, she hadn’t seen the stage before, too busy wallowing! The song reminds her of those wonderful blue eyes and she closes her eyes and says I wish I could see him now. The door opens, but she does not turn round, she knows he is there, he holds his breath, can’t believe that she is really there. He walks up to her and she stands, suddenly wishing she had worn something else, too late now! He touches her shoulder and they both catch their breath. When they face each other he tells her she looks beautiful. Thank you she whispers, he replies You are beautiful.
Male (24) Cricket Player
Rose: People being together, St. Valentines day
Coffee: Start of a day
Guitar: Music, Oasis, Buskers in the Underground singing to the people walking passed.
→It was a summer camp to America where I met my fellow band member and the woman of my dreams. I played the guitar for hours and hours. Made new friends who are on the band today. Long nights of practice plenty cups of coffee trying to be like our boyhood star’s. We got our first record label. At first major gig we had hundreds of people whistling and throwing roses at us, we even found a rose with a number attached to it.
Female (20) Speech Therapy Student
Rose: Romantic atmosphere
Coffee: All is under control (time to have coffee)
Guitar: Songs with friends (rhythm, music)
→Waking up in the morning beside a friend or boyfriend, having coffee and chilling all day while listening to music. Later on going for a stroll in the country side and picking flowers.
Female (24) Student
Sitting in a cafe having a coffee and a busker comes along playing the guitar and trying to sell her a rose.
Female (20) Student
A guy gives a girl a rose but she doesn’t know who it’s from. She’s in a cafe and he plays the guitar to her and she realizes it’s him who gave her the rose. Then they have a coffee together.
So, what did we find out?
→We asked a total of nineteen people, fourteen females and five males.
→Eight out of nineteen were students.
→Nine mentioned something to do with a date.
I will be honest and say that we never consciously asked more females, we did try to get a mix. One thing I could say is that more males than females refused to take part in the experiment. Although we too outnumbered the boys, we didn’t have a mix of gender in our group, we were all girls! Was this perhaps the reason that we had more success with female subjects? Do female research subjects feel more comfortable with females? I may look into this matter more, anyway back to subject.
From the data we had to choose a ‘target story’ which we would take forward to the next stage. The idea being we try to get everyone to ‘think like that’ when they see the images. As you can see, some of the stories are very outlandish and we have quite a range of them. One of the most common themes and the one we all agreed on was the idea of ‘a couple in love on Valentines day going for a coffee date where the man serenades the woman and gives her a rose’. (We thought that the idea of being ‘serenaded’ rather than music playing was more suitable because of the photograph itself. A few people commented on the angle of the shot which made me think about when would you look at a guitar like that? Well, if you were sitting down a your table, having your latte, you would be looking up at the person serenading you so you would then see the guitar at an angle similar to the photograph)
The next stage was to add in a fourth image that would hopefully manipulate our subjects into coming up with our story. We deliberated between a card and a heart, or a card with a heart but settled on just a heart. We hoped this would be a strong enough hint without over-killing it. Having the heart on a card may have taken away from the idea of two people, having coffee, on a date. The heart itself would portray both Valentines day and a couples romantic date.
So we went out again and asked the exact same question, this time to only seven people. We realized that we should take note of Braques (1985) advice that seven research subjects would provide enough valuable evidence.
Here are the results:
Male (19) Accountancy Student
→Valentines day, guy takes girl for a coffee, gives her a rose and plays her a song.
Female (31) Nursing Student
→Couple sitting having a coffee, romantic scene, someone playing a guitar, valentines day.
Male (18) Business Student
→Valentines day, picnic outside, boy gives the girl a rose and musics playing.
Female (17) Nursing Student
→People, no a couple out having coffee, in love, guy has bought her flowers and musics playing in the background.
Female (17) Nursing Student
→Musicians having a coffee in the morning, thinking about writing a love song
Female (19) English Student
→Romance – girl has a flower, falls in love with a guy playing a guitar
Male (19) Zoology Student
→I love coffee and it makes me play my guitar and write love songs about love and coffee and stuff
So, what did we find out this time?
The results were not just as good as we had hoped, some people were still missing the idea of a couple on a date. We decided to further the research by adding a fifth image and doing it all again. A quick sketch of a stick man couple was done which would hopefully illustrate the idea of two people being involved. Our reasoning was that whilst we could draw a cafe or something it would be too confusing. It was more important to convince them it was a couple and by doing this they would then twig to the idea of them being on a date.
Here are the results:
Male (27) Unemployed
→Boy meets girl impresses her with his guitar playing skills and buys her a rose and a coffee
Female (50’s) Service Industry
→Love, Romance – two people fall in love over a coffee, music playing in the background, rose is given as a gift.
Male (23) Geography
→Playing a guitar, sang a song for his girlfriend who he loved, took her for a coffee and gave her a rose.
Male (?) Lecturer
→Boy meets a girl in a coffee shop, falls in love with her then goes to her house at night, stands outside with his guitar and sings a song to her then stands with a rose between his teeth.
Female (20’s) History
→It’s Valentines day and a girl called Suzie meets a boy called Jack in a quaint little coffee shop, they get on marvelously so they stay there all day chatting away without noticing anyone else is around them and in the evening a man with a guitar comes round and serenades Suzie with a beautiful song and Jack buys a red, red rose from him for her.
Female (19) English Literature
→Children out picking flowers listening to some music whilst dreaming of being grown up.
Female (30’s) Business Student
→It’s Valentines day and a couple are in love and having a morning coffee, he’s bought her a rose and ordered for a man to serenade her at their table with a special song.
Male (18) Accountancy Student
→Boy and girl, together, in love, pick a flower then go and have a coffee, musics playing in background.
So, please, please say worked this time?
The results were good this time, everybody has mentioned that it’s more than one person! Seven people mention that the couple go out for a coffee (date); six people mention they are in love but only two mention that it’s Valentines day.
Also, as you can see we have eight people in this one because we met our tutor on our travels. His answer doesn’t really count though since he is a ‘art and design person’ but you can see what he said. You may also notice the one very strange anomaly: “Children out picking flowers listening to some music whilst dreaming of being grown up”. This really baffled us for a while but I think we settled on blaming the stick men for not only perhaps looking child-like, but the actual drawing style being child-like. To improve this we could have used a photograph of real people instead.
Nevertheless, we were happy with our results so decided to move on to the next stage of the experiment – the linguistics part (language). This next part involved reducing the images back down to three but adding in some text. The word ‘love’ was decided upon as we felt it replaced the function of the heart image. We literally ended up back at square two with this so quickly took note from our last efforts and added in another word, well a date actually, the ‘14th’.
Adding in this number, rather than a word made things a little more interesting for us. It still counted as a linguistic element as you could argue that numbers are a type of language. Yet it was different, it stood for something, a specific date that had meaning, rather than being the meaning itself – if you get me? I will be the first to admit however that this would perhaps not worked so well had it not been February the 17th…
Here are our final results:
Male (20’s) History Student
Two people on Valentines day go to a cafe for a date, one of them buys a rose for the other one and musics playing in the background.
Female (50’s) Service Industry
Girl and boy meet in a coffee bar on Valentines day, arrange to meet afterwards where the boy serenades her and gives her a red rose.
Female (20’s) Primary Teaching
Valentines day, couple having a coffee in a restaurant where there’s music playing, he gives her a rose.
Female (20’s) Tunnel Planning
Quite a soppy story – boy meets girl in a coffee shop, plays her a love song on Valentines day, gives her a rose.
Male (20’s) English and Film Student
Valentines day, two people on a date, got someone to sing for them and go for a hot chocolate.
Male (20’s) Engineering Student
Couple in a cafe on Valentines day, music in background, he gets her a rose.
Female (20’s) History Student
Boy and girl meet, go for a coffee, he gives her a rose for valentines day and they fall in love.
So, did it finally work for the final time?
Yippee! Every single person mentioned Valentines day, the idea of a couple being on a coffee (date). However only two people mention that they were in love and the guitars significance is a toss between a serenade and background mood music. I wondered at this point if we should have perhaps tried it out with the ‘14th’ text first but we weren’t to know. Whilst we could have gone back and tried this out (and we may if we get time) and indeed tried it out with another word which implied the guitars meaning, we realized that we had actually already proved the concept of polysemy to be true. Between them the words ‘love’ and ‘14th’ had given us the first fully unanimously similar stories from our test subjects. I have no doubt that if we were to add more words, such as “singer” we would get the guitar image to fit with out target story. As I said we may go back and test this but we ran out of time today.
BUT we did test and I think, successfully prove Braques (1885) theory that “images mean more than one thing but by adding text we can fix the meaning of it”.
BUT we did test and I think, successfully prove Braques (1885) theory that “images mean more than one thing but by adding text we can fix the meaning of it”. Adding more images did help things slightly but they also just added more things into the mix, causing confusion. Had we added any more images I think people would have became overwhelmed. You can see already, even at four images, people were starting to overlook some of them or generalize them. For example:
“Valentines day, picnic outside, boy gives the girl a rose and musics playing.”
The image of the latte has been wiped out because it didn’t fit in with the story the subject had. I remember this specific subject, he had the images laid out on a pool table in the union. I noticed that he was struggling to look between all of the images so I was not surprised that he did not include them all. Once we got to five images I noticed this slightly overwhelmed look/behavior a little bit more with our subjects. The reason for this is that words have less meanings than images do: no means no… Yes the thesaurus argument comes in and we could argue about how the word is said (tone) and context and all of that BUT in general words have less possible meanings that images. They are open to less interpretation than images, less things can affect them (the amount of things that can affect an image is something Braque (1985) has made me realize quite tremendously) SO their more precise nature therefore fix’s the meaning much more concentratedly than an image could.
More than improve it, this experiment gave me a raw experience of polysemy as well as severely enlightening me to the interpretation of imagery. As a graphic design student, it’s been a scary discovery. It’s honed in on the fact that whilst connotations are one way in which we often communicate our message they are one thing which should be taken a lot more seriously, by me, from now on.
A perfect example of of this would be the image of the latte – or should I say coffee? Hot chocolate? Tea? Yes, our subjects thought it was all of these – the most popular was coffee. What if I needed people to know it was a latte though, what if a latte was fundamental to my campaign/message? I am reminded of Braques (1985) comment:
“As a seme of connotation, ‘plenty‘ does not exactly cover ‘plenty’ in the denoted sense’
How do I achieve the connotation of a latte, in the denoted sense? The long spoon? The tall glass? The milky colour and slight froth? All of these combined do it for me, but would they do it for me if I was from Spain? What I’m getting at now is the topic of ‘culture’ which plays another huge role in polysemy, in the form of what Braque (1985) refers to as a “coded iconic message” – it requires cultural skill to decipher. This means that I understand it to be a latte because I’ve been to lots of coffee shops where they serve it like that – in Scotland. In Spain, they might just serve it in a normal cup for example, so the connotation of the glass is lost. Nevertheless they would still guess it to be a cup of coffee because it’s more universal, therefore what Braque would deem to be a “non coded iconic message” which means: an obvious one. It’s this aspect of Polysemy that I would now like to research more in order to gain an even better understanding of it.