Semiotics, Semiology and Safety Sense

Semiotics, Semiology and Safety Sense

Dr Rob Long from talks about the power of symbols in response to this recent article

See also Symbols Have Power

Depositphotos_2597171_xsWhen looking for a metaphor or icon to explain safety what do you think might be a thoughtful and intelligent choice for a safety organisation? The study of semiotics (the study of symbols) and semiology (the study of language) is so important when considering the nature of organizational culture. Research indicates that the average person holds at hundreds of symbols in their heads that can be recalled at any time (eg. chinese characters) yet only remember a a few number sequences. Symbols, colours and words have an identity effect and create comfort or fear and a host of other unconscious psychological effects. For those travelling in a strange country it is amazing the effect of seeing those ‘golden arches’ even though we don’t normally eat such food. Similarly, we see a swastika and this evokes fear and concern. The power of colour psychology ( can also effect mood, thinking and help make images and symbols more powerful to our unconscious.

Semiotics tells us that choice of symbols, icons, colours and images are powerful. The work of Jung (Man and His Symbols), Chandler (Semiotics, The Basics) and Ricoeur (The Symbolism of Evil) and many scholars of semiology and semiotics clearly established the power of language and symbols to affect belief, culture and behaviour. It was Ricoeur that stated: ‘man (sic) is a linguistic being” and that it is in and through language that we create and relate meaning. Humans are also social beings and it is through language that we share cultural purpose.

So, how easily can invisible ideas and things get into our head and our unconscious? Here’s an experiment: cut out 50 symbols from magazines and papers and stick them to a board or, copy 50 symbols from the Internet and run them as a quiz at work and test your friends. For example, name the following random 10 symbols?


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Got them all easily didn’t you?

imageMost people can recognise 50 or more symbols without hesitation. So, how more considered should we be about the messages we convey through this medium? To ignore the importance of semiotics and semiology often leads to absurd contradictions to espoused messages in organisations and then all that people learn (unconsciously) is the validation of ‘double speak’ and that safety people are ‘silly’.

imageSo, in light of all we know about semiotics why would a safety organisation chose absurd images (an echidna with corks on its spines, a platypus with ‘floaties’, a koala in a harness) as symbols for safety? What is the message conveyed by such symbols? What is the trajectory of these symbols? Poor old Australian animals are either a danger to us or to themselves? Is safety about floaties, harnesses, hard hats and sharp objects?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

One Reply to “Semiotics, Semiology and Safety Sense”

  1. Rob, fully support your comments that safety team members unfortunately don’t realize the messages that they putnput there by whatvthey say, what they focus on and what they post on notice boards. Regards Brian

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