Semiotics, Symbols, and Storytelling

During my PhD program, one of my doctoral committee members suggested I look into semiotics and storytelling. I was interested, but I had plenty of other storytelling material to digest, so I never explored semiotics, which Wikipedia defines as “the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.”

Recently, though, I came across two remarkable examples that I think nicely illustrate the ability of signs and symbols to tell stories — and hence, make meaning.

The first comes from Xu Bing, whose spare Web site depends on the visitor’s ability to navigate signs. More amazing is Xu Bing’s project — Book from the Ground, “a novel written in a ‘language of icons'” that Xu Bing has been “collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life.”

Here’s a sampling:

You can “read” more here.

The other example is this short video from the terrific series of TED talks. It consists of storyteller and poet Rives using typography/emoticons to tell a tale. Would we say this example is less successful (yet highly entertaining) than Xu Bing’s because it requires narration and explanation of its symbols to tell the story?