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Communication Theory

Communication Theory

  • The Medium is the Message – Marshall McLuhan.
  • Tufte argues that PowerPoint makes it hard to communicate. The slides are ultra short, incomplete thoughts listed with bullet points.
  • Theory and perspectives shape the field of communication studies.
  • 7 traditions of the field: Cybernetic or Information Theory (Transmissional); Semiotics (All these are Constitutive); The Phenomenological Tradition; Rhetorical; Socio-Psychological; Socio-Cultural; Critical Theory.
  • Two models:
    • Transmission (informational) – sending and receiving messages or transferring information from one mind to another. Disadvantage is that there are gaps in communication. Communication signs are perceived differently by different people.
    • Constitutive – (process of production and reproduction of shared meaning). Limitations – gaps in an understanding of the communication process either due to socio-cultural diversity or due to the limitations of being able to measure authentic communication between people.

The Information or Cybernetic Theory of Communication

  • Useful for: researching how as a designer your work makes effective communication. Limitations: linear process; not concerned with the production of meaning.


Three Levels of Potential Communication Problems


  • Level 1 – Technical – accuracy, encoding, decoding, compatibility.
  • Level 2 – Semantic – language precision, message briefed without losing meaning, language to use.
  • Level 3 – Effectiveness – does message do what we want, what is plan B.
  • See http://mtq.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/7/4/307 for communication theory applied to advertising/marketing


System Theory


Macro Feedback

  • Someone speaks > crowded room > Buzzing.


BARB (Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board)


  • Audience: individuals, adults, men, women, children and housewives.
  • Subdivided by age and social class – main audience categories.


Semiotics-Three basic concepts


  • Semantics – Dictionaries are semantic reference books, they tell us what signs mean.
    • Syntactics – Relationships between signs. Signs are part of a larger sign system referred to as codes. Codes are organised rules that inform us what signs stand for.
    • Pragmatics – practicle use and effects of signs.


Semiotics and the ‘Semiosphere


  • Semiotics examines signs as if they are part of a language.




  • Helps to identify meaning and how art/design is ‘read’ within the situation.
  • Reality can be read as a system of signs.
    • Makes us more aware of reality’s construction and roles we all play in constructing reality.
    • Meaning is not transmitted to us, it is created by us. We create is with complex interplay of codes.
    • Prioritises verbal/linguistic structures over embodied knowledge/
    • Fails to explain factors that influence production and interpretation of messages.
    • Meaning is a site of social conflict because it is not fixed.


How to analyse an image using semiotics


  • First code – linguistic. Learn French to encode.
  • Linguistic sign – Panzani (Italian), encodes name of firm and also an additional signified, that of ‘Italianicity’.
  • This would not work in Italy.
  • The image.
  • The scene represents a return from the market.
  • Two vavles: Signs of fresh product and prepared for domestic preparations.
  • Signifier – half open bag lets the fresh province spill over the table ‘unpacked’.
  • Variety of sign – bag is a net, fishing is a basic form of catching food.
  • Food in the net signifies fresh food.
  • Tomato, pepper and the tricoloured hues (yellow, green, red) signifies Italianicity.
  • Different foods (onions, tomatoes, mushrooms etc) makes it seems as though Panzani provides everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish. Message is tinned food is equivalent to natural food – quality product.


Analyse text


  • A text is in itself a complex sign containing other signs.


The Phenomenological Tradition


  • Direct experience is how humans come to understand the world.
  • Phenomenon is the appearance of an object, event or condition in one’s perception.
  • Actual lived experience is the basic data of reality.


Our senses are dominated by touch.


The Embodied Mind


  • Communication – extension of the nervous system.
  • Language is seen as a neural pathway to the brain.


Semiotics separates interpretation from reality but in phenomenological tradition it matters what is real for the person.


Three schools of the phenomenological tradition


  • Classical phenomenology – Edward Husserl, world can be experienced through bracketing, not biased, objective.
  • The phenomenology of perception – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, rejects objectivist view. Believes we can only know things through personal relationship to things.
  • Hermeneutic phenomenology – extends subjective tradition.
  • Hermeneutic – like reading between the lines, interpretations of interpretations.


Define judgement by placing value on what we perceive, velieving it to be good or bad instead of accepting that it just is.




  • Thinking through how to achieve certain effects on reader or audience.
  • Intervention in complex systems involves technical problems rhetoric fails to grasp.
  • Rhetoric lacks good empirical evidence.
  • Rhetorical theory is culture bound & overemphasizes individual agency vs. social structure.
  • Persuasive to read or see things differently.
  • Rhetoric relies on communication as a social activity – it helps individuals exert their ideas and views onto others depleting the chance of other views.
  • Pictures without contexts are meaningless – needs to be anchored with something to define the message being portrayed.
  • The use of ‘pathos’ a means of persuasion in classical rhetoric that appeals to the audience’s emotions.




  • Original used as a rhetorical trope.
  • Enables us to grasp new concept.
  • Create associations to help remember things.
  • Paradox: opposed to common sense, yet some truth exists.


The Sociopsychological Tradition


Study of an individual as a social being

Three key areas

  • Behavioural
  • Cognitive
  • Biological


Psychological Communication

Act of sending a message to a receiver and assessing feelings and thoughts of the receiver after interpreting the message and how it affects the understanding of the message.


Gestalt Psychology (a type of cognitive theory) – refers to a structure, configuration or layout that is unified.

A person sees a word and perceives its meaning rather than the letters that form the word.


The Sociocultural tradition

Identity definition: father, Catholic, student, lesbian, Asian, Yorkshire etc. Definition of self in terms of identity is part of a group. The group frames cultural identity.

Context: Forms and meanings of communication


“Humans are the only species to have created culture, and every human child develops in the context of a culture. Therefore, a child’s learning development is affected in ways large and small by the culture–including the culture of family environment–in which he or she is enmeshed. (Vygotsky)”


Learning a language is for the purpose of communication.

Difference between what children can do with help and on its own – proximal development.


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