Barthes called it ‘ideas in form’.

‘Myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.’³

Barthes described language ‘as a social institution and a system of values’.²

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‘The form and the concept’

In his essay ‘Myth as a semiological system’³ (Mythologies, p121) Barthes discusses a cover of Paris-Match:

Quotes taken from the essay (my notes):

A young negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted.

The Form: A black soldier is giving the French salute.

The Concept: Frenchness and militariness.

‘The image signifies that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal showed by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.’

‘As form, it’s meaning is shallow…as the concept of French imperiality…to the general History of France, to its colonial adventures, to it’s present difficulties.’

‘If the meaning is to be appropriated French imperiality must appeal to a certain group of readers.’

On Ethics: ‘Motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth: myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form.’

Quotes (below) from Barthes Mythologies³ about the other Paris Match covers (shown in the slides above):

The New Citroen ‘excites interest less by its substance than by the junction of its components…smoothness is always an attribute of perfection…Christ’s robe was seamless, just as the airships of science fiction are made of unbroken metal. Until now, the ultimate in cars rather belonged to the bestiary of power; here at once it becomes more spiritual and object-like…more homely.’

The Iconography of the Abbe Pierre signifies ‘apostleship and poverty…the founders of monastic life…the depositories of the spirit against the letter…shaven, bearded, short hair…the archetype of saintliness.’

The Face of Garbo ‘is an idea…a mask of antiquity…existential…descended from heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light.’ Garbo signified a concept.’ 

The Poor and The Proletariat refers to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ which signifies ‘the poor man, the proletarian…as a concept… blind and mystified, defined by the immediate character of his needs, his total alienation at the hands of his masters (the employers and the police).’

In his book ‘Mythologies’³ Barthes focussed on French visual culture, specifically ‘myths’ in contemporary culture. ‘For him myths were the result of meaning generated by the groups in society who have control of the language and the media…in today’s society modern myths are built around things like notions of masculinity and femininity; the signs of failure; what signifies good health and what does not.’ ¹ (Crow, p61).

Visual systems of signs and symbols

A key foundation of communication design rests on the construction of a shared meaning through visual systems of signs and symbols.

The study of this phenomena is called ‘semiology’ in Europe and ‘semiotics’ in the USA. As a linguistic science it was developed (in parallel) around the 1900’s by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (pronounced purse).

The key preface is that ‘language is constructed’ from an early age and that language is made up of a system of signs. Words represent mental pictures of objects. A word is known a a signifier and the object it represents is known as the signified. A sign is produced when these two elements are brought together.¹ (Crow, p16).

Meaning is part of ‘an active process between the sign and the reader of the sign. The meaning of the sign will be affected by the background of the reader; their background, education, culture and their experiences will all have a bearing on how the sign is read.’¹ (Crow, p34)


²Barthes, R. Elements of Semiology (1967)

³Barthes, R. Mythologies (1972)

¹Crow, D. Visible Signs, An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts. AVA Publishing. (Second edition 2010)

Image (top): (The Economist) Essayist and critic Roland Barthes—writer of “The Death of the Author”—died #onthisday 1980