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Issue #14
November 2015 - May 2016
Breaking the language of design: semioclastics in the world of industrial design
Jonathan Ventura & Galit Shvo / April 18 2016

Among Roland Barthes' theoretical universe, a central concept tends to be ignored - what Barthes defined as semioclastics {This term echoes with the famous historical iconoclasm}, i.e. the deconstruction of a symbol or a semiotic system. In this article, we claim that semioclastics can be applied as an inherent part of the design toolkit and for understanding design processes. Although the presence of function makes the possibility of a total deconstruction of the original symbol difficult, we would like to reveal the spectrum of interpretations of the term and the way it expands the limits of design. Taking under consideration that design will always refer to questions of usability, we wish to portray the changes in attitude towards the product and its sign, while looking through a "semioclastics filter."

Keywords: semiotics; industrial design; visual culture; design art; design theories

Introduction: what is semioclastics?
Soft theory [ . . . ] first of all, it actually ‘pieces together' observed data, elements drawn from different frameworks, and even combines presuppositions in order to gain access to the domain to be charted. This bricolage is adapted to what is scrutinized, and augmented by new viewpoints when required [ . . . ]. (Iser, 2006, p. 5)

In this paragraph, Iser describes a way, we wish to adopt, regarding the applicability of theoretical knowledge. Following his term of "soft theory," we illuminate, rather than predict. However, standing in the liminal space between theoretical knowledge and practical action, we try to dissolve this sharp line between the two. In addition, in the second part of this article, we address another issue. How can we, not only understand, but also implement theoretical knowledge in the work of designers - in this case Barthes' theory of semioclastics. Will the designer be restricted by the object's functionality, in the same way described by Petroski (1994) - a table will always suffer from the necessity of legs and a leveled surface? Furthermore, what is the socio-cultural position of contemporary designers vis-a`-vis current techno-economic processes? The understanding of this cultural theory can and should broaden the scope in which designers think of the design process as well as their work in the studio.

As we shall see in this article, our main thesis relates to Barthes' semioclastics as a term depicting the destruction of the relation between a visual sign and its denotation and connotation. In order to bring forth a new system of (in our case) visual and material language, one has to destroy the existing one. Yet, contrary to traditional views of replacing one material or visual language with another, we claim that a true process of design semioclastics means the reshaping of the relationship between designers, users, manufacturers, and designed objects.

This article, the first in a series, combines social sciences research methodologies and theories, vis-a`-vis industrial design practices, as a part of a larger agenda currently being applied in design research (Almquist & Lupton, 2010). By combining design practices and applied anthropology, we wish to highlight the theoretical and practical methods being used by designers, as well as design studies researchers. As a first step, we decided on semiotics as both a theoretical as well as a practical tool, common in the work of designers. In the field of semiotics, Roland Barthes is a central figure for all who deal with both theoretical research (social sciences, literature, and more) and practical disciplines (such as architecture and design). Some of his main theoretical terms, such as the myth, denotative, and connotative meanings among others, have become key theoretical concepts known to all (Barthes, 1977a, 1977b, 1994, 2012). In these classic texts, Barthes explains that each representation, visual, textual, or material, has two meanings: a denotative meaning in which the "simple" and obvious traits are illustrated, and a more "complex" and culturally dependent one, called connotative. 

When analyzing material objects, and in our case - design objects, one usually highlights the object's connotative dimensions (Penn, 2000). While using Barthes theory in relation to semiotic systems, one can understand the various meanings of color, material selection, shapes, and forms - all of which consist of the practical world of industrial designers' professional work. Although semiotics as an interpretive approach is highly flexible, one has to remember it is based on the assumption that each system of symbolic meaning (colors, shapes, materials etc.) is primarily a system. As such, it has a clear and defined syntax, grammar, and slang, as we see in the following pages. Symbols, gestures, colors, and materials, combine to create a complex visual system of meanings.

Mitchell (1990, p. x) claims that the work of designers and architects is based on their creating a visual and material language, along three main lines:

(1) Reviews and discourse regarding the world of architecture and design stem from a functional truth, which derives from a visual-semantic language.

(2) A clear and "official" language designs the world of design.

(3) Syntactic and semantic laws defining the designer's work mediate the relation between form and function.

According to Mitchell, the basic geometric shapes comprising the first tier of visual languages enable us to create a far more complex language consisting of structures as well as designed products. Wittgenstein (1958) compared written and spoken language to an old city consisting of boulevards, streets and house symbolizing the official language, while alleys and older monuments represent the various socio-historic changes influencing it. The flexible, almost game-like element of Wittgenstein's theory correlates with designer's descriptions of their use of visual language, as well as their version of "visual slang," i.e., the ability to add or change elements of a visual system comprising of a studio's DNA.

However, as a theoretical concept, Barthes' semioclastics is a much less known one. Monaco (2000, p. 222) defines Barthes' semioclastics as a "term for the destruction of the connotations and denotations of the cultural language that is necessary before those languages can be rebuilt afresh." Indeed, since Barthes' famous sign system described language as a science of form and not of value (Calefato, 2008), in our eyes, using this system to better understand the works of designers, is a clear and straight step forward. Using semioclastics as a tool was Barthes' attempt at deconstruction. In this view, Barthes called to deconstruct the basic structural concept of the signifier-signified duality, which was the epitaph of de Sausser's (2011) classic theory, which served as a base to Barthes' theory. In this classic view, the sign is comprised of a signifier (a word or visual representation) and a signified (in our case the designed object), a view which was ultimately continued and elaborated by Baudrillard (1968/2005) in his famous System of Objects. Semioclastics is a state of mind, which may be used to undermine the relations of power concealed in language. 

What we demonstrate in this article, then, is the possible role of semioclastics in the world of design. We do so by first presenting several historical examples of classic semioclastics, and then proceeding to our view of current semioclastics' metamorphosis vis-a`-vis new technologies that brings forth new power relations between the designer, the manufacturer, and the user. Semioclastics as a possibility could explain current design vis-a`-vis design history, as well as present designers an alternative path in the disciplines rapidly changing role in society. The breaking of visual languages of design can result in the rebuilding a new and more relevant visual and material language. We start by describing several "stations" along the semiotic route of industrial design.

Breuer's cantilever: from modernism onwards

It is customary to think of modernism as an aesthetic movement set to shatter signs and symbols, to erase prior semiotic systems and to create "thinner," "clinical," and cleaner objects, lacking symbolic meaning ("de-symbolizing" the object), while ignoring the "olden" symbolic world (Raizman, 2010) - that isthe first semiotic revolution. However, while examining this socio-aesthetic-historical movement we see that the result is an alternative semiotic system, switching a symbol with its counterpart, while creating a new symbolic meaning, as in every major artistic movement. While a removal of the classic system was expected, the modernist revolution merely exchanged one symbolic system with another.

As an example, let us imagine Marcel Breuer's (1902-1981) "B33" Chair, designed in 1927-1928, or Gerrit Rietveld's (1888-1964) famous "Red and Blue Chair," designed in 1918-1921. In both cases, the designers attempted to reformulate an object while recreating its semiotic system. Breuer's chair subvert the concept of the archetypal chair standing on four legs, while replacing it with one industrial warped iron tube. Yet, as we shall demonstrate in the following pages, as an industrial and mass-produced object, the chair's function which is sacred for the modernist movement, rules over other considerations, resulting in the chair's ergonomic structure (i.e. the height of the seat, its size, proportions and its back), which preserves its basic semiotic attributes. In the famous "Red and Blue Chair," we see the same process: the chair's structural concept has been dramatically altered, while its functional attributes remained mainly intact (although we have to mention that its comfort has been damaged). When we stray from furniture design to the world of kitchen utensils, while staying in the same period, we arrive to the same conclusion. For example, Marianne Brandt's (1893-1983) and Kazimir Malevich's (1879-1935) teapots deconstruct and reconstruct the semiotic sign system in a somewhat cubist manner, while preserving its original function. However, both interesting unique attempts remain rooted in the object's function and symbol. Malevich's attempt is more dramatic, we think, since his attempts challenge the basic definition of a teapot, while attaching a clock to it, suggesting a new function and blending two signifiers to the same signified, in de Saussure's (1916/2011) concepts. The meshing of two symbolic systems in one object would be termed post modern, but it is still a clear and defined symbolic system.

A Chair in the Prairie: semiotics in the world of post-modernism

Distancing ourselves from Breuer's modernistic designs early post-modernism's colorful breaking of truths, norms, and conventions (Jameson, 1991; Lyotard, 1984) define a completely new ballgame. Yet, among the swagger, flash, and show, we want to ask how did they create a new system of theoretical and practical semiotics and how can we define these post-modernist "game-changing" actions? Let us consider several designed objects, as case studies in an attempt to answer this question. 

"The Pratone Chair" (Figure 1), designed in 1966 by Turin based Gruppo Strum demonstrates an attempt to break a conventional semiotic system and replace it with another. In this chair, we can see a recreation of the definition of a "sitting object," not standing on several legs and not constructed from the classic and accepted materials. The sitter sprawls on the "chair," which succumbs to his weight and collapses into an amorphous shape. Although the chair's semiotic imagery is reminiscent of the 1960s and the hippie movement, its aesthetics and symbolic metaphor take over its function.

As we can clearly see, while the brave attempt to break the iconic shape of the conventional and modernistic chair, the Pratone itself rephrases the function of sitting, and permits the user to sprawl or sit on it as if it was a giant grassy carpet.

Figure 1. Gruppo Strum; Pratone. Design: 1966; manufacturer: Gufram s.r.I., Balangero, Italy; size: 95 £ 140 £ 140 cm; material: cold-foamed polyurethane, green varnish.

In another example, that of the "Joe Chair" (Figure 2), designed in 1970 by designers De Pas, D'Urbino and Lomazzi, indicates another brave and innovative attempt to recreate a semiotic system. In this chair, we can clearly see the breaking of a perception, a normative system, which is in turn replaced by another, pop culture icon, including its original materials (stitched leather). The mixing of semiotic imagery and the breaking of the link between signifier and signified, are a major attribute of the postmodern era (Jameson, 1991). In this case, the semiotic system is not totally broken, but rather originally amped and enhanced, swindling using scale changes referring to the iconic symbols of its day.

In another example, we turn to the "Sacco" chair (Figure 3) designed in 1968 by Italian designers Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro. This volumetric body is designed to challenge the formal boundaries of the classic chair's construct, turning it into an "anti-form." In this design, the user's body "designs" his own chair according to his unique bodily contours and measures and by that turning it into a chair, visually and functionally. The selection of materials, simple ergonomic decisions and this specific shape create a unique connection between the designer's primary design and the consumer's secondary design.

In this ground-breaking design, the splintering of semiotic attributes of the chair, as well as the designer's role in planning and designing a finite creation, resolve around its clear and articulated function, which is simply to allow a consumer to sit upon a horizontal (even if somewhat amorphous) platform. This chair suggests an interesting agenda. While the designer blurred the outline of the chair, it "becomes" a chair only through the actions of the user.

Figure 2. Jonathan De Pas, Donato D'Urbino and Paolo Lomazzi Joe Chair. Design: 1970; manufacturer: Poltronova Agliana, near Pistoia Italy; size: 69 £ 43.25 £ 37.50 cm; material: steel frame with a preformed polyurethane foam padding and leather upholstery.

Figure 3. Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro; Sacco. Design: 1968; manufacturer: Zanotta s.p.a., Nova Milanese, near Milan, Italy; size: 68 £ 80 £ 80 cm; variable seat height; material: removable cover made of  lancio, polystyrene filling.

As a last example, let us consider Archizoom's creation of the "Mies Chair" (Figure 4), designed in 1969. This original chair was designed as a tribute to the famous modernist designer and architect Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969). 

However, from a first look, the allusion to this muse of design eludes the watcher. One can identify the graphic patterns or the iconic steel frames used by Van Der Rohe, yet the ergonomics of the chair and even its function remains unclear. As a fine ironic touch, the chair is almost "too modern" for its own good. When not in use, the chair's geometry is a clear-cut triangle, leaving the user no sitting space. However, the act of sitting, this everyday and mundane gesture is used to recreate the object in tandem with the user's physical contours. Upon sitting, the modernistic and yet enigmatic triangle is transformed into a more identifiable "chair-like" presence. In other words, the action of the user "saves" this symbolic system from being uninterpreted and quickly repositions the chair in its "normal" habitat. As we can see in this attempt of post-modern designers, the objects' semiotic system may be transformed, reshaped or challenged, while all along influencing the way users experience the object. However, even the most adventurous design succumbs to the object's clear-cut function, hence, rendering the object's semioclastic potential incomplete.

Figure 4. Archizoom; The Mies Chair. Design: 1969; production: since 1969; manufacturer: Poltronova Agliana, near Pistoia, Italy; size: 76 £ 74 £ 128.5; 30 £ 104.5 £ 20 cm; material: chrome-plated steel, rubber, hide cushions, light bulb, cable with plug.

Using semioclastics in industrial design thinking and planning

We have seen semioclastics in work in different periods, yet what elements can we implement from this theoretical perspective? In this section, we present several applications relevant for designers and architects. As we have seen, semioclastics can be manifested in several dimensions:

* Dismantling and reassembling a semiotic sign: for example, when a designer recognizes the visual and material attributes comprising of the object "chair," as in the linguistic works of de Saussure (1916/2011). That is, an object with a horizontal seat, several legs, made from various materials, and designed in various colors. This application necessitates knowledge of the semiotic system, as a basic step towards knowing and using a sign system (much like the use of slang in modern oral systems). The fact that semiotics symbolism is indeed embedded in a clear and articulated system dictates that all will accept the visual or material language, and that subjective interpretations stem from the accepted rules of this system. Upon
knowing a semiotic system, one can alter, change or break and reconfigure it from
its own fragments, creating a new composition of a sign's elements (as one can see
in the aforementioned Brandt and Malevich's teapots). Therefore, the postmodernist approach towards the breaking of meaning or mixing colors and materials could be understood as slang or humor in visual or material sign systems.

* Attaching an illustration or narrative to an object:
 in this application, a designer attaches a well-known narrative or illustration from a different world of associations to a known object, transforming it into a completely new material and visual creation. For example, the design of the "Pratone" chair, mentioned earlier, is based upon a clear and well-known metaphor, which is the sprawling in the grass as a symbol of carefree childhood, innocence, freedom, and nature. 

However, transforming this classic notion into artificial grass comprising of a mass produced sitting unit, imbues the object with a new meaning resulting in a whole new concept. In this application resonates one of Roland Barthes' concepts - that of anchoring a text and a visual depiction (Barthes, 1964/1991). Barthes stresses the various interpretation possibilities in each visual or material object. "Anchoring" a visual depiction to a textual depiction will narrow these possibilities to just one. In the same manner, the designer applies a different meaning to a material object and "anchors" it while changing its name or description.

* Using an arbitrary abstract shape:
 in this application, the designer replaces the known symbol with an amorphous shape to create a unique symbolic system disconnected from the said sign. This application creates a new alternative and unfamiliar sign with an amorphous shape. Obviously, once we are acquainted with the new sign, it stops being amorphous and becomes a new signifier.

* Emphasizing a crucial element while eliminating the rest:
 in this application, the designer highlights the object's most important feature while reducing all other detail, ad absurdum almost eliminating the sign. We can see this method in the works highlighting a key-element, while reducing all other layers of meaning. This application can result in an enigmatic creation, formulating an almost riddle-like object. A classic example would be the huge black cube starring in a famous scene
in Kubrick's "2001: a Space Odyssey."

* Creating a relationship between two or more signs in one object: creating a hybrid material object is done by melting or clashing different semiotic systems. For example, consider the work of post-modernist designer Michele de Lucchi, merging a world of electrical appliance with a world of toys, thus creating an object, which exists in a liminal position, between  he two. In another example, designer Martino Gamper uses fractures of chairs in order to mirror human fears and emotions, hence creating a new semiotic system. In this method, the viewer sees the fractured objects; yet, their sole meaning lies in the existence of the new object, as part of a
different sign system. This process preserves the object's main functions while enabling it "to perform" in a new semiotic dimension.

And yet, this Theoretical stance, while applicable to various disciplines, does not present the whole picture, and lacks a relevance to current socio-economic and technological changes, which brings us to the next part.

Semioclastics in the near future: what is next?

While these ample examples illustrate Barthes' concept, we feel as if there is more to semioclastics than a mere game of form and shape. It seems like the next revolution will focus on new materials, production methods, while not dealing less with the mere aesthetic value of shapes. The new possibilities of manufacturing will influence dramatically our conceptions. In the last part of this article, we present our idea of semioclastics in the everchanging world of contemporary industrial design. Following Baudrillard (1968/2005) example, we agree to view the world of design as comprising of a structural system.

However, the change from semiotics (as can attest the first parts of this article) to semioclastics is not the mere change of aesthetic rules or norms of creative production.
This process symbolizes a significant chasm growing rapidly in the last few years, that of
the classic triumvirate of the designer, the client and the end-user. This breaking of
semiotic systems is echoed in the shattering of industrial design's classic modus operandi
- the chain of production manifested in the intricate relation between manufacturer-
designer-user. This dramatic break of aforementioned holy trinity can be illustrated by
several dimensions:

(1) Open-code design: Open code design stands out in the works of designer Ronen
Kadushin2; in the works of Enzo Mari,3 who gave furniture drafts which users then
built for themselves; by designers urging the user to use their design for free, hence
altering the manufacturing process - open design is one of several new options to
change the langue and not only the parole, to use De Saussure's terms, that is
current users will learn to build or even invent their own material languages based
on their specific needs.

(2) 3D printed objects: Currently, one can purchase a semi-professional 3D printer for less than 2000$.(4) This rapidly growing phenomenon5 will change the inherent disciplinary relationship between the manufacturer and the end-user, and consequently will change the role of the designer, as a supplier of ideas and ideology, not only as a link between the user and the manufacturer. Furthermore, designed products will not be produced generically, but rather locally and ondemand. The designer will be able to be more attentive to user needs regardless of the manufacturer's interests.

(3) Co-design:
In ethnographic research, the validity and reliability of a research can be assessed as a result of the researcher sharing her results and conclusions with her research partners and getting their perspective on her work (Morse, Barrette, Mayan, Olson, & Spiers, 2002). In a somewhat similar fashion, designers share their thoughts and insights with the end-users in what is now termed co-design. Co-design can result in a close relationship between the designer and the end-user, ranging from workshops organized by designers targeted at gathering users' feedback (Sanders & Stappers, 2008; Sperschneider & Bagger, 2003; Steen, Kuitj- Evers, & Klok, 2007), to a longer and deeper cooperation (Westerlund, Lindqvist, Mackay, & Sundblad, 2003). Designers using this approach view users as experts, holding important and relevant knowledge to the design process. Creating a meaningful connection between designers and end-users will strengthen ethical and social design, rather than design-art or design for "the 1%." Again, going back to semioclastics, co-design attests to the power of design, as a language, to shift, change, and be rewritten into a new system.

However, prior to these recent processes, we have witnessed an intermediate phase of "mass-customization." While this oxymoron term attests to the user's active involvement in creating a uniquely designed object, suited primarily to his needs, the actual process is far from free-willed. Corporations (6) using this false and market-oriented "free-will," as well as user-involved design wrap a designed object classically manufactured in a fashionable and convincingly tempting wrapping, augmenting the price of the object under the pretext of uniqueness. Italian post-Marxist thinker Gramsci (1975/1992) described the term hegemony as a process of domination presented to he dominated as a natural phenomenon which will benefit their lives. In its turn, mass-customization imbues the end-users with a sense of freedom of choice and individual creativity, yet for a mere extra payment, the result is the same product in a somewhat different garment. However, as a transition period, we should not ignore this phase as a harbinger of a much broader socio-cultural change manifested in the complex relation between designers, users, and manufacturers. 

Following these rapidly spreading phenomenon, we suggest two layers of semioclastics, illuminating the difference between "half-heartedly" semioclastics and "real" semioclastics:

* Inner/local semioclastics: Local semioclastics follows Barthes' original interpretation, i.e. changing and manipulating the local system of color, materials, and shapes which comprise the symbol. For example, when the designer breaks the classic connection between the material and color, the local language experiences a fracture. Yet, the greater structure of function and meaning remains.
* Outer/general semioclastics: On a larger scale, outer semioclastics offers a highly significant process, in which the power struggle between the manufacturers and the users collapses. For example, the Pebble watch(7) project, which started on kickstarter relayed solely on the end-users to invest in their own products, excluding a manufacturer altogether.

In our current reality, one of the socio-economic changes, designers cannot suffice in recreating local semiotic systems, concentrating only on materials, shapes, or colors, but also strive for a larger influence on the power relations between manufacturers and consumers, in an effort to recreate this complex system via design-oriented actions.


Is the concept of semioclastics applicable only to objects of design art? Does the function of mass produced objects stand in the way of this concept? In this article, we dealt with these complex questions, and the answers are as complex. First, the use of the term "semioclastics," in our eyes, can benefit not only theoretic researchers, but designers as well. By applying this concept to the daily work of designers, the latter can reflect on their material projects and try to develop new angles to known challenges. Second, as we have seen, this term is applicable, mainly, to the work of designers dealing with "one-offs" or design art, whence the function will not interfere with the essence of the object. However, as we have shown in a semioclastics filter, this concept helps designers reflect on their objects and apply innovative solutions. Third, we wish to use this article, the first in a series, as a platform to encourage designers and theoreticians or social scientists to create and promote projects, which combine theoretical and practical knowledge.

As we have seen in this article, Roland Barthes' concept of semioclastics is still relevant to all visual and material professionals applying semiotic knowledge. However, while in the past centuries, "local semioclastics" would have been enough to reinvigorate the design world, in our current reality this is no longer the case. Designers should harness theoretical knowledge in favor of reshaping "outer semioclastics," i.e. changing the classic relationship between designer, manufacturer, and end-user.

By doing so, designers will take their rightful place as socio-cultural agents or even harbingers of change. If everybody can become a designer or a manufacturer, the designer's role in society has to be renegotiated and redefined. The designer will have to retake the role o researcher-thinker mediator between the various agents dealing with material culture, taste, and socio-cultural processes. Furthermore, not only designers face a disciplinary change, but manufacturers will have to reassess their role in the production of material objects as well.


1. http://martinogamper.com/project/a-100-chairs-in-a-100-days/
2. http://www.ronen-kadushin.com/index.php/open-design/
3. http://www.domusweb.it/en/from-the-archive/the-enzo-mari-method/
4. http://www.makerbot.com/
5. http://www.dezeen.com/2013/01/14/filabot-3d-printing-recycling-tyler-mcnaney/; http://www.
dezeen.com/2012/11/12/us-military-invests-in-3d-printing-on-the-frontline/; http://www.
dezeen.com/2013/03/07/road-ready-3d-printed-car-on-the-way/; http://www.dezeen.com/2012/
09/05/paralympic-design-3d-printed-seats-for-wheelchair-basketball/; http://www.dezeen.com/
2013/03/07/3d-printed-dress-dita-von-teese-michael-schmidt-francis-bitonti/; http://www.
sxsw/; http://www.dezeen.com/2013/03/13/mit-researchers-to-3d-print-apavilion-
6. http://nikeid.nike.com/nikeid/index.jsp; http://www.converse.com/; http://configure.us.dell.
7. http://getpebble.com/



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Our Currrent "State of Extremes" | Futuristic Zoom Conference
On May 12 we held Our Current "State of Extremes" conference. The curators of the exhibition and the designers presenting The "State of Extremes" exhibition reflected on how the mechanisms of extremes have played out in recent months, what directions they might take us in the future, and the role design can play in ensuring we reemerge as a better world.
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Baas is in Town!
Shira Kimmel and Adi Hamer Yacobi
In a conversation held during his visit to Design Museum Holon in preparation for the exhibition Hide and Seek – Maarten Baas, the Dutch designer spoke of whether he defines himself as a designer or an artist and about his vision for the exhibition in Israel. Now Six months later, did we manage to fulfill his vision?
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