Creative Semiotics Creative Semiotics

"What's in an Image?" Patrick Hutchinson and the Politics of Representation


Street artist Lionel Stanhope painting a mural depicting Patrick Hutchinson in Lewisham, South London, in August 2020.


The week after I had attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Battersea I saw an image pop up in my WhatsApp feed. It was being rhapsodised over by friends as ‘incredible’. Then I started to check the press. It was all over, the image had made it all the way over to CNN.
“The photograph of the heroic figure emerging from the baying mob central London last weekend with an injured man slung over his shoulder was certainly an unforgettable image.”


What I initially thought as I perused the reports was: what a fantastically positive scene and a promising index of how we might move beyond the fractious state of race relations in the UK. But on closer reflection, I started to check myself and my motives. I realised that my initial reading - that of a mixed race British-Caribbean man aware of the discrimination at large in society and eager to see Black British people positively affirmed in the public eye - was naïve. As a semiotician I realised I had to interrogate my motives for many - particularly those of us of so called ‘liberal’ persuasions - liked it so much.

Whilst it remains in my mind a positive image, the self-congratulation is partly based on racist premises. Let me say that again. Whilst it is NOT racist to LIKE the image, our liking of the image is shot through with racist thinking, based on edifices of thought decades, even centuries in the making. In this piece I will dissect this image from an inter-disciplinary perspective, all informed by a semiotics and critical race theory. We will consider what premises lead the image to be termed ‘iconic’, we will look at its framing and composition, then we will disentangle the tropes and stereotypes of race built into the representation - finally turning to consider the image’s newsworthiness.



The man himself was unaware of the waves his image was making in the news cycle until alerted by his sister. He then posted the image on his Instagram, identifying his involvement in the incident, simply captioning it, “It’s not black vs white. It’s everybody vs the racists”

Patrick Hutchinson has been catapulted to the status of public adulation since the incident. He was awarded GQ magazine’s coveted Humanitarian Man of the Year award for 2020. Patrick has set up a charity organization United to Change and Inspire, has co-written a book with a young poet called Sophia Thakur Everyone Versus Racism: A Letter to my Children and has been interviewed on numerous media channels for his opinion on race relations in the UK and has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the prospects for positive change. However, it was not just his heroic actions on that day, but an image encapsulating that action that went viral – and now is THE image with which he is associated that propelled him to his notoriety.

Patrick Hutchison’s image has been reproduced on London Underground and even onto a T-shirt – it now appears as the key image on my UCL friends’ WhatsApp group too. It has become ICONIC. Firstly, we need to think about what we mean when we say that an image is ‘iconic’.


An icon is usually a visual image representing something, usually a person’s face. However, the word icon has been broadened. Douglas Holt defines a cultural icon as “a person or thing regarded as a symbol, especially of a culture or movement; a person, institution, and so forth, considered worthy of admiration or respect” Holt talk about brands like Nike and Coke or Apple. “Iconic brands function like cultural activists, encouraging people to think differently about themselves. The most powerful iconic brands are prescient, addressing the leading edges of cultural change, their myths prod people to reconsider accepted ideas about themselves. The value of a particular myth resides not in the myth itself, but in its alignment with society’s incipient identity desires” (p. 9) So, the principle of iconic brands is that they resolve societal tensions through being cultural innovators. The heavily popularised Shepherd Fairey print of former US President Barack Obama uses solarisation, vectorisation and other techniques to emphasize his moral stature. An aesthetic emphasising only the basic shadows and contours tends to eulogize the individual depicted and takes us from the realistic into the realm of ideology - suggestive of propositions, implied beliefs or values attributed to the icon.
It is possible to see the Patrick Hutchinson image as qualifying as iconic in this way. The fact so many people have seized upon this image referred to the image as ‘unforgettable’ and have name checked his gesture as a shorthand for heroism and gallantry – as in the London Underground whiteboard message above - shows it has iconic force and value. Another way of thinking about iconic images is that they carry high a ‘propositional density’ within them.
Propositional density is the amount of information conveyed in an object or environment per unit element. High propositional density is a key factor in making design successful. In semiotic terms this means they are packed full of cultural connotations of various kinds.
This makes visuals more distinctive and memorable. What propositions would be contained within the Patrick Hutchinson image? Well, we can surmise that some of these might be:

• Black and white people can work together
• Adversity reveals strength of character
• Gallantry chivalry live even in urban areas
• Kindness and moral goodness wins through
• Appearances can be deceptive (controversial)

Photos like this are rarely captioned, and such is their power that they are said to ‘speak for themselves’. The old cliché: a picture is worth more than a thousand words comes to mind. The argument made here is that meaning we ascribe to this image is as much in our heads as it is in the image, or at least the way we interpret it bears a weight of cultural sediment.


The Pious Christian and Social Realist Gaze

Of course, there is a more ancient derivation for the word ‘icon’ as shown in this image above.
When you hear the word ikon (eikon), you might think about Russian orthodox Christianity, religious paintings with gold and tempera on wood hanging in a domed Church. Marcel Danesi writes: “religious icons represent sacred figures… in a rather generic way, without the details that give each figure a distinctive human personality. faces are stylized to convey somberness and piety”. This is one way in which the image can be said to be iconic, in that the facial expression is extraordinary: earnest, pious, resolute, humble, transcendent at the same time.
When looking at the image it is impossible not to consider Scriptural references, in particular the figure of St. Christopher, the Christ bearer, a gentle giant, volunteering to take Christ across the river supposedly carrying the burdens of the world on his shoulders. Also the Good Samaritan – a parable of basic human charity; how mercy towards a fellow human being can overcome bi-partisan prejudice. Both of the popular Christian myths are built into the Patrick Hutchinson image so it is unsurprising the image is strongly redolent of Renaissance art tropes.

The upturned face in the image shown is a Caravaggio, in his painting of martyred Saint Sebastian (above) – a haunted look of resignation tempered with faith that has echoes in that of Hutchinson’s radiant face against that black T-shirt. Renaissance art expert and semiotician Catherine McCormack has written that there are parallels between the images giving “a sense of transcendence, or sacredness / sacrality in the sense of being beyond the present moment of suffering in St. Sebastian beyond the moment of racial hatred and acrimony”. This confers upon the gaze of Patrick Hutchinson a mythic quality, a visual allegory for exceptional morality.
It is not just the composition that has an effect here, but the gaze. The gaze off screen in this image evokes more than just Patrick’s vigilance and determination to get his ward to safety. Let us look at this North Korean propaganda poster – another example of a rhetorical gaze.


 In Patrick’s look to the horizon we can detect a definite form of what Stephanie Donald has defined as the “socialist realist gaze.” This visual trope is a staple of propaganda imagery, for example, Soviet social realist artwork. Tracing the history of this gaze to the countless images in Soviet cinema of “faces staring exultantly off screen,” Donald argues that “in these shots the romanticism of socialist realism is very clear. The gaze off screen is a fixed stare out to a horizon, beyond the diegetic world, and apparently also beyond the world of the audience.”
This confers moral authority on the character: “indicating to the audience her ability to see sublime ideological truths to which they have only secondary access through imaginary identification with her character. With this moment that relays our gaze through her own, attaching our desire to her visual possession of an apparently ideologically resplendent offscreen space, the narrative pauses to allow for maximum emotional and rhetorical impact.”
Though there is much more of an earnest determination rather than exultant patriotism in Patrick’s gaze, the effect is uncannily similar. His acuity of vision contrasts sharply with the discombobulated befuddlement of his human cargo. We could read the burden he carries as not just physical but totemic. He has vision, not only to save a concussed man on the brink of death, but it goes beyond that, to something mythological; his gaze seems to herald a utopiaWhilst the construction of these meanings is well established in visual culture it may also have its roots in cognitive science or evolutionary biology. Psychological tests show that the three quarter gaze of the protagonist in a photograph tends to be rated as more attractive and is preferred to the straight ahead or the 180 degree look. These findings emphasize the aesthetic advantage of three-quarter views of faces when people judge facial attractiveness.
It is important to factor in the effect of Dylan Martinez’s UK Reuters picture editor shot, that it was his instinctive decision to shutter capture and share the face in a pose that bears passing resemblance to Renaissance devotional art and is redolent of Social Realism. It is worth quoting Susan Sontag here who wrote: “Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness.” In this case aggressive in promoting a certain aspect of the man and suppressing other aspects



But it’s time to take a step back and just to consider what aspects of the composition are contributing to the overall meaning effects. As social commentator, Susan Sontag made plain “a photograph is mute. It has no voice except that given by its context.” We shall come to the context, including the news context later, but before that what about the form of the photograph itself. Social semiotics holds that each sign should be seen as a semiotic resource, that its meaning is lying latent until brought out in context or in combination with other signs.

Salience in the Composition

Social semiotics has various techniques for deconstructing imagery…In looking at this image we cannot ignore the framing. “Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006) write: “Composition of a picture or a page also involves different degrees of salience… salience can create a hierarchy of importance among the elements, selecting some as more important, some more worthy of attention than others.” Clearly the central figure and his charge are the most salient here.
Often when an image is iconic there is a powerful contrast set up in the image. We can cite this classic, very different, but also ‘iconic’ image taken by Robert Doisneau in Paris in 1950 Le Baiser de Hotel De Ville - young love flourishing within the bustle of the 1st Arrondissement. What is palpable about this shot too is the sense of the indifference of passersby to this kiss.
Stuart Hall in his book Representation analyses this image to show how it constructs everyday Frenchness in empathy, universality and a working-class spontaneity, as a way of nation building after the war – all in the service of telling the nation a comforting tale about a unified France after a brutal occupation in which many French had collaborated with the Nazi enemy.


The construction of both images can be read in terms of centre vs periphery, foreground vs background, [OUTSIDE trouble makers, vs INSIDE pacifier], [OUTSIDE unruly elements, INSIDE ordered elements] and a binary dynamic set up here. In the Doisneau image we have an enclave of intimacy amidst the bustle of post War Paris. We have a contrast between the violent melée hectoring the injured man and the heroism of what is going on inside a pacific bubble. As we can see from the image above, this reinforced by the sightlines of those that surround them: riveted spectators draw and centre our attention onto the unfolding scene.


The framing of a news image is a big driver of its popularity and propensity to be shared. Journalists and analysts have analysed the ways in which images drive engagement. Caple and Bednarek in their paper ‘Rethinking news values: What a discursive approach can tell us about the construction of news discourse and news photography’ Journalism 1–22 2015 discuss at length the various elements that boost newsworthiness, for instance “Showing unusual happenings that would be considered outside an established societal norm or expectation; Juxtaposition of elements in the frame that create stark contrast. Showing people being shocked/surprised. Positioning individuals in unequal relation to others in the image frame, for example, singling out one individual through foregrounding or backgrounding”. All these elements are present in the Patrick Hutchinson image. What is particularly striking are the techniques of constructing dynamic asymmetric balance in photos of news happenings (such as natural disasters) and eking out something ‘aesthetically pleasing’ or ‘beautiful’ within surrounding chaos and they label this an ‘evaluative clash’ (p. 17). We have this evaluative clash set up not just in visual composition but in ideological terms too. Evaluative clash is reflected between the earnestness of Patrick’s expression and the numbed out, befuddlement of the casualty on his back and they are ensconced in a bubble of calm. This is in contrast with the violent melee around them stupefied by what is happening in the foreground. This accords with what we learn make for especially newsworthy images.

We have accounted semiotically for the gaze, composition, framing salience of the shot. Though these are of course important in forging the meaning, it is impossible to account for the impact of the image without considering race and this is what we shall consider now.


Black vs White Manicheanism

Binary oppositions are a vital thinking technique in semiotics and often secret behind the powerful, arresting visual. Patrick Hutchinson said when posting on Instagram that it is not Black vs White but everybody vs the racists. But the image plays upon the unlikely coming together of two apparent ‘hard men’, both bald headed but on opposites sides of protest. This sets up a Manichean opposition in the way we are invited to read the image as part of its participation play in a circuit of similar images. The power of the composition derives at least in part from this comes at least in part from this. A classic example would be these advertising images (below) from the 1980s from Benetton. A student of mine at the University of Warwick made a cogent analysis of these images in an essay in 2017 to the effect that racial difference is structured in binary opposition between the ‘black’ and ‘white’ races whose physical characteristics are polarized into extreme opposites. The add ends up reinforcing dominant cultural code that ‘black and white colours are used to symbolize distinctions between vice and virtue, hell and heaven, devils and angels, contamination and purity’ (Tajfel, 1965:130).

Her thesis, with which I broadly agree, is that Benetton’s advertising message of transnational harmony and unity is predicated upon crass imagery (below) of racial difference… Shen Leyi wrote: “Through the use of ethnic signifiers and racialized codes, the ‘United Colors’ campaign is ironic in the sense that it espouses the brand value of multi-ethnic harmony while reinforcing racial archetypes; perpetuating race as an essentially unchanging social category.”


The Black Body, Primitivism and Fetishism

The first thing to acknowledge here is the Western (white) eye’s fascination with black bodies.
In the classic tome The Image of the Black in Western Art, fascination with the black body, is one of the visual tropes most focused on: “men with well developed. Muscular physiques were regarded by painters and sculptors as ‘fine specimens’ of virility whose bodily strength and agility compensated for supposed deficiency in intellectual and emotional capacity” (p. 23) To accommodate white sensibilities they were often drawn in a so-called sculptural code.

“the sculptural code, the ideal physique of a classical Greek male statue …superimposed on that most commonplace of stereotypes, the black man as sports hero, mythologically endowed with a ‘naturally’ muscular physique and an essential capacity for strength, grace and machinelike perfection: well hard””…the spectacle of black bodies triumphant in rituals of masculine competition reinforces the idea that black men are ’all brawn and no brains”. (Kobena Mercer 'Reading Racial Fetishism, in Stuart Hall, p.288)

This fetish with black physicality persisted in the sorts of images promoted during slavery and beyond to the primitivism promoted during Modernism in Western art and is infused with the implication that “acts of power and domination are seen as acts of sexuality.” (Dyer, 2002:92) “emphasis on black bodies as inherently aggressive, hypersexual, and violent”, (Ferber, 2007:11). The picture below by George Daw is entitled A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo 1811). notice the sumptuous attention the artist gives to his model’s powerful trapezoid and deltoids.


As John Berger shows in Ways of Seeing, schemas in art have percolated through into visual culture across genre from graphic designer to brands and advertising. Black men have been labelled hyper-masculine and the black body subject to fantasy as an aesthetic object to be enthralled, scandalised by and to commoditise. That is what drives the stereotypical parade of black men peddled within advertising, film and pornography. What is ironic is that this eulogization of black bodies has gone hand in hand with racial discrimination and exploitation. This is exemplified in a brand like Nike which has for a long time used African American speed, litheness, athleticism and resilience to accumulate a powerful set of brand image associations.


Many Nike print ads similarly fetishize the black body. Witness the Lebron James ad above. Notice the sheen of the gleaming shoulder of the basketball star above as a signifier of fetish.
“Whether it is de-valorised in the signifying chain of ‘negrophobia’ or hypervalorised as a desirable attribute in ‘negrophilia’, the fetish of skin colour in the codes of racial discourse” “the shining surface of the black skin; glistening, satin sheen, high cheekbones”. Hall (p. 289)
Holt and Cameron in Cultural Strategy spell out the blatancy and audacity of the exploitation.
Nike used the ‘cultural codes of the ghetto’ and the young African-American men who lived in the ghetto ‘sensationally stigmatized as super predators’ and exalted ’the Social Darwinist dog eat dog world’ as an extreme version of the American economy so as to resonate with a mainstream audience. These codes were signified by using black bodies to model the apparel. In sports, racist assumptions about black physical prowess over intellect persists as shown by a Danish study looking at the ‘unconscious bias’ within commentary of black vs white players across the 6 leagues during the 2019-2020 season which showed that black players were more consistently praised for their instinctive, naturally endowed talent, but not hard work.

These stereotypes and the ingrained binary of black = nature, white = culture as with Benetton above, are built on centuries of representation. Many examples of which are shown in The Image of the Black in Western Art. “Black Models and White Myths examines the tendentious racial assumptions behind representations of Africans that emphasized the contrast between “civilization” and “savagery” and the development of so-called scientific and ethnographic racism. These works often depicted Africans within a context of sexuality and exoticism, representing their allegedly natural behavior as a counterpoint to inhibited European conduct.”

The Demonization of Blackness & Moral Panics around Black Criminality

One of the more contemporary representations of blackness of course has been that of the gangster. Bell hooks in Black Masculinity said Black men have been subjected to labels that deems them “out of control, wild, uncivilised, natural-born predators.” (Hooks, 2004:47). This is built on “the continuing significance of the historical image of the buck and …. a continued emphasis on Black bodies as inherently aggressive, hypersexual, and violent; concern with taming and controlling Black males; inequality depicted as a product of a deficient Black culture.”

Paul Gilroy wrote in his classic There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack wrote: ”the view of the blacks as innately criminal, or at least more criminal than the white neighbours whose deprivation they share, which became ‘common sense’ during the early 1970s, was crucial to the development of new definitions of the black problem and new types of racial language and reasoning… Crime, in the form of both street disorder and robbery was gradually identified as an expression of black culture... What must be explained is the durability of these images and their remarkable ability to act both as a focus for popular anxiety about crime in general and as a sign for national decline, crisis and chaos. The element of blackness is crucial” He adds that: “Anxiety about black crime has provided hubs for the wheels of popular racism”
(p. 141). Controversial British historian David Starkey - who was recently discredited for his blatantly racist comment to the effect of denying slavery was genocide - bemoaned after the London riots the pernicious influence of blackness and criminality and its impregnation of British youth culture: "A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion. Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together, this language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England.”


This has been perpetuated recently in the press with a moral panic over drill music (see above). But thug like images have been propagated and merchandised by a cynical hip-hop industry too.

Hip-hop degenerated from an ideology of critical consciousness in the 1980s through the 1990s to becoming in the 2000s the promotion of a minstrelry of swaggering gangsterism hyper-masculinity that sells records. As Herman Gray argues: “Black rappers imaginatively rework and rewrite the historic tropes of black heterosexual, masculine (hyper)sexuality, insensitivity, detachment, and cold-bloodedness into new tropes of fascination and fear.” In the book The Misappropriation of HipHop DJ Fingers writes that “Not only has this ‘gangster’ image come to dominate Hip-Hop as a genre, but also arguably conned a youth sub-culture into taking on this persona. As a result, a little questioned stereotype has been created; the average person now believes that Hip-Hop is synonymous with gun slinging, drug trafficking, and narcissistic behaviour. Aggravated by the media’s capitalization and promotion of violent images…”


The hip hop industry has found willing conspirators in the peddlers of the gangster image like 50 Cent (above). As Tricia Rose writes in Hip-Hop Wars the ‘gangsta’ image has been ”exaggerated and distorted by a powerful history of racial images of black men as ‘naturally violent and criminal – the voyeuristic pleasure of believing that hip-hop artists are criminal minded and the exaggerated fear of them are deeply connected. Hip-hop has successfully traded on this…” (p. 38-39). Hooks says many Black boys now believe the labels about themselves, they “no longer challenge dehumanizing stereotypes, instead they claim it as a mark of distinction.” (Hooks, 2004:48), invoking fear in not only the white community but their own community a belief that in order to be respected as a black man you need to be hyper masculine and aggressive. This is the image that has plagued many black men – to be stereotyped as gangsters or to feel the pressure as young boys to conform to this hyper-masculine image or be feminised. The sculpted, tight fitting nature of Patrick Hutchinson’s clothes – made for work outs, the beanie hat and gilet puffa vest carry a hip-hop aesthetic, which places him within the sartorial associative web of the above, and places him in the guise of ‘gangster’, even though his actual position is quite the contrary - community organiser and his public pronouncements his eloquence and dignity belie the sartorial codes in the image.

Commodification of Blackness

Such stereotypical tropes help to commodify blackness and to make it more merchandisable. This is true generally of minority black and brown people who, where they are present on screen have often been turned into consumable signs. This is true of the mixed race couples cast by UK supermarkets to burnish their liberal credentials and align themselves with progressive politics – i.e. miscegenation. It is also shown in the ubiquity of frizzy haired, mixed race girls in adverts from toiletries to public information to connote a sort of acceptable exoticism. Athletic black men are cast for cool swagger whether donning athleisure, sports or purveying other apparel. Advertising discourse is built around them, their identity borrowed as currency (e.g. youth, progressive, diversity, confidence, UK’s liberal self-image as tolerant).
The portrayal of black people in particular in advertising often reduces their humanity – and stereotyping of black men (sullen, swagger, hyper-masculine), black women, (sassy, hyper-sexualised), and it is surprisingly enough still rather present within our media and consumerist cultures. But this is particularly true of black male bodies and in a sense the Patrick Hutchinson image is another case of that – though it comes with a twist, since the apparent aim here is to subvert tropes. Though as we shall see it is unable to escape the weight of semiotic legacy.


Wading through the historical archetypes in section 2, we saw that the Patrick Hutchinson image offers us a Good Samaritan dressed as sleek vigilante. On the surface this might be taken as being a salutary break from the negative stereotypes detailed above. But when we look closer into the history of blackness and of representation we see that in fact that tropes of blackness tend to be Janus-faced and schizoid. In one of the tomes of The Image of the Black in Western Art a chapter sub heading reads ‘Pacified’ and ‘Defiant’. One of the latter is the classic Delacroix image of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian slave revolt. When we seek to understand the eerily familiairity of the composition we must investigate this too.

The Noble Savage

Inextricably linked to this context is the trope of The Noble Savage. This is a term attributed to French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe primitive man in uncorrupted state. Earlier volumes of The Image of the Black in Western Art, are replete with images of the ‘noble savages’. These images vie alongside the fetishisation of black muscular brawn and brutish strength and caricatures of feckless, animalistic abandon. Orientalist imagery shows mute sentinels guarding the white odalisques at the harems dignified but also defiant and black busts prettified. These were all produced for the white imagination and made to conform to White Western and Classical ideals of beauty.

These scripted modes of representation fit with a circumscribing of black bodies required in the practice of chattel slavery and was underpinned by scientific racism needed to justify oppression by reading physiological traits to attribute an inferior intellect to black peoples.


If we look at the Gericault portrait (above) - art historians speculate that this Haitian man was the model for one of the shipwrecked huddled rabble after the abandonment of slaves by salve traders and in which a black man, takes the lead role in pleading for rescue, in his famous painting The Raft of the Medusa. This painting is widely seen as an denunciation of the evils of slavery. The desire to humanise the gaze (again that gaze ‘off frame’) was that at a time in which abolitionist instincts vied with old-fashioned racial prejudice. So, we detect something else in the gaze too, which is that of petitioning for good favour. This is something we can see pronounced in another image the Emancipation Proclamation memorial in Washington D.C. erected in 1876 featuring a freed slave Archer Alexander with his benefactor, Abraham Lincoln.

Within both these images, it is uncanny how the determination in the gaze and the nobility of bearing is somehow similar yet so different from the Patrick Hutchinson image – the innocence, purity of motivation but also exaggerated idealism – pleading to be seen as a man.

Of course, even when apparently positive and encouraging, these fed into racist narratives. This was because they resorted to stock stereotypes that ‘Othered’ these black people as somehow exceptional and of a totally different stock rather their individuality trumped by myth making. These depictions always had a rhetorical aim for white audiences to convince them of black people’s inferiority, fecklessness, savagery or sullen docility OR to the sense of the opposite; petitioning white audiences to accord black people respect by giving them congeniality. Remember this would have been at odds with the host of derogatory vaudevillian, minstrel like images circulating at the time for popular entertainment - whilst still denying the individuals depicted their actual idiosyncracies.


The Magical Negro

This eternal binary opposite to which blackness is reduced and by which any individuality is necessarily pulverised can be seen as transmuting into the later ‘magical negro’ archetype. In a sense the magical negro – stereotype propagated in film - is an evolution of noble savage.

“He’s a “Magical Negro”, a saintly African-American character who acts as a mentor to a questing white hero, who seems to be disconnected from the community that he adores so much, and who often seems to have an uncanny ability to say and exactly what needs to be said or done…” (p. 336) And on the face of it, there are shades of this trope too in the figure of Patrick Hutchinson, the pious face, the contrition, the selfless, even martyred countenance. He is seemingly programmed to help, saves his enemy quite instinctively to mollify mainstream opinion.
As Winterson explains, however, the subordinate caste must ‘play out their role upon the stage… they find that things go easier for them… if they accept their assignment of serving and entertaining, comforting and consoling, forgiving any trespass without expectation…”282.

This Magical Negro is a stereotype assiduously recycled within Hollywood. It was pioneered by Paul Robeson in the 1930s, typified by Sidney Poitier in the 60s and more recently protagonised in cinema blockbusters featuring Danny Glover, Laurence Fishburne (e.g. as Morpheus in The Matrix) offering this figure as a sage, steady foil to a white hero. We can see a classic example of this in The Defiant Ones a 1958 film starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. They are prisoners shackled together who escape from a train and grow to respect one another and it is Sidney Poitier who at the film’s denouement sacrifices himself for his friend.


Stuart Hall, writing about Sidney Poitier in Representation: “For the mass white audience, Sidney Poitier was a black man who met their standards. His characters were tame; never did they act impulsively; nor were they threats to the system. They were amenable and pliant.”
Morgan Freeman cornered the market in the 1990s his role in Shawshank Redemption would be typical. Michael Clarke Duncan in Green Mile was perhaps the epitome of such characters.
Shelby Steele, using the parallel term, Iconic Negro to describe Barack Obama suggests that “he balanced the challenge to stereotypes of blackness with a bargaining that seems to elicit a ‘gratitude’ factor when whites receive the ‘benefit of the doubt’ from blacks – this gift of racial innocence in a society shames by its history of racism – they are flattered.” (p. 84). Steele argues that Barack Obama’s rise to the White House played upon his ability to balance ‘bargaining’ with ‘challenging’; to play adroitly upon the strings of America’s attitude to race.
“Racially divided societies throw up iconic figures who seem to transcend the divide. And in America such figures always imply a very idealistic ideology of white absolution and black redemption – a perfectly ecumenical distribution of much needed innocence…The iconic Negro is someone who dispels the sense of ‘Otherness; between the races and replaces it with a feeling of warmth, human familiarity, and racial goodwill. In him or her we have the sense that good race relations are really very easy” The Bound Man Shelby Steele, Free Press; 2008)(p. 89) This is the rhetorical and ideological work done by this Patrick Hutchinson image.

The magical negro trope infecting our readings of the Hutchinson image distorts perception by positing him as a unique paragon: an exception to the rule in the black community, thereby cementing stereotypes. Whereas the truth is his very embeddedness within community and his embodiment of mainstream Black-British Caribbean values of hard work, strong morals and conscientiousness molded him into the sort of person to act as he did. Yes, it was still an extraordinary act of generosity of spirit – but not in the context, of race but humanity itself. Whatever the complexity of Mr. Hutchinson’s character the image erases all that and turns him into a symbol of positive blackness: ‘respectability politics’ fighting uphill against ingrained prejudice.


 This leads us to another iconic image, impossible to neglect mentioning in any semiotic analysis of this type. Roland Barthes in a classic passage in the chapter ‘Myth Today’ at the start of Mythologies, shows how the media propagated images that sought to naturalise the bourgeoisie colonialism. “A copy of Paris Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French Uniform is saluting, which his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture, But, whether naïvely or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.”

There are parallels here. Barthes argues that the boy is an empty cipher, his individuality hollowed out, he stands for French imperiality – like Patrick Hutchinson he was used as a mythological symbol of reassurance on race matters – with a similar idealism in the boy’s gaze.

The 'Good Immigrant' Syndrome

One of the key insights in a semiotics project I conducted for the BBC in 2016 is that a striving for acceptance is one of the few things unifying BAME people in the UK from 3rd generation Indians to freshly arrived East Africans. But this idea of being ‘on trial’, of constantly having to prove oneself to justify one’s place in society - this burden common to all BAME - leads to hidden anxiety, stress and mental health issues that are not publicised and taboo to discuss.
The inside flap of The Good Immigrant, a book of essays by people of colour explains that it ‘aims to explore it means to be ’other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you – however many generations you’ve been here – but that still needs you for its diversity monitoring forms’. Lead author Nikesh Shukla describes a leitmotif of ‘The Good Immigrant’ as the “constant anxiety we feel as people of colour to justify our space, to show that we have earned our place at the table, continues to hound us….Musa Okwonga, the poet, journalist and essayist whose powerful ‘The Ungrateful Country’ closes the book, once said to me that the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit- scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.” Just like Patrick Hutchinson does.


I would like to posit that we can read the Hutchinson picture against an image of Linford Christie after he won the Gold medal in the 100 metres final at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; featured within the work of Stuart Hall who says the image has this set of propositions.

“This is the greatest moment of my life! A triumph for me, Linford Christie”
“This is a moment of triumph for me and a celebration for black people everywhere”
“This is a moment of triumph and celebration for the British Olympic team and the British People”
“This is a moment of triumph and celebration for black people and the British Olympic team. It showed that you can be “Black” and “British”

It is the latter rhetorical statement that seems to be most in play in Patrick Hutchinson’s image.
The vexed issue of Britishness. “Christie is perfectly aware that most definitions of ‘Britishness’ assume that the person who belongs is ‘white’. It is much harder for black people, wherever they were born to be accepted as British…. So, Christie knows that every image is also being ‘read’ in terms of this broader question of cultural belongingness and difference” (p, 230) This is also the Black-British paradox explored by Afua Hirsch in Brit-ish: “Your partner, your children and most of your friends are British. So why do people keep asking where you’re from?” Although almost 20 years has elapsed, this is still true. The image; the nobility and the gallantry of the act and burning forebearance etched in the gaze - confirms the sort of staggering overachievement that is required by black people in order to overturn in built racial discrimination, gain status, and acceptance - what should be rightfully theirs as British born. It is said that whereas excellence trumps racism: the aim should be that mediocrity is enough. Finally, we can look at how the image fitted itself into the news context in order to get traction.


Counter-Intuitive Newsworthiness

If we look at literature on newsworthiness the subject of ‘news values’ has been theorised (Tony Harcup & Deirdre O’Neill (2017) ‘What is News?’, Journalism Studies, 18:12, 1470-1488) Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) seminal study on news factors (their term for news values) as one of the factors that drives editorial selection of news items. We see these present in this story

• Conflict: Stories concerning conflict such as controversies, arguments, splits, strikes, fights, insurrections and warfare.
• Surprise: Stories that have an element of surprise, contrast and/or the unusual about them.
• Audio-visuals: Stories that have arresting photographs, video, audio and/or which can be illustrated with infographics.
• Drama: Stories concerning an unfolding drama such as escapes, accidents, searches, sieges, rescues, battles or court cases.
• Shareability: Stories that are thought likely to generate sharing and comments via Face- book, Twitter and other forms of social media.
• Good news: Stories with particularly positive overtones such as recoveries, break- throughs, cures, wins and celebrations.

It is an image centred on CONFLICT, the far right protests #BLM, with real DRAMA at its heart pivoting on a man’s life. It ends in GOOD NEWS too, the injured man being carried to safety the creation of the hero and his elevation to the status media darling. It is SURPRISING also for all the reasons set out above. The composition of the shot too and the way Patrick’s facial expression has been captured is also cunningly framed to maximise the AUDIO-VISUAL impact. The image carries great pathos too which increases its chance of SHAREABILITY which tends to be driven by aspects such as emotional intensity, visual impact and strange and uncanny.

The physiological model of the arousal in news suggests that human beings react to news as boons or threats to our well being:” television news images resemble a non-mediated survival threat to the degree that the biological systems of viewers automatically prepare for premium performance, hence the increase in physiological and emotional arousal, attention, and memory associated with negatively compelling messages.” Arguably, this image is so effective and intoxicating precisely because it foregrounds the dread of blackness but then discharges, and neutralizes the threat with a reassuring and the assuaging feel good story. In a sense, as can be seen in the quadrant map below, this image resolves a contradiction. This is not unusual. Stuart Hall opined on black images: “They seem to be represented through sharply opposed., polarised, binary extremes – good / bad, civilized / primitive, ugly // excessively attractive, repelling- because-different/ compelling because strange and exotic.” p. 229

On the surface, this photo is charged with ‘new news’ which is surprising and that perturbs the general reader’s expectations. We have been interrogating what these premises are based upon. The extent to which this scenario is counter-intuitive and unlikely is predicated on a set of linked contrast pairs – BLACK vs WHITE, GENTLE vs VIOLENT, AGGRESSION vs FORGIVENESS. These contrasts are not explicit but swim in the serum of racist assumptions.
This image is newsworthy, precisely by being trumpeted as an implied exception to the rule.
These assumptions are built into an underlying edifice of racist thinking often unconscious. These elements drive the newsworthiness of the image, but the elements are unavoidably politicised and charged emotionally by the perceptual and ideological lens of the Culture Wars.

Polarization and #TheCultureWars

We know in the UK that we live in polarised news environment. This can be summed up by the mechanism of the Culture Wars a phenomenon by which every issue becomes polarised between political positions, driven by fractious social media that drives so many news stories.
We cannot ignore the fact that this story sits at the epicentre of the #CULTUREWARS. In the US as we know, the Culture Wars has played out around police brutality and the killing of George Floyd and policy positions around getting the economy going versus curfews and shut downs. In the UK, Black Lives Matter has intersected with related issues, institutional racism in schools, workplaces, the whiteness of the national curriculum, the calls to decolonise public spaces like galleries, museums, debates around how Britain should face up to its colonial heritage, removing of statues and the disproportionate affect of Covid-19 on BAME people.

Stories predicated on ideological flashpoints that highlight the deep differences of outlook on values, outlook and policy priorities are likely to engage viewers because they engender both triumphalism and indignation. Often centred on right wing, left wing, Liberal and Conservative splits and opposing arrays of allies and enemies. Race and racism are potent topics within this. This is because traditionally in the UK populist movements have tended to demonise both immigrants and blackness and left wing politics has tended to be allied with anti-racism too.
We can take the overall brand image of the BBC News organisation as an example. Half the population- let us say readers of The Daily Telegraph, believes they are a left-wing organ of welfare statism, the other half – let us say readers of The Guardian, think they are in thrall to the Conservative Party. Neither side can ever be convinced otherwise. They are a lightning rod for the cleavage of the Culture Wars, inevitable therefore that news story which sits astride predominant issues: within the Culture Wars – i.e. race, class, politics, Blackness, our notions of Britishness, Empire, its proper place; the image moves in this febrile atmosphere.

Brexit has inflamed sensitivities on all side, with hate crimes up since 2016 and for people of colour the vote has seemed to signal that a recrudescence of pent up native Englishness based on exclusionary whiteness. Populism of various types has gained a foothold in the UK in the wake of the 2016 EU Referendum, the Brexit vote whipped up by the Conservative government and fuelled by a right leading tabloid press. On the other hand, until recently the Black Lives Matter movement has been demonised as an inherently anti-British cultural Marxist plot - though apologists say it is rather a humanitarian movement. The protection of Winston Churchill’s statue from defacing by a #BLM mob was of course the superficial premise of the gathering that day, which gave extra frisson to this encounter. Paul Gilroy writes in his book After Empire: “exceptionally powerful feelings of comfort and compensation are produced by the prospect of even a practical restoration of the country’s long vanished homogeneity… Repairing that aching loss is usually signified by the recovery or preservation of endangered whiteness… Britain’ nationalism has interfaced with its racism”

When we consider that many of the protesters considered their presence about honouring the past and protecting heritage from destruction, it is easier to see what was at stake here. This informs the analysis since the man being saved was a right-wing agitator ill-disposed to Black Lives Matter. In this case, what is embedded within this image on the face of it is black radicalism vs white nativism – but then the nobility of the act softens our initial impressions. In this context, commentators have cautioned we should be careful that commodification image does not end up sanitising the agenda of Black Lives Matter, As Jason Okundaye remarked in London Review of Books “interpersonal acts of sacrifice, forgiveness or kindness cannot be a panacea for racism…we should resist any narrative that tries to defuse BLM activism as non-threatening and essentially about equality rather than liberation or abolition.”


We have been through a semiotic analysis breaking down various facets of the image’s meaning. We interrogated the term ‘iconic’ attributed to the image, looking at what it means and showing how it is about resonance with cultural codes and ideologies and how iconic images help to resolve social tensions. We looked the composition of the photographic image itself to see how its rhetorical power was constructed. Then we dug into various ideological contexts in art, some around race and representation, that swirl around the image, the inter-textual references it makes to other texts and the meanings gleaned from these. We also looked at the premises which allow the image to lie at the intersection of several discourses.

The basic thesis however is that the image is enmeshed in a matrix of racist axioms. American journalist and writer Touré writes: “Most Blacks would agree. We are bombarded by images of black criminality and degradation as if the nation is trying to belittle and think less of us”.

From the semiotic perspective, racism is first and foremost a semiotic problem, an internal labelling problem, that ascribes value judgements to primarily physical differences that derive originally from simple climactic adaptation. But as racialised subjects who have been deeply conditioned into a racialised system of white supremacy our minds are indelibly infected with a web of associations and a circuit of meanings tainted by racism. This is a disquieting idea.

As Isabelle Winterson writes: “by adulthood, researchers have found, most American have been exposed to a culture with enough negative message about African–Americans and other marginalised groups that as much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it, according to Harvard sociologist David R Williams. The messaging is so pervasive in American society that a third of black Americans hold anti-black bias against themselves” (p. 187)

“We live in a culture that circulate relentless messages of white superiority. These message exist simultaneously with the relentless messages of black inferiority... today we depict blacks as dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this (the USA) country. This characterisation causes aversion and hostility towards black people and feelings of superiority toward ourselves…” And this war of images and semiotic attack on blackness has become really pernicious for attitude formation.
Remember this is not an academic distinction. These are the same beliefs that cause black people to be disproportionately the victim of stop and search, police brutality and subject to disproportionate use of force with often tragic consequences. This poisoned perception has serious consequences. This does not even take into consideration the demonization of black men or ‘pathologization’ of blackness in mental health. And ironically, these are the claims at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. African American poet Claudia Rankine wrote in 2015 that: ”because white men can't police their imagination black men are dying”.

Scott Woods writes: “Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. So, while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.” So we need to start to reconsider why we look at this image as wholly positive, and to check our racist premises.
As Stuart Hall wrote in Representation “adding positive images to the largely negative repertoire of the dominant regime of representation increases the diversity of the ways in which ‘being black’ is represented, but does not necessarily displace the negative. Since the binaries remain in place, meaning continues to be framed by them. The strategy challenges the binaries – but it does not undermine them” (p. 274). Indeed anecdotal evidence suggests the press who benefited from the popularity of the image wanted more mileage; so tabloid hacks were found sniffing around his hometown to dredge up negative stories about Patrick.

So, try to account for the ‘iconic’ status of this photo we must admit that it is double coded. Of course it celebrates black achievement, but its newsworthiness and the elation with which the image was received cannot be justified without reading this image in its ideological and historical context and against the parade of other images within which it is embedded as an associative web. This web is itself suffused within the cloying syrup of racism in which even ‘positive stereotypes’ of blackness are tainted revealing how deep-seated these underlying patterns are. We should not be so quick to congratulate ourselves and must check in our own assumptions. In apparently overturning stereotypes of violent and dangerous black men with a happy exception we fall into the trap of more utterly serving to reinforce the racist premises.
It shows that we all have more work to do in unlearning our own unconscious prejudices. As John Barnes opined on an ITV Stephen Lawrence retrospective: “the whole society has to change perceptions of what it means to be black from an intellectual and moral point of view”.




Barthes, Roland ‘Myth Today’ in Mythologies (Editions de Seuil; 1967)

Caple, Helen & Monika Bednarek ‘Rethinking news values: What a discursive approach can tell us about construction of news discourse and news photography’ Journalism, 1-22, 2015

Danesi, Marcel The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Imagery (Bloomsbury: 2017)

Di Angelo, Robin White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism? (Beacon Press; 2018)

DJ Fingers The Misappropriation of Hip-Hop (Tree of Life Books; 2013

Gilroy, Paul There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Routledge, 2003)

Gilroy, Paul After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture (Routledge; 2004)

Gray, Herman ‘Black Masculinity and Visual Culture’ Callaloo Spring 1995, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1995)

Hall, Stuart Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Sage: 1997)

Hirsch, Afua Brit-ish: On Race, Identity and Belonging (Vintage Books; 2017)

Holt, Douglas How Brands Become Icons (Harvard Business Press: 2004)

Holt, Douglas Cultural Strategy (Oxford University Press: 2010)

Honour, Hugh The Image of the Black in Western Art  (Volume 4: Part 2)(Harvard University Press: 1989)

Hooks, Bell We Real Cool: Black Masculinities (Routledge: 2003)

Kress, Gunther and Theo Van Leeuwen Reading Images (Routledge, 1997)

Okundaye, Jason ‘The BAME Game’ The London Review of Books, 20 November 2020

Seitz, Matt Zoller 'The Offensive Movie Cliché That Won’t Die' in Maasik, Sonia and Jack Solomon in Signs of Life in the USA, (Bedford St. Martins; 2018)

Rose, Tricia The Hip-Hop Wars (Basic Books; 2008)

Shukla Nikesh The Good Immigrant (Unbound Books; 2016)

Sontag, Susan ‘On Photography’ (1977)

Steele, Shelby The Bound Man: Why we are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Succeed (Free Press; 2008)

Touré, Post Blackness: What it Means to be Black Today (Simon & Schuster; 2011)

Wilson, Paul ‘Patrick Hutchinson, #BLM's Accidental Hero, Explains Why "We Need to Educate and Re-Educate Everybody” Men’s Health 04/08/2020

Winterson, Isabelle Caste: The Lies that Divide Us (Allen Lane; 2020)


The following all helped with references and constructive comments during the gestation, creation and evolution of this piece of thinking.


Mark Sealy, MBE,  Director Autograph ABP & Principal Research Fellow UAL/LCC

Asif Noorani, Epiphany Productions

Fru Bekefi, Trends Expert

Catherine Macaulay, Art Historian

Eileen Perrier, Photographer, Lecturer

Rodney Hutchinson, (cousin of Patrick!)

Two Lessons in Racism and Language


It’s been an interesting lesson in language and power recently. And yes, I do believe that the words we use are important. I'm a poet, so I would do. I also do semiotics which is premised on the idea that culture is a web of signs and codes, of which language is just one system, probably the master system. But I'm not alone. Critical discourse analysts holds that power and knowledge are inextricably linked. Many cognitive linguists argue that human language is embodied and that metaphor drives thoughts. Constructivism shows that at the very least we create (and can thus also distort) our world and experience of it, with language, rather than language reflecting hidden truths as some sort of 'picture theory of language' holds (I don't want to get into debates about Wittgenstein and referentialism here, partly because I don't really understand him 🥺TBH, and partly because I've alienated enough of you already with this opening and I want you to keep reading!)

But if you agree with the premise that language is important and affects thought then racist language can surely affect thought when it percolates through society in the way it has been.

Anyhoo, so onto Piers Morgan. Let me explain.


So Piers Morgan and Rudy Giuliani, had a rather unedifying spat on Good Morning Britain TV. It was about the tone of Donald Trump's tweet around the #BlackLivesMatter George Floyd protests. It has to be said Giuliani had a torrid time and looked to have aged 10 years by the end of the spat. The best bit was when Giuliani quite rightly expressed how irked he was to have stayed up till 1am only to be lambasted. 😂

The problem was - and it pains to say this - Morgan was right.

Giuiani argues, erroneously in my opinion, that when President Trump tweeted that ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ that it was simply a 'factual statement'. Well, er...  you could have fooled me. You don't need to study semiotics or linguistics to realise quite just how disingenuous Giuliani’s claim is. To register disbelief that people have reasonably taken issue with this statement as inciting, inflammatory, irresponsible and unbecoming of the situation is either delusive on the former NYC Mayor’s part or to be blinkered by his own partisanship.

If a father of the bride had during a post wedding reception speech after talking about how his daughter and groom had first met, in indicating his relish at their developing courtship remarked that ‘they started f***ing shortly after that’, it WOULD indeed be a factual statement, strictly speaking. But it would be shocking, distasteful and unbecoming of his office in that particular setting in the extreme.

To have his brother or other family member defend him on the basis that it was 'factual statement' would be a travesty. But no more of a travesty than Guiliani defending Trump.

Leaving aside the horrific resonances of the call back to the Miami governor’s race baiting quote, even if we assume that wasn’t Trump’s intention - and plausible deniability is one of his go to strategies - the use of the phrase is extremely problematic. 1. Because its blitheness indicates that this President doesn’t see unleashing violence as a last resort and a solemn duty, but almost as a vengeful whim 2. Because the use of colloquialisms makes it seem that the National Guard and US military is a praetorian guard subject to his personal exercise of power rather than an awesome state prerogative attached to the highest Office in the land with all the checks and balances that that should entail. 3. Because it isn't hedged about by any qualifications or acknowledgement of context, the possibility of peaceful protest, or any quarter given to the possibility of defusing the situation through acknowledgement of the wrongs committed. It is racist because it trivialises use of lethal force against a majority black protest movement.

Let's just say this is 'inconsistent' with demonstrating that Black Lives Matter.

And there is another reason. This blitheness of language is unfortunately all part of the problem – the slippage of restrained, conditional force into unrestrained and wanton violence mirrors the slippage from racist epithets to racist deeds. This is precisely the violence that has been meted out to African Americans by vicious policemen and self appointed vigilantes in acts of barbarism across the US. For instance, one of Ahmaud Arbery's killer is said to have stood over his dead body using profane and insulting epithets. Epithets whose sentiments had killed.


So you see, the language and violence ARE connected, it all starts with wantonness of language and permissiveness to hate that gives; the violence, then what comes next: silence, denial there has been any impropriety and gaslighting of dissent as distortions of ‘Left Wing Media’.

So therein ends the first lesson. Second lesson.

The other thing that happened this week was this e-mail from a Freshfields partner.


This was another egregious misuse of language - he forgot the word 'people'. Now there are people out there like this contributor, who writes: “Granted, it is a toe-curling email. But he clearly had nothing but good intentions and it seems a bit much that it has prompted such outrage within the firm. I can’t stand these woke idiots who get offended about absolutely everything.“ The thread on Roll On Friday the lawyer's social site is shown below with many similar comments decrying over-reaction to his statement to the extent he 'meant well'.

I’m not offended, personally. I think it’s hilarious.

I'm more just flabbergasted and disappointed. But that’s not the point. The fact is when you’ve experienced racism, as most of people of colour have, you have highly sensitized antennae for nuances of language. So it MATTERS if your new mother in law refers in a throwaway remake to ‘the coloureds’. It's really not mainly because that is that offensive in and of itself, but because, invariably that is a qualifying cue for someone who has never considered their views on race and thus is a dead ringer for a whole repertoire of unfortunate views. Just as if someone - and this, granted is an extreme example in 2020 - was to refer to someone’s wife as a ‘jewess’ it MAY indicate anti-semitism but DEFINITELY indicates a lack of mixing with people of more let's say 'contemporary sensibilities' who would have pulled them up on it before.

OR it can indicate bigotry, a stubborn desire to use a term they think is perfectly acceptable to use, no matter who might find it hurtful or offensive to their ears. My white grandfather, for instance, working in a trading company in Brazil in the 1920s liberally used the N word to describe the black stevedores over whom he worked, but it was in a social milieu that saw that as perfectly normal. 'Blacks' as collective noun of course, has a flavour of out of touchness not only because it sounds wrong, but because if you dig into the semantics of the term 'Blacks' betrays its debt to stereotyping. The use of a collective noun is significant because it reinforces notions of a group being seen as a monolithic identity. The Blacks was also the term that greeted the Windrush Generation arriving in the mother country in the 50s on signs such as this.


Speaking of renting property, I remember going with my new landlady in Madrid to pay the deposit for her beautiful flat at the Glorieta de Bilbao back in the 1990s when I was an English teacher in between degrees. As we were waiting for the bank teller to arrive, I made small talk asking her how her recent trip to Washington was. She said "Well, it was very hot and humid. And there are too many Blacks. But otherwise it was a delightful trip." Too many blacks. Just like that.😳 

And let's hear from Thomas Jefferson after the US Declaration of Independence quoted in How to be Anti-Racist by Ibrahim Kendi:

"The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." This is the unfortunate pedigree the term 'the blacks' has - it's usually in service of perpetuating false stereotypes.

When Walter Lippmann coined the term stereotype he did so to discuss the benefits of the device as: (i) an ordering process, (ii) a 'short cut', (iii) referring to 'the world', and (iv) expressing 'our' values and beliefs. It is the last we should be wary of, 'expressing 'our' values and beliefs'. Whose values are being expressed by lumping millions of people into such an umbrella term? In my writing and thinking as a mixed race person in the UK over years has shown me that a strong streak in anti-racism in the US and UK (classics such as 'The Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison and of course the work of James Baldwin) etc are efforts to individuate and show how diverse in backgrounds people of colour are. In the UK, Black British culture is, I have found out doing semiotics projects more recently for companies including the BBC, if it can be summed up by anything it is distinguished by anything it is by how heterogeneous it is in terms of identity and experience - e.g. the African diasporic influence at least as influential as the earlier Caribbean influence - as well as the mixed race demographic and greater variegation in regional, class and gender identities which have always existed but which have not been acknowledged and let alone celebrated. Glorious diversity of experience is entirely glossed over, if not effaced, by the term 'Blacks' - in this sense it is subtly dehumanising too.

In researching this article I reached for an excellent book Jeffrey Boakye's Black Listed. In it, the author, a Black British Head of English, lays out a periodic table of terminology and epithets both insulting and endearing, that are directed at and adopted by Black British people.

He writes about the word Black: "black people undoubtedly have a shared sense of identity stemming from otherness, probably because 'black' is racially political for more than it is racially descriptive... Black pride is a reactionary condition, necessary only because whiteness as a concept creates black shame. Call me black and I'll get a complex knot of pride and insecurity... It's a word that reminds me that I'm lesser than and different from, but it's also a source of self affirmation".

In other words, blackness in itself is a misnomer and a response to racism and oppression. Pre-colonialism there were no self defined 'Black People' in Sub-Saharan Africa - blackness is itself an invention of imperialism.

Unfortunately, Blacks is not categorised in the pages of Boakye's book. If I was to taxonomies it - it is definitely not an Official Descriptor, but I would probably say it somewhat straddles the category of Derogatory terms (i.e. Nigger, Darkies, Sambo etc) and the category of 'Loaded' terms along with (Chocolate, Ebony and Exotic): all slightly dodgy, naff; not outright offensive - a bit like Coloured - but indicative of ignorance.

This is why the term Blacks not only carries offensive connotations, but why it has never been more laughable. So, in response, to the previous comment about his 'intentions' being good, it isn't his 'intentions' that are at issue, it is his lack of attunement to the most basic language protocols (i.e. 'we don't say 'Blacks' anymore') and the deplorable ignorance that entails that is at issue. This could have been betrayed in any other issue - gender for instance - it just happened to be exposed relative to race in the context of doing, or at least 'being seen to be doing' the right thing by his staff, stakeholders and the industry at large.

Oh dear!

The individual who forwarded the e-mail wrote: "The whole email is pretty offensive in tone", said the source, "but I think most people were disturbed by the reference to black people as 'Blacks' wouldn't refer to a group of white people as 'Whites'". This put me in mind of a sketch by the brilliant comedian Dave Chappelle who did a skit on Saturday Night Live just after Trump's election where he confessed that in spite of all the evidence in favour of a presumptive Democrat victory in the 2016 US Presidential Elections. Clinton was never going to win he opined, despite her large lead in the opinion polls because, ‘Well... I know the Whites!’.😂 Why was this funny? Well, of course humour often turns on both subversion and incongruity. Chappelle here was invoking a stereotype of his own, that 'the Whites' in America will eventually show their true colours after 8 years of an apparent 'post-racial' utopia under Obama and revert to type, as well as subverting the vector of stereotyping (in the binary opposition or racial dyad, BLACK never WHITE has always been the 'marked' identity, WHITE is the naturalised norm) in inventing 'the Whites'. Finally, it is funny that he is seeming to brand 'the Whites' as a group that can be guaranteed to let you down and confound your expectations with their wilfulness for doing the wrong or inconvenient thing - of course, a stereotype routinely levelled at 'the Blacks'.

Genius. But this also shows how crazy referring to ANY group in this way really is. "The Yellows"? "The Browns"? Anyone?🤷🏽‍♂️


I personally I think this Freshfields partner has probably been pilloried enough for his solecism, and the lesson is’s just that in future, maybe white people in positions of power should... well... all I'll say is: there's Black Twitter! 😂Which I myself find terrifying, but necessary.

So, just be aware Mr. Partner that there is a cohort of hyper-aware, erudite and articulate people of colour who see it as their job to educate people in privileged positions about or ‘call you out’ - in the parlance - on language that may historically have been used with impunity and / or that has served to perpetuate prejudice. This is not because they are naturally ornery or irascible (well, maybe some of them), but because these words have been previously been normalised to bolster a racialised hierarchy. Don’t consider it prickly huffiness - and don't consider it to be 'snowflake' over sensitivity either. Just consider it any opportunity to learn. And I don't mean that in a patronising sense. I really don’t.

As for the Black professionals not calling him out. I’m not sure what I can say on this, but it doesn't surprise me. Probably best to read the hysterical book: Think Like a White Man: Conquering the World...While Black by Dr Boulé Whytelaw III, on being BAME in a workplace. One of the funniest books I've ever read. If you're BAME and having a tough time at work, you'll find what you need in there. Chapter 6 is entitled See No Racism, Hear No Racism, Speak No Racism and begins by warning:

"Racism, no matter how glaringly obvious or insidious it may be, will never willingly be acknowledged by a corporation. As long as there is some degree of deniability, regardless how dubious, it will be used to negate the allegation. And there is always some degree of deniability. Unless you have a perpetrator wearing a Make America Great Again hat, or at the very least, a man with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, screaming 'DIE THUG NIGGER DIE' while he burns a golliwog hanging from a noose... you're likely to get'll find Human Resources... saying something like 'Come on. He was just joking when he strung you up. Adolf is a cool guy. Let's all calm down and maintain a sense of perspective and humour'".

As an anecdote, when I was working in an advertising agency back in the 2000s the head of Account Management came round, looked at a bunch of us working hard on a pitch, then declared approvingly that we were 'working like niggers'. 😳Before you know what has happened, the man has left and I'm left gob smacked and looking around at my white co-workers who haven't batted an eyelid and seem to have seen nothing wrong in it. *For many who experience racism, it's a gut punch that caused an instantaneous attentional blink. Many people often experience a form of amnesia around the moment: it is a minor trauma* I was later mullered in a 360 degree peer review and didn't make my probation period. Only reasons given were that I was a 'know it all' and 'pretentious'. Well maybe I was back then, who knows, but did I do my job? No comments on my competence. Was it a result of racism? Who knows. It was probably a mix of factors. What I do know was: the fact that racism was tacitly endorsed in that environment; meant not speaking up was axiomatic for me. I had graduated from a public school where racist bullying was a team sport. That a workplace would be similar, I accepted with weary familiarity. Did it occur to me that prejudice could have been a factor in me not making probation? Of course. The problem is: you can never be sure when it is happening...

In Touré's book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness he writes in a section The Most Racist Thing that Ever Happened:

"Modern racism is a much more subtle, nuanced, slippery beast than its father or grandfather were. It has ways of making itself seem to not exist, which can drive you crazy trying to prove its existence sometimes... modern racism often seems to function like evaporating smoke: plainly visible but impossible to grab on to". This is what makes it so difficult to tackle this issue, but sometimes you have to speak out.

Aside from that, and on a lighter note, this whole Freshfields spat brought to mind one of my favourite bits from Ricky Gervais’s original British version of BBC's The Office (i.e. the funny one!). It occurs in Episode 6 of Season 2. Tim, Gareth, Dawn, Lee are hanging out in the common room with some of 'the Swindon lot' (i.e. Trudy, Sheila and Oliver (who's the office black guy!)). A lethargic, borderline tedious conversation about dating and attraction ensues and then Tim asks Sheila - who is a quite mousy woman who we barely hear from across the rest of the series – what 'her type' is. She flushes and pauses for what seems like minutes, though it is only seconds, and then with a mix of embarrassment and barely concealed glee exclaims straight out: “I like Blacks!” In my copy of the scripts it reads: SILENCE. NOBODY KNOWS WHAT TO SAY. OLIVER, WHO IS SITTING NEXT TO SHEILA UNDERSTANDABLY LOOKS A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE.😂


It is the combination of the unexpected stridency of her declaration and the fact that she is always sitting next to Oliver a polite, well spoken, middle class, light skinned Black British colleague who can reasonably be assumed not to have suspected this about her. AND that she simultaneously uses the term Blacks, a term that was retrograde, at the very least dodgy and borderline offensive even back in 2001, let alone in 2020. Oliver's horror is no doubt not just at the inappropriacy of the term, the fact that she feel happy to share it in public (as if it was some sort of compliment) but that this woman for all her out-of-touchness might actually genuinely 'fancy' him. The horror of it!

Freshfields take note.

George Orwell wrote: "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better." i think both of the examples above show that if it is not picked up on, people may tacitly assume that wanton threats of violence and homogenising stereotyping are ok.  And they're just not. They're really not.

A common refrain I saw on placards at the Black Lives Matter protest read: THE NEW RACISM IS TO DENY THAT RACISM EXISTS. Indeed.



Honestly, there are really people out there that think 'people like me' really spend all our waking hours working out how we can virtue signal, scanning their world for micro-aggressions or starting to no platform fascists.😁😂😂These are all stock tactics in a campaign to marginalise by caricaturing. Anyone accusing me of this, I literally don’t know where you get your news. Seriously, I’m way too busy for that – mostly worrying about how to check in my 'mixed race privilege' and working out my own 'multiplex quantum identity consciousness'.😁 But it’s just that sometimes this stuff reaches a level of p*** take that just demands a take down. I really don't go looking for it and I usually don’t bother to comment but when it is SO VERY BLATANT and when so much is at stake as it is now! It is also true that there are some who want to not only deny that racism exists - this is pernicious - but also want to make accusations of racism somehow taboo or more serious than the racism itself. This idea needs to be smashed.

Ikigai and How #Semiotics Chose Me: An Awkward Photographic Memoir

This isn't your ordinary blog post.

If I was trying to get up in the search results I might have hashtagged it #purpose but that has become such an often cynically overused word. It is mainly a reflection on how my background, socialisation and some innate character traits have led me to my metier of semiotics.

It has been inspired by three things.

Firstly my contact @Chris Gilbert some time ago posted an amusing piece about his transition from City Trader to spoof consultant which you can read here -It was really warm and a bit vulnerable too and basically gave a great insight into the man and what has driven him.

Secondly, I've been working with a business coach who constantly brings me back to an axiom: 'the more you can be yourself in business the more successful you'll be'. Whilst I've resisted wholeheartedly embracing this idea - it comes up against my desire to micro manage my brand image on a professional networking site, I believe it is true that people buy people - and I most enjoy reading about other people.

Thirdly, people are getting more personal and vulnerable on LinkedIn. I've observed the separation between business and personal has been breaking down for quite a while online. This has just been accelerated during the Corona Virus crisis where people are migrating towards the human and seeking connection. Saw a stunning infographic showing the massive spike in engagement on Linked In here:


TechCrunch even reports that “Like many other websites at the moment, the career-oriented networking platform LinkedIn has seen a big boost in traffic as a result of people being asked to work from home and stay indoors overall to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with a bump of 55% more conversational activity between existing connections in recent weeks.”

So it is probably good to start putting stuff on Linked In. 

A lot of people are reflecting during what has been become called a 'sacred pause' on their career choices and how they have wound up doing what they're doing and how well suited they are to it. So perhaps my Linked In Followers and others will relate to it or it will provoke them to think about their journey into doing what they do. The subtext to this is the concept of 'Ikigai' - and how we can move towards.

i have been doing some reflection but actually started writing it before the lockdown, so it's been in the pipeline for a while. It's also been, frankly an excuse to dig up some corny old photos from my archive.

*that's when your inner narcissist turns you into a outwardly shameless self publicist*


When I was three years old and on a trip to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Caribbean, my mother's birthplace, the story goes that I pointed dramatically to a puddle in which mosquito larvae were breeding and said: "Mummy; THAT water's stagnant".

Then later on, I was introduced to a family friend called Biscuit. On being introduced to him I allegedly said: "Biscuit...? But that’s an extraordinary name for a man?” Early clues foreshadowing of what would later become two of my most endearing qualities: my verbosity and breathtaking arrogance.


Maybe my command of language became a way of claiming my Britishness as a hedge against discrimination against those who saw me as less than truly British. Certainly other cultures has felt natural to me. Exploring the underlying codes of language has been a huge driver of my devotion to poetry and hip-hop, love of Japanese calligraphy, aesthetics. And of course it has led me to semiotics which enables you not only to dissect language but visual languages too.

Even if my Mum still calls me: "A poor man's Richard Ayoade."


This was me and a mate on a history field trip to the (still) Soviet Union back in 1989.

I know. Feast your eyes. The sexual swagger, the simmering seductiveness, the sheer sense of transgression.😂 The epitome of cool.


We were living breathing reasons for Russians to defect to the liberal capitalist West.

But on a serious note, it was an amazing trip and has given me a life long respect and appreciation for Russian culture. It was a fascinating trip that triggered a life long interest in travel and in getting under the skin of other cultures. Whilst I haven't done so much work in Russia, I certainly have done a lot of travel for work conducting global semiotic work and now promote an international conference promoting inter -cultural understanding, Semiofest. Even if some of the women in my life tell me my clothing colour co-ordination has barely improved... 😒


When you do semiotics you need to go deeper. As I was in this volcano in Parque Tairona, Colombia. I've always loved rabbit holes. Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books, and the Matrix one of my favourite films. Semiotics is a deep dive into meaning behind brands, the structures that govern product and brand categories, as well as the cultural dynamics. And sometimes you need to get your hands dirty.

It's cast as an intellectual disciplines but it's actually more like detective work.

I remember when I first moved over from qualitative research to do the odd semiotics project. I thought it would be a bit of light introspection over a whisky and then some blinding epiphany would appear. Job done! I was surprised to find it utterly exhausting.


In fact semiotics work tends to proceed by increments, the accumulation of hundreds of minor revelations that eventually turn into insight. A large semiotics project can resembled doing a PHD in miniature and at speed. One project involved a content analysis describing and annotating hundreds of data points and reading 30 books / journal articles. Shallow and superficial knowledge just won't cut it in this work.

The first sensible answer to such question would be. "But that's an impossible question to answer." The second sensible answer is: "call a reputable commercial semiotician." Okay, so you get my drift by now... If you're a semiotician, you'll have to get deep very quickly.


Yes, I think I've always been a bit of a dreamer (check out the gormless look!)


Yes, I know. Impossibly cute, certainly cuter than now but it turns out untrammelled, idle fantasy doesn't work out so well in adult life, so since 2000 I've taken on a daily meditation practise. Without meditation and the concentration I develop I doubt I could have developed the powers of attention I need to process all the visual stimulus you need for semiotics at such speed.  i also practise Japanese calligraphy. I started when I was teaching English out there (this is me practising calligraphy some time in January 2000). I'm still pretty rubbish at it to be honest. But it's a life lesson in concentration, restraint discernment and dealing with one's own limitations. It occasionally enables you to produce beautiful work, but it also develops character and respect - it is the gentlest form of martial art!


Working alone can be gruelling.

And I believe that I'm probably an introvert-extrovert - so i need social contact from time to time. That's why I'm a member of a Toastmaster's group. The public speaking for me is secondary - it is mainly because it connects me to a network and builds camaraderie. But the fact remains - I'm paid for smart thinking in the realm of brands and culture - solo working - even if managing a team - is my bread and butter occupation.


This picture was taken at my graduation from Warwick University. Hence the rather formal attire.


I'm a strange hybrid in many respects. The product of an English-British and Caribbean-American cultural heritage. Growing up was a confusing time and at times it felt that I did not belong - to either side. Now every advert you see has a frizzy hair model but it wasn't always as cool to be mixed race. I remember crying when another child said it was weird my parents aren’t the same colour.🥺

But this 'in betweenness' has turned into a blessing in disguise - making me more interested another cultures. Trapped in this stale BLACK-WHITE binary I decided to travel. I went to Latin America, a place of miscegenation and felt more accepted and then in Japan fell in love with that somewhat xenophobic monoculture despite its prejudices. This gave me an insight into being an outsider into, for instance since I am British but at the same not feel both less than totally British and more than totally British. Or as author Afua Hirsch has it - Brit-ish.

Writer, critic and some time semiotician, Matthew De Abitua in a thread on the LI Semiotic Thinking Group pointed out some time ago, that semiotics people are often operating on the margins or intersection of more than one culture. Maybe giving us a sort of a 'Double Consciousness'... So this in betweenness has allowed me to perhaps see cultural complexity as normal and easier to navigate than some.


Semiotics practice is partially to be understand as a vocation. When I was looking for a job after coming back from Japan I used the Nelson Bollis book "What Colour is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-hunters and Career Changers" which I thought was a really good read - mainly because it's premise was that you should list all the skills you love using, then work out what fields and occupations involve that repertoire of skills, and then start speaking to senior people in those fields to learn more about them. When I look back at the circuitous route I've taken to my present occupation that I sort of 'fell into' I can now see how the traits I identify providentially led me to semiotics.

My Japanese history professor at SOAS once gave me a glowing recommendation whilst accusing me of being bent on 'trying to create his own curriculum' and being more interested in broadening knowledge than in specialising to get higher grades. Yup, Kaoru, that's me!

More recently I have come across Ken Mogi's The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life.

You may have seen this diagram bandied about in various places:




Vocation is defined by the Dictionary as “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action”, it also has spiritual connotations and that of being dedicated to a special craft skill. What I'm doing is definitely, WHAT I'M GOOD AT; it's usually, WHAT I LOVE -- though of course some projects are more wholesome than others, and the fact I am still in business after 9 years that it is WHAT YOU CAN BE PAID FOR. I also believe the critical perspective semiotics and similar techniques brings is WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS, mainly because as General Patton said 'if everyone is thinking the same, then someone isn't thinking' and semiotics ALWAYS brings that provocative thinking. I'd certainly like to unify the semiotics with my other passions in a more holistic way. But I think that this is a topic for another blog post.

I could turn here to the obligatory Victor Frankl quote about the key to life being to develop a 'sense of meaning'. But that would be clichéd. Charles Sanders Peirce, a pioneer of semiotics described by his biographer as a ‘wasp in the bottle’, believed that the universe was perfused with signs and spent much of his life documenting and taxonomising them. Peirce believed that human behaviour is determined by a tendency to take habits and these habits form the essence of belief. Consequently men became more like themselves over time - signs of themselves. There is a compulsive aspect to doing semiotics - it be both a gift and a curse when you cannot turn it off - for sure. Mental health must be cared for. But strangely, these compulsions are serendipitously rooted in the various characters traits I have been reflecting on that I've been considering above. And they can be of service to all those wanting to better understand the meaning in (branded) signs.

So what character traits do you have? And how have these led you to your line of work. What are the deep seated character traits stemming from your upbringing and autobiographical details that don't appear in your professional profile on Linked In you'd be prepared to share?

Maybe we can start a threat of some sort. I'd love to hear from you. DO share in the thread below.

10 Random Semiotic Projects


Okay, so I lied.

They're not really random. They are the last 10 projects I've worked on or pitched for under the Creative Semiotics Ltd imprint.

A wise man once said that when you're selling a service to fall in love with the problem and not the solution. You don't really need to know how (the solution) semiotics works. I do want to show its relevance to your business and your current pain points.

Semiotics can add value in many different ways so I thought I'd share anonymised accounts of the 10 last in bound enquiries I have had. Most of these I have worked on as projects, and will present in trade papers or conference case studies in the future. Others are enquiries that may not convert. No matter. They still show where the demand is coming from; with which problems.


Semiotic analysis of the way brands convey 'value for money' when offering trading and deals across category. The ultimate aim is to create distinctive branded visual assets to help the client do promotions in a way that doesn't cheapen them.


Distillation of Japanese cultural knowledge into 10 salient codes to give an agency creative department springboards to new territories that were grounded in a Japanese cultural essence of relevant evidence, substantiating their imaginative leaps. 


Giving a semiotic view on the likely reception and inter-cultural impact on the UK market of a prospective corporate communications campaign. This involved not only visual rhetoric of videos, advertising, press releases etc also sensing ideological biases etc.


Undertaking a 360 degree semiotic analysis of the packaging codes of UK premium and personal care brands to feed into the creative brief for pack designers working on a global pack refresh and alert them to layout, colour schemes, typefaces and on pack claims.


Semiotic instructions for tagging content in a more nuanced way has helped created a comprehensive taxonomy based on a uses and gratification framework of users that is enabling a media corporation to better serve their audience through data science. 


The semiotic focus on meaning is great when looking into the history of a brand to identify timeless symbolic material to be retrieved and repurposed. We distilled our findings and delivered a range of visualised strategic options for a client workshop.


A startup drinks brand experiencing 100% per annum growth has embarked on their first research programme to inform a marketing strategy. They want to use semiotics to revamp their visual language to ensure distinctiveness in a crowded marketplace. 


Sometimes it is about being a provocative voice amongst others. I recently took part in service design workshop along with other experts from behavioural economics, decision theory etc to evaluate various interface options for a service design brand.


Sometimes semiotics can be delivered as part of expert opinion panel. In this context the question was about the prospective connotations of semiotics/semantics of a new product name - for a snack brand to be launched within the UK.


Contemporary semioticians need to understand identity politics. This study aims to streamline the brand mission, visual identity and core messaging of an arts organisation focused on social justice to help them be more distinctive to audiences.Hopefully, you have a better grasp of the sort of projects that I work on - though of course, this is just a microcosm of my work.

Hopefully, you'll now have a better grasp of the sort of problems I solve - though of course, this is just a microcosm of my work.

So if you have a similar problem and you see it in these words, then get in touch and I'll let you know if I can help. And if not I'll pass you onto the many good people I know in other methodologies such as behavioural economics, neuro-metrics etc.

10 Harsh Lessons My Younger Entrepreneurial Self Needed To Learn


My business turned 9 years last month.

I've been turning over in my head what i'd like to say on my blog to mark this in some way - because honestly, when I started Creative Semiotics I had no idea it would last this long. So it's a bit of a milestone for me. What popped into my head as an overarching theme was the things I have learned along the way. These aren't necessarily all business lessons, or branding lessons. Many of them are life lessons.

I decided to whittle it down to the "10 Harsh Lessons My Younger Entrepreneurial Self Needed To Learn"

Caution: I am going to apply some Radical Transparency here and admit some things I probably shouldn’t be and for three main reasons:

a) I know how 'the news' generally works. People are more interested in things going wrong than things going right. Funny, that!

We have a negativity bias so people interested in me, will want to get an insight into these titbits for curiously, and prurience sake. Me too.

b) The people I like to read most about reveal something about themselves and without that, we cannot build any sort of connection.

Too much corporate communication is fundamentally disingenuous and amounts to an elaborate humblebrag... See Alastair Millar's post.

c) Because none of us are perfect in running our businesses; so perhaps someone might even benefit from something I write here...

Plus, I'm a poet. We emote. That's what we do. So, let's dive straight in...


When I was starting the business I realised that I had a stark choice. I could either keep things broad, and parlay my blend of qualitative research, planning and other skills and become a 'brand consultant'. And thus join a long and growing list of freelancers and be eligible for a large volume of work. OR I could specialise in semiotics and plough a narrower furrow - fewer opportunities but a bigger chance of winning the piece of work. I opted for the 2nd option. The advantages of this are that I am a thought leader in my area and get to do fascinating projects that involve triangulation between brands and culture. And I am also on a relatively short shortlist with semiotics briefs come up! 

i consider myself to be a 'T-shaped person' with a specialism in semiotics but able to operate autonomously as a creative strategist too.

Sometimes frustrating that on the bigger ticket branding projects I have to pass the baton on to lead consultants and that I don't get asked to manage  a suite of research techniques - but that's just part of the territory that comes with how you position yourself in a marketplace.


Since I've started i've witnessed may changes which have occasioned changes in the sector I work in. 

Check out the Mark Ritson part of this APG review:

The Rise of Big Data, The Rise of Behavioural Sciences and neuro-metrics science, the growth of client maintained research communities, the shift of budget towards measurable research data and programmatic all these have impacted on qualitative insight feeding into brand planning. Semiotics then needs to be applied differently to work in synergy with these areas. In the 2000s I was working more with qual and ethnography, now it's just more with behavioural insights and qualitative methodologies. But it turns out that semiotics is equally good finding patterns in big data sets, can work in concert and synergy with behavioural economics through the medium of framing. But in other senses our need for sophisticated readings of culture has only grown more urgent and essential to help us navigate the culture wars and to matching brand purpose to cause marketing through awareness of the working of ideology in imagery semiotics is essential getting it right.

Ultimately semiotics will always be relevant because provocative views on culture that help brands get unstuck from the ruts they settle in are needed. As General Patton said, "if everyone is thinking the same, then somebody isn't thinking". Semiotics is an antidote to this.


A few years ago I wrote about the sort of projects I wanted to do my dream briefs; these included some quite utopian projects, but also more realistic – as it happens I am currently on something very key to a public organisation. I’ve only done one project that I felt was quite morally questionable and personally felt uncomfortable doing – otherwise, I’ve turned a few tobacco projects and some other proejcts (researching net neutrality, working for brands dirreclty encouraging militarism etc). I’m no saint, but there are just things I don’t work on – and that;s just fine. It turns out that blogging about you want and migrating towards what you want to do takes time, but has its own logic.


Going self employed means realising that you've struck an bargain. it's a bit too melodramatic to call it a Faustian bargain, but it is a sort of a pact. You are now free to set your own working hours. Which sounds great... Until it isn't. Time management is at a premium to create your own structure, and at any one time you could be doing anything and nothing - you have to decide what is optimal at any one moment. Secondly, you no longer have a boss. At least not one person telling what to do. But the unsaid concomitant of this is that you have another boss. It's capricious and anonymous - it's called The British Economy and it can be a cruel master. Of course there are fewer pesky requests from colleagues. And no office politics - working with people you don't get on with - but again, the solitude can also be a killer. Like i said. it's a bargain. And you exchange one form of stress - of being constrained and directed for another - being free to succeed, but also to fail.

At worst I can feel like an unemployed person with a Company Number. I could be a lot better at the hustle. I wrote this to remind myself.

When the phone isn't ringing it can be tough, but when I'm being of service to clients and have ownership of it, it feels like a real honour.


In Susan Nash's consultancy book How to Start and Run a Successful Consultancy, she recommends getting to know your customers from the outset. this is, frankly, something I've always struggled with. I'd love to get to know my clients better - but whilst I know the sort of job titles who tend to commission semiotics, it seems to be more of a psychographic segmentation that determines who phones with the need. In work with a business coach I wrote that what my clients have had in common is that they are 'enemies of the insipid insight solution'. They want clarity but also provocation. But where to find them?!? I joked with another semiotician that at times clients at times feel like the Illuminati. You suspect they exist, but it's hard to find them. I do connect with relevant people on LinkedIn – but it's not the most congenial setting. I've never found direct consultative sales works and conferences are not only soulless affairs but they tend not to best way to connect with people. So far, my strategy is content marketing and raising awareness and clients get in touch when they want something.


In 2011 I spent about £5k on attending a conference in 2011. I won't say which one to save their blushes. It was a sink bin for my hard earned cash. I had to buy the shell of the stand I was in - see the image above - pay for a speaking slot and I paid for someone to man the stand while I was speaking, networking.  As to the event, one of the most soulless, insipid, corporate hell holes you could ever imagine. I was harried by suppliers selling services I did not want, and the clients and prospects I wanted to contact were nowhere to be seen. At the end of the day someone even stole our box of ganache. Fast forward to 2012 I decided I wanted to start my own event. 8 years later this event called Semiofest, a Celebrating of Semiotic Thinking I co-founded is still going. We have a created an event - that I look forward to going to every year and has created a network that delivers inspiration, sub contractors and has generated some business too. Win win win.


The name of the business is Creative Semiotics. Semiotics is a mix of art and sciences – it is lateral thinking that helps us uncover what you might call 'non arbitrary creativity'. I’ve found that creativity is a really important thing for me to rebalance the mentally tiring business of decoding branding collateral. Semiotics is fascinating but decoding images becomes compulsive and can compound one's internet addiction.

Outside of work my creative expression is various through writing poetry, doing open mics, poetry and a bit of stand up – making sure that I balance the cultural consumption with some cultural expression – I believe that this just doesn’t make me better at doing semiotics, it is also for a requirement for mental health. Semiotics involves sustained analysis, and can be very isolating - we need to switch off but also to engage in play. For me it's poetry and calligraphy is the slow, absorptive to counter acts the manic, attention scattering of social media.

Of course, I like to be creative in how I brand myself, through my blog posts, Sixty Seconds of Semiotics and other communication.


Well, I’ve been writing a book on semiotics since 2016, just before the EU Referendum – and just like Brexit, it’s been through many twists and turns but hopefully will have a positive outcome. It’s a book designed to explain the process of applied semiotics. I have shared it with select people in my network and it has received very positive feedback. My ambition for the book is to write something scholarly that retains the depth and rigour of the enterprise, but also to show the range of semiotic applications and how indispensable it is as a way of revealing the complexity of brand meaning – at the moment it is poised between being a classic textbook for universities but it may yet also become something for practitioners. I'm wrangling with the publisher since there are advantages and challenges in both / either one of these routes. It has been frustrating. At times I feel the conservatism of academic reviewers means I have to jump through more hoops than I'd like.

But I'm continuing with it. For all those struggling with writing projects, I recommend following this person on LinkedIn:

And this blog post too:


95% of businesses fail in their first 5 years and thereafter – most of these businesses thrive according to some fall in love with the solution and not with the problem. So grit and perseverance are more important than intelligence. When the phone isn’t ringing, or the pipeline is weak there is always more to do. In an Attention Economy it is important to be persistent since everyone is so busy. It might be that your offer is not right for a customer, but it might also be you haven't persevered as much as you could have. Sometimes it’s best to be persistent up to a point and then to move on…They say that it is darkest just before the dawn - I've had some cash flow issues - but always come through it. My belief is that constant prospecting and content marketing will always generate business - even if consultative sells are not always easy.

I find this an inspiring watch:


It’s difficult to find a mentor when you’re doing something niche. Maybe it's easier if you run a creative shop, but frankly, there are not that many people who've been there done that you also aren't rivals... I never knew the different between a coach and a mentor until recently. I’ve mentored people but never really been mentored. In the end I guess I’ve been mentored by my mistakes. A mentor provides guidance and help and they are trustworthy... I have been lucky enough to be able to draw upon peers like Asif Noorani and others with whom I work and it means I have a trusted adviser to runs things by, to tighten up my conclusions for clients and to increase my final value as strategic advisor. I would advise everyone to get the humility to find mentor as early as possible, they can highlight the 'unknown unknowns' for you.

So there we go, another elaborate #humblebrag and a thinly veined pretext for bombarding you various legacy blog posts.😃I've probably been too revealing here. But there we go. Always interested in people's responses to this - and especially those who run their businesses.


10 Inconvenient Truths for Semiotic Skeptics

It turns out #semiotics isn't about making s*** up to sound clever.

It's apparently about UNCOVERING or REVERSE ENGINEERING the way MEANING is REPRESENTED or CONSTRUCTED... It turns out that you can ACTUALLY STUDY and even PRACTISE a subject full of helpful FRAMEWORKS and WAYs TO LOOK AT THE WORLD that HELPS YOU ANALYSE CULTURE and COMMERCIAL SIGNS more rigorously focused on the ultimate MEANINGS that can be GENERALISED for people across a SHARED CULTURE. And it turns out that a bunch of people* actually DO this thing and GET PAID for it by BRAND OWNERS and associated CREATIVE AGENCIES. It’s CRAY CRAY! (bear with the sarcasm) I KNOW!!! It scandalised me too when I heard.😂

Apologies for the INTENTIONALLY sarcastic tone. But at least I got your attention. I try to alternated my blog posts by 1) educating on semiotics and 2) rehearsing a semiotic analysis on some aspect of pop /brand culture. What I want to cover in this blog post are TEN WAYS in which MEANING WORKS in culture, that EXIST, and would exist whether you'd ever heard the word SEMIOTICS or NOT

As for us humble semioticians: we didn't CREATE this and we don't CONTROL it. But neither can WE - any of us - IGNORE these meanings.

What does this sign mean?


It's hard to tell - isn't it - it largely depends whether it appears on a radar, or a piece of tech equipment, or a women's forehead or a branding message such as the AIDS red dot.
If I was to put it into this context it might help you to determine things. What surrounds a sign or cue helps to determine how we interpret that sign or cue. This is something Marshall McLuhan understood very well - he called it Figure vs Ground - most people only look at the figure – but in order to really see what is going on we need to focus as much on the Ground.  I have applied this recently to what I’ve said about mixed race in the UK identity and in general to the ‘colouring’ of our high streets, how this has become hegemonic in visual culture, and how it re-positions all white portrayals seem implicitly exclusionary by default.  A parallel to this is what is called the Overton Window a term used to describe the Ground of political discourse, and thus what determines the ‘realm of the thinkable’ politically. So as the overall discourse morphs any ‘ideology’ sounds variously bonkers or entirely reasonable.

APPLICABILITY: Doing semiotics in branding involves studying contexts, tracking the category dynamics and cultural change that will impact on the meaning of a given brand

Can you look at this without thinking of something else?

I thought not. It is very suggestive! The human mind cannot avoid making connections.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, this is why you have interpreted this sculpture as you have.
Whenever we see an object, we pull in meanings from other contexts. Abstract art indeed relies on this, as Kandinsky knew. I have attempted to put this together in an animated film, pulling in the associations with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture which you can view here.
When I am asked to tease out the connotations of a particular typeface or colour in a project, I aim to trace its occurrence - where that product has appeared before in culture – since that is what most customers or people do. All the cultural meanings and baggage it has accumulated will be brought into the new context. For instance, associations of Didone type with fashion. Of the connotations of pink or purple in youth branding which I have also been thinking and writing about recently – and the now problematic meaning of gold, tainted with vulgarization.
This is what I pulled out in a blog post around Donald Trump's victory speech in 2016 – his child softens your interpretation. His innocence, his youth, his awkwardness, how this tends to neutralise negativity, and what it says about the future stewardship of the President-Elect.

APPLICABILITY: Arguably, the objective of much advertising and branding, is to trigger off a cascade of positive associations in the consumer mind, which leads to brand equity.

Can you define Scottishness for me?

You almost certainly started off by positing Englishness as a foil to the Scottish, which is not surprising given the inextricable history of these two people. How about trying to define Canadianness without reference to Americanness. Pretty tough given US influence.
A whole Molson ad campaign was predicated on the indignation of Canadians who are often mistaken for American. It you look at the centralising logic of the Maple Leaf symbol it is oppositional identity to that of the partitioning, fissiparous, federal US Stars and Stripes.
How do we define the idea of blackness in identity politics, without mentioning whiteness'? It is hard to do so. Cultural critics such as Jeffrey Boakye argue that it is only ‘whiteness’ the unmarked, invisible, unquestioned hegemonic identity, that makes people identify as Black.
Arguably since both are constructs. Not even to mention male and female. Hence the idea of non-binary and the empowered assertion of a neutral position. Increasingly the fashion is liminality - the in-between, a zone which is NEITHER or BOTH - as I recently blogged on Mixed Race Identity. But even this means positing an implicit binary. Thierry Mortier has coined the equation I = f (O) Identity is a Function of Otherness. There are those who find this messy mongrelisation threatening, hence the rise of xenophobic populismbased on harking back to a nativist simplicity debunked by Akala. These are all things semiotics helps us grasp with both more nuance and with more starkness – which is a hallmark of semiotics.

APPLICABILITY: the idea of binary opposites does not just come into identity but about the way we structure brands in categories - tiers of value for instance budget vs standard.

What is purely original? Nothing.


Popular culture is a tissue of codes and references and creation is part inspiration, part shamelessly borrowing. Lady Gaga channelled Jeff Koons for her Pop Art album. Janelle Monae channels Fritz Lang with a Afro-Futurist twist! Black music lyric based forms like hip-hop trap or grime are based on homage and thickly layered references to other lyricists, tracks or rap folklore.

When there is a cultural event such as the debut of a new season of Game of Thrones or Childish Gambino’s This is America, the internet sets about deconstructing it. Whether it is thinking up alternative endings to favourite shows on Medium, puzzling over hidden meaning in videos or films or dissecting the transmogrification of memes on Reddit or Buzzfeed or to dig into how a song was composed via Song Exploder or Dissect or how a soundtrack was chosen for a certain film on BBC 6 Music. Inter-textuality – the belief that the texts (songs, books and art) produced within culture are inherently parasitic and build on previous work.
The novel, and subsequent film, Ready Player One is premised on a quest to decode and piece together 1980s pop references.
Memes take inter-textuality to an extreme riffing upon popular culture, often invoking a film or celebrity foible or famous catchphrase and applying it to a mundane or topical happening.
Even nations have had recognise the cultural capital that comes with pop culture reference. When Israel responded to Iran during a diplomatic spat - it did so using a Mean Girls clip.

APPLICABILITY: inter-textuality is the mix of citation, allusion, and outright homage that includes parody, spoof and pastiche and that powers social media and suffuses pop culture. Netizens are increasingly interested in disentangling the embedded references.


Who signed this off? How could there have been people of colour in the room!?

Just as behavioural economists have debunked the false conceits of classical economics, in the realm of decision making, semiotics offers a more realistic, realistic view of the basic messiness of human communication. Semioticians believe that far from unmediated signals that  send pristine packets of meaning, a premise of classic information theory, signs are mediated by culture, which unavoidably impacts on the eventual interpretation of messages. This can include corporate culture - meaning insiders are blind to what to outsiders is common sense.

Thinkers like John Fiske and Stuart Hall warn us that when we fail to see the codes of the audience, there might be a failure of transmission. This accounts for cultural resistance to trivialising of protest leading to the demise of this solipsistic Pepsi ad. In 2019 are now operating in a MUCH more complex world and we see cultural fault lines forming not only between but WITHIN societies. The so called ‘Cultural Wars’ is creating an ideological divide to go along with the and growing stratification of generational fault lines between cohorts like Millenials and Gen X, let alone Boomers. In this context brand owners may be tempted to launch deliberately polarising campaigns to trigger controversy and this court media attention – such as was the case with the British Army snowflake campaign. Or others are deliberately ‘double coded’ to appeal to two different sub-cultural constituencies simultaneously, such as We are Not an Island TV ad for HSBC starring Richard Ayoade.

APPLICABILITY: understanding the audience and dynamics of hermeneutics on the internet is more important than ever... 

What does this symbol mean? It’s a unicorn. I know!

But why has the unicorn become so popular amongst the young over the last few years? Which has spawned a merchandising craze too. Well, of course, there is the social norms effect that drives sharing on social media. But there are a number of elements to it. There is the fantastical, fairy tale aspect to it that helps people return to childhood during a scary time. UK semiotician Rob Thomas wrote in 2017: “Unicorns are a semi-ironic comfort blanket in a world where being a grown-up has never been harder (look at mental health stat's!)” The unique nature of the unicorn has appealed to the marginalized – unicorns used to be associated with psychologists have pointed to the symbolism of the horn on a feminine horse and that is why it has appropriated by the LGBTQ community. And the unicorn has also become associated with start ups and venture capitalists to denote those that had achieved billion dollar valuations. Aside from that, in the UK where unicorns can appear twee, kitsch and a bit naff, it has been deployed as a satirical sign of wishful thinking – around the Brexit debate with both sides accusing each other of unicorn like delusions on this political issue. 

Symbols are magnets for meaning. This is just what they do. Just like physics says capacitors gather electrical charge; symbols gather semiotic meaning.,. Symbols syphon meanings up from the contexts in which they appear. Okay, I have to admit I stole this from Adam Alter's book Drunk Tank Pink but semiotic thinkers (such as Charles Peirce) long ago understood that symbols grow, swelled by habit and belied. And religious symbols are no different.

APPLICABILITY: symbols change meaning, whether the hijab or the hoodie – in an era of suscipicion towards belief systems symbolic meaning is an ever more contested quality

What does this say to you?

Tt says that someone is typing and I am eagerly awaiting their message. I also know that if no message appears I feel bad. This is a mild version of a notifications window once you've posted a poem on there 5 hours ago. And it has STILL RECEIVED ZERO LIKES! You feel worse.

 A reminder of one of the reasons why I came off all the ‘socials’ -Twitter and Facebook. Something that Jaron Lanier says is inherent to the medium itself… These are signals. A signal is The issue with signalling is we signal all the time – we can’t help it – but also that we learn to crave the stimulus that signals provide. I am talking here about Pavlovian conditioning of the human via the variable rewards of social media, and the hijacking of dopamine levels and our reward system and its threat to our mental health through internet and smartphone addiction. And just like the detective asks us to give attention to the ‘dog that doesn’t bark’ semioticians need to be alert to the absent signal that causes alarm. It isn’t just the semioticians that study signals. Evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists and neurological-scientists are equally convinced that signalling is key and in branding implicit signalling is stronger than ever. 

APPLICABILITY: signals are important because they affect us because in the digital economy people are all trying to get our attention and so we are primed to expect them and we crave them – because of this we drive addictions and compulsions

Why has this Price Comparison reverted to a soft and fluffy logo?


Don’t they deal in hard headed calculations of financial advantage? Er, yeah! And that is just the point. Deference to consumers and disarming scpecticm and suspicion is one of the first jobs to be done by any financial institution where it be Goldman Sachs calling sub brand Marcus or Monzo using orange and other colours to brand their credit cards. This is not less true for MoneySupermarket. Which of these shapes is more likely to mean maternal? Phil Barden cites a well known experiment to prove this. Which shape below is Kiki or Buba?
Yet some people still labour under the misconception that aesthetics is entirely subjective.  Really? Not the last time I checked.

Colour for instance or shape can influence how appealing we find a website. Is spite of some cultural nuances, blue remains universally the most preferred colour globally associated with the sky hope and openness – navy blue conveys stability. Some colour physiologically affects us as in Drunk Tank Pink takes its title from the shade of pink proven to subdue prisoners. In stark contrast, biophilia – use of plants, biomorphic shapes and natural light, is used in architecture and interior design precisely because it evokes feelings of nature and calm.
Cognitive semioticians join evolutionary biologists in studying the ways in which many meanings are rooted in how our very anatomy or physiognomy and how basic cognitive schema drive the most fundamental premises, or e.g. affects how we read visual images

APPLICABILITY: many meanings are pretty universal – and need to be respected – NOT all malleable – some things are hard wired. You don’t want to be fighting against this tide in branding – innovation is only effective if it’s also congruent otherwise it’s a false economy.

How do you measure the pleasure from your favourite track? Answer: you can't.


We live in a world obsessed with quantification and to believe what cannot be measured can be safely disregarded. But it's not always all about the numbers. As Rory Sutherland writes, we should not allow Efficiency Optimization to crowd out Meaning Optimisation. Sometimes it is the very irrationality of the thing that creates the most significant meaning. When it comes to product design, qualitative differences are the key drivers of appeal. Contour bias and other factors - it is hard to exactly quantify curvature and colour hue and correlate this with the reaction - with careful and nuanced study we can start to create models of meaning.

How about music? How do you quantify WHY one track hits harder than another?
Semiotics can help us to explain the hidden rules of musical meaning, something which other methodologies shy away from. As an emotional language, music is harder to pin down, but we can say meaningful things about how the choice tonal character, auralised metaphor, genre markers, instrumentation, and other variables are likely to affect overall meaning.

APPLICABILITY: specialises in the messy, inchoate bring some order, models, of course this can be determined in qualitative research, but semiotics can save


Is it really true that interpretations are all equally valid?

Not all interpretations are equally valid – you all know football pundits who convince and those who don’t.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink argued that we all have an ‘adaptive unconscioius’ that can come to incredibly rapid judgements through instinct. He argues that decisions made quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously or deliberately but that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled…”.

Some people argue that culture is a realm of subjectivity so that all opinions are equally valid. Umberto Eco once pronounced that that in the realm of culture more than one interpretation is always possible – but it is also not true that all interpretations are equally plausible. A
Semiotics is to a certain extent a case of harnessing, drilling instincts to read culture so that we produce more fine grained, nuanced, layered, insightful and convincing interpretations.
It is not just frameworks but a set of aptitudes, skills and a hyper-awareness that is cultivated as you complete not something you can do straight out the box in plug and play fashion. A semiotician is like a detective we find clues in culture, weigh up their relative weight but also must be a lawyer, making the case for a certain meaning based on contextual factors.

APPLICABILITY: - it is the experience curve of the seasoned semiotician, the hundreds of analogous projects they have done that accrues value, but always judge a semiotician on the the justifications and evidence they put together as well as the nuance and contextual richness
The label SEMIOTICS, just HAPPENS to tie all these things together - WHY? Because to account for meaning properly, it turns out you actually NEED pretty much ALL of them.

*I think it is important here to say that I am NOT dismissing valid questions about the place of the interpreter in doing semiotic analysis, that the place of the interpreter is SUPER IMPORTANT - it's really vital to check in your biases and assumptions in every form of analysis. However, EVERY SEMIOTICIAN I have met is striving to INFER meaning from the MEDIA OBJECTS, CULTURE AND CONSUMER CONTEXT and other objects of analysis that will be meaningful for a MASS CULTURE - rather than IMBUING them with fanciful subjective meaning where it did not exist. Hopefully, the 10 principles outlined above that we can agree underlie how we ALL make meaning, go some way to demolishing this argument.

what they know and have learned about culture, Actually, as another semiotician writes, semiotics is one of the subjects that best does this.
Some people still think we MAKE THIS STUFF UP... But honestly, some of the arguments against semiotics, YOU COULDN'T MAKE THEM UP.
YES, we need to improve in YES, we need to improve on and YES BUT - the above 10 are pretty hard to argue against.

That's enough CAPS for one day. Good night.


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