I’ve just come back from Semiofest, Tallinn, 2016 and what a truly special event it’s been.

Marvellous content, soulful interactions, and meticulous organisation in every aspect from the great content to the vegan menu from Slap Slop www.slapslop.com (there was absolutely nothing sloppy about the food) to the sharply designed Malevichesque black, white and red Constructivist programmes (see below) and the excellently curated party. Estonia has truly proved itself the Republic of Semiotics and has organized a truly world class gathering.


Figure 1: name badges, Figure 2: sign for venue Figure 3: power station turret

The event was held at the Kulturikattel by the riverfront in Tallinn next to a former Moscow 1980 Olympics Games venue and the site of a Soviet power station now acting as mixed creative / office space. We received a warm welcome as we arrived at the venue we were each given a name badge and a personalised programme with space to take notes. There was coffee and refreshments. And of course, delicious Estonian rye bread and herb butter that I became quickly addicted to over the ensuing week.


Figure 4: Estonian rye bread, Figure 5: the cover of my beautiful programme


Training Day

Semiotics is held in very high esteem in Estonia. This was exemplified for me by my invitation (thanks once again Kaie) to speak on Estonian National Television on their morning programme about semiotics, Semiofest and Estonian national identity. This would certainly never happen in the UK.

The first day we were privileged to learn about how semiotics can be used in an expert analysis. After an intro by Peeter Toorop we were treated to an exposé on how semiotics can be used as expert analysis. Prof Toorop took us through various high profile cases in Estonia on a monument and the extent to which it is likely to show certain connotations. He covered Maxims for the Expert, and the balance between conviction and making clear where you reach the limits of your expertise. Scary stuff! He mentioned other possible applications including adjudicating on the difference between notification and propaganda in ads, the difference between eroticism and pornography in fiction (reminded me of the Ginsberg obscenity court case in the film Howl) and how to detect bias, deception and dissimulation in other reports. As someone who has done this kind of work myself in Estonia, I was interested to see the process with guidelines.


Figure 6: interior of Kulturikatel Figure 7: Katre Parn’s training on Moscow- Tartu school

Katre Parn then shared some basic concepts and principles of the Tartu Moscow School, foremost amongst which was the semiosphere a holistic perspective that offers an atomic molecular understanding of culture and the functions of culture as a creative, mnemonic and transmission mechanism for our species. We then sought to use translation mechanisms, in a sub group co-creation session, moderated by Tyler Bennett in which groups used the models to propose a number of cultural innovation initiatives including launching a small car in Russia, selling ramen noodles in the UK, and putting a more positive spin on immigration.


Figures 8, 9 & 10: co-creation sessions after the training

Wherever we have been we get a flavour of the local culture – we had Greimassian semiotics retraining in Paris last year, so it was excellent to give us all a view on a whole influential school of semiotics – the Moscow Tartu school and one which is particularly amenable to catalysing cultures of innovation.




Figure 11: Farouk Seif delivering the Keynote over Skype

Due to personal circumstances, Farouk Seif had to do the keynote over Skype – our experience of this in past events has been somewhat mixed. This however was excellent a brilliant start to the event.

Professor Seif was a charming and witty raconteur and got the conference off to a great start – even through a Skype connection. Leading with the quote “the highest grade of reality is only reached by signs” (CP. 8.327) Seif presented The True depends on factual information, the Real multiple interpretations…Humans beings are no longer satisfied with facts; they demand to understand their causal connections and strive to discover ways to re-create their reality. He argued that Humanities and Sciences are split between Imaginative Interpretation and Factual Information and that the realm of Design and semiotics, is in the ambiguous and uncertain places between and a skilled mediator between the Real of Humanities “The Real” and the Realm of Sciences “The True” – in the province of semiotics is the realm of the “imaginary”. For him the fusion of design and semiotics is a creative and innovation space of reflection where we play with boundaries.

Semiotic Insight for Innovation


Figure 12: Malcolm Evans and Al Deakin Figure 13: from Thierry Mortier’s presentation

Leading on from this, and on the subject of playing with boundaries, the first session contained three fantastic case studies and an interesting meditation on innovation. Czech partnership of Lucia Trezova and Katerina Ailova presented on a user centred design showed us how to use social semiotics and ethnography to revolutionise the designer of a wheelchair. This involved challenging the hegemonic symbolic representations of disabled people and created a prototype still being worked upon but helped to resolve some of the negative connotations about being lumbered with a wheelchair.

Next up was Maximise Matus, Mexican former Tartu semiotics graduate now working at a consultancy in Mexico City presenting on how to use isomorphic way-finding iconography and to merchandise them and create QR networks in order to better engage younger commuters.

Alpana Parida followed up on her TV case study last year with a brilliant case study on how her team won a great project to develop visual identity solutions for the BRIC funded New Development Bank challenged the stale, hierarchical banking codes with something far more approachable and dialogic. What was impressive about this was the senior level of her client contacts, the way they won the pitch and the influence of the semiotic findings on not just the logo and communication but also on the interior décor and on the furniture used in the new build headquarters of the new Bank… Very impressive. I think we all had a bit of semiotician envy afterwards! Anti Randviir then talked about innovation and the individual thinking about how we resist becoming enmeshed in institutions. I would like to have had some visuals as there seemed like a lot of richness buried in the his presentation that I could not grasp.

The next session was kicked off by Sonia Marques who took us through how she sold in a project by demonstrating that the new is parasitic on the old in our mental schema and discussed the use of metaphor in technology showing that every new technology uses the language of older technologies or metaphors of the body, from the blood metaphors of the road system to the horse metaphors underlying the car to the dead Desktop analogy today.

Then Sam Grange talked about how underestimated is the talent amongst semioticians for structuring information and that brings real clarity to the innovation process. He talked about a project he’d done for Bell Labs and split the use of technology as an interaction medium across space into immersive, augmented and virtual reality were the areas he brought alive to help identify new usage areas for the client.

Next Karin Sandelin from Sweden analysed music videos talking about how at TNS they were able to link the detail of TV programmes (colours, typography, narratives) to consumer archetypes in order to cover the emotional need states to better inform editorial development, casting and production. Gives me some ideas for the BBC. One of the examples given was getting a Swedish artist to work with a cast characters patterned on all the relevant archetypes covering all demographics.


Figure 14: Thierry Mortier, AKA @semiotictv, Figure 15: vegan burrito lunch

Thierry Mortier (AKA The Artist known as UniThree, AKA @SemioticTV, aka Semiotic architect) kicked off the third section by doing what he does best: refreshing our cognitive palette with a visual feast using diagrams to bring to life semiotic thinking tools. This one involved Peirce’s existential graphs and was delivered in his typically laid back, self effecting and witty style.

Thierry was also responsible for curating a bunch of semiotic jokes collected in a PDF that may eventually be published in a Semiofest imprint. (Example: Where did Roland Barthes used to go on a Saturday night? An S&Z club?). Okay, they’re both corny and recondite, but I think a discipline that can laugh at itself is quite healthy (it was the power of laughter to demolish the authority of the Catholic church that was at stake in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose after all). Also Koestler wrote that “the Jester is the brother of the Scientist and the Artist. Comic comparison is intended to make us laugh; objective analogy – science – to make us understand; poetic image – art – to make us marvel, one branch of creative activity is humour.”

After Thierry, we welcomed back Sarah Johnson who gave a polished presentation on semiotics and UX at the heart of which was the insight that if semiotics in branding is about getting signs noticed and UX is about minimising interruptive thought within the user’s life, then what role can semiotics play – the answer: helpful interruptions, rather than draining nuisance, layering of emotion onto affordances and psychographic relevance. This was a most welcome intervention, given the amount of money spent on consumer journey, and user interface work – it feels like semiotics needs to develop some specialist terminology in order to better account for the suite of signs and stimulus encountered in the evolving website space.

Finally, Rodrigo and Roberto from Brazil took us through a case study on how semiotic principles of iconicity are being used to develop treatments for mental illness, and specifically, schizophrenia. They are the in the business of developing realistic facial maquette which act as proxies for the often abusive and destructive monologues plaguing the lives of those living with schizophrenia. The talk was most provocative and elicited a debate about treatment ethics, the use of avatars, developing virtual reality environments and how to better simulate these voices in order to train better resistance to the destructive voices. Great, humane end of Day.


Figure 16: myself, Rodrigo Morais rocking a love theme Figure 17: making new friends @Semiofest

DAY THREE: June 3rd

Branding Insights

Day 2 started with a guided tour of the Kultuutikatel, the mammoth converted power station that hosted Semiofest this year and was the site for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. We had a tour by Rait Talvik, a Director at the Estonian Centre of Architecture who told us how they had converted the cauldrons and headways into halls and corridors and the history of the location, that now hosts conferences and fashion shows and is a shared workspace for design the perfect location for Semiofest. I thought it was quite uncanny that Farouk Seif in his Keynote had mentioned a crucible as a container withstanding very high temperatures as a good metaphor for the fusion of design and semiotics. The crucible is quite apt to describe the collaborative co-creative process we went through together in Boot Camp too (covered below).

Conference business on Day Three was kicked off by Mark Lemon of Sign Salad, ex graduate student at Tartu University presenting on the ability of semiotics to compete with other methodologies via demonstrating the power of the semiosphere. He left us with a great quote to describe the uncomfortable uncertainty of working with emergent codes “like having dinner with Kanye West. You never know what’s gonna happen”. I was thinking at this stage of jumping on stage, seizing the mic and exclaiming, “I’m a let you finish…” but I didn’t think everyone would get the Grammy reference so I let it pass…

Then came one of two appearances from Malcolm Evans presenting on the over 55 market showing that a number of things are coalescing to make death a hot topic – the recent death of baby boomers like Prince and David Bowie amongst these and showing how both older people are not being marketed to skillfully as well as the growing willingness to consider mortality, digital legacies, new creative and spiritualist memorials and funerals and books such as Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and the upsurge in Death Cafés. This was followed by Louise Jolly and Charise Mita who brought much needed clarity to some of the dichotomies between luxury (about aura and suffusion in time) and innovation (generally speed) as well as the various strategies of these – focusing on the luxury watch sector (revolutionised by Apple’s creation of the smart watch category) taking us through attempts to resolve this through ill advised innovations or workarounds; interesting communication gambits on the part Omega (for using an old camera) and how to make luxury meaningful. Ximena Tobi then took us through her development of an analysis matrix to bring semiotics smarts to bring more layered understanding to the context around online conversations amongst Social Science students in the faculty at BA University.


Figure 17: Mariane Cara in full flow

After the break we got a primer on how to revamp a brand in the footwear category by the always passionate, irrepressible Mariana Cara. She told us how important it was to build trust with the client before selling in the solution (it took 5 hours apparently!) and how it was a leap of faith but how the case led to a successful outcome.

Hamsini Shivakumar took us through the rhizome and how it can help to structure cultural codes in a way that was truer to the chaos and inchoate nature of syncretist cultures – in this case the Indonesian fashion industry. Indeed this is a valuable complement to the semiosphere and widens the conceptual tools we can use.

Then Vaula Norrena – who confessed later on at the party that she had thought semiotics had died a death after the 1990s, and was delighted to find, having attended the whole conference that the discipline seemed to be in such rude health – presented on a framework she had developed for categorising advertising across 7 categories analysing the most influential ads across food, cars, into some quadrants – that could then be positioned against consumer psychographics and colours, shapes and narratives crafted to address each desire cluster.
Then Al Deakin spoke about an InterContinental Hotel project which involved a fascinating blend of semiotics and ethnography with a division of labour whereby the ethnography traced the behavioural codes and semiotics focused on drivers and motivations as derived through study of sleep quoting Dali and Inception to detail how sleep and slumber can be segmented and mapped on consumer need states. More semiotician envy from me. Great project.

After the break, Chris Arning (writing about myself in the 3rd person again then, the first sign of madness perhaps?!) introduced himself to two pieces of music to show the massive influence of music on our perceptions and presented the Musical Navigator website which is a resource for helping creatives lacking confidence with music to select more compelling choices and broke down musical meaning into 6 parameters.
Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk then presented on the branding and soft power projection of Georgia, Ukraine and Russia through mega events including the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games – which they analysed as a narrative of historical relics and the Soviet Empire. Georgia streamline – Europe started here was quite clever – there was a bit of debate about the level of propaganda within the opening ceremony after the presentation.

Then Ricardo De Monteiro gave a sophisticated and detailed analysis of the rhetorical strategies of Dilma Rouseff and opposition candidate campaigns in the 2014 electoins analysing both the language and underlying discourses and the polemical imagery (a duck, rat and dummies of Lula) used by the competing groups in post election protests claiming that he had predicted the results of the election and the aftermath. This is a man who survived being shot at playing piano suspended by a crane hundreds of feet in the air over Sao Paolo – so when he speaks, I, for one, take him very seriously.


Figure 18: Thierry Mortier posing next to an Apocalypse Now of Peircean trichotomies

To end the day before the boot camp we had Thierry Mortier who took us through another magical mystery tour through semiotic architecture, this time by dissecting the ancient Taoist Yin Yang symbol via Peircean principles in order to convey its basic triad structure – visual stunning and thought provoking.


Figure 19 & Figure 20: Images from the co-creation session helping Let’s Do it World in Boot Camp

Boot Camp

As in Paris last year, we had a Boot Camp where we invited clients to come with a client communication problem to submit to a team of semioticians. This year, there were two groups. The group upstairs worked for Unmade Certificate http://www.upmade.org. Downstairs we were working for Let’s Do it World, an Estonian organisation founded in 2008 that aims to clean up the world’s rubbish through galvanising a volunteer army. https://www.letsdoitworld.org

They wanted some ideas for the campaign for a proposed September 2018 Global Clean Up day – billed as a simultaneous rubbish pick up day. We split into 5 groups each focusing on a different facet of the business problem. One team focused on waste and how to think about it, another 2 on auditing the Let’s Do It brand to evaluate how it might be improved and the other two teams focused on the demographic target and on advocate groups. Some great insights from all this – about what waste is future waste. From the brand team a sonic signature, a radical idea about targeting 6-16 year olds and Olympians.

As with Citroen and Essilor, the clients were extremely impressed by the results – Piratt Jaaks the Head of Marketing for Let’s Do it World who sat in on the session and briefed us said she was bowled over by the calibre and cleverness of the ideas proposed saying “it was a very exciting experience”, “it was magnificent, and everyone was so passionate about the subject” that she had not expected too much but that they had enough ideas for probably 10 years and was only concerned that the cascade of brand and activation ideas we generated (all with semiotic rationale) were almost too rich for her team to implement for one campaign alone. This is ‘wild’ semiotics, with the theory lost within the instinct of communication problem solving.

Afterwards it was the Semiofest 5th Birthday Party. Caterers Slap Slop (run by an Estonian- Spanish wife husband team) who had previously provided a fantastic gazpacho, catered for a huge Paella outside and there was world music and a mix from DJ Martin inside – mostly reggae inflected and Afro Cuban. At 9pm there was a surprise and I had to make an embarrassing speech (English social awkwardness coming in again). A 5 year birthday cake for Semiofest was presented.

Then we had a salsa class from our very own Martha Arango – a four time Semiofest attendee where we learned merengue, cumbia and salsa. After a bit of couples dancing and others just throwing a few shapes a few of us we made our way into the Old Town onto a secret bar, Nukko previousl patronised by Mark Lemon where shots were downed and ill advised group photos were taken. I left before it got a bit too messy.


Figure 21: Latin dancing Figure 22: Semiofest 5th Birthday cake Figure 23: more dancing!

DAY FOUR: June 4th

How to Catalyse Innovation

I had read Merja Bauters’s PHD thesis on Finnish beer labels where she made a convincing case for how these labels grow and change in meaning over time using Damasio and Peirce. In her presentation made the good point that innovation never really comes about until there is some irritation that forces us to change what we do. Arguing that we are nested in habits which in the Pericean conception add up to belief, it is only doubt that shakes us out of it.

Mauricio Trentin embarked on his presentation with a daring premise, is there a way to help creative minds to risk more, creating more quickly under better conditions? He presented Infuse which gamifies random constraints in order to make abductive leaps, when in his words ‘ you cannot see any way forward’ visualised into patterns that help jog us into new spaces. It was a whistle stop tour through a many chambered creative mind. He showed us beautiful design work intoning ‘well someone has to do it’ – 20 minutes was too short a time to really get to grips with this tool, and everyone wanted a primer on how to take a trip into Imaginary Lands.

Taking a step back into the economics of innovation, looking at the links between cultural semiotics and evolutionary approaches to innovation – Idre ran out of time, but was in the process of analysing the Digital Single Market strategy of the EU. Finally, for me, the paper of the session was Andrius Grigorjevas, Head of Strategy at Idea Group Lithuania. What I liked most about his presentation, aside from the excellently designed slides, was how he combined use of Greimassian semiotics and at the same time a really shrewd understanding of what clients need from semiotic consultants and how we need to distill the ore of insight from the slag of the process and modeling structures used.


Figure 24: Andrius Gregarious speaking about semiotics & innovation Figure 25: Lucia Laurent Neva closing the event


In the blurb for his presentation, Malcolm Evans wrote that “every time a brand semiotician talks about story telling a kitten dies”, yet what we witnessed over an hour of extemporised brilliance was both a personal odyssey within semiotics and grand pageant of rich thinking. In many ways a fitting bookend to Farouk Seif’s excellent opening keynote speech. He began by comparing the different schools of semiotics to the colonies of psychopathological in Philip K Dick’s novel Clans of the Alphane Moon i.e. ‘crazy people on different planets’ but treated us to an account of his formation through British Cultural Studies, Marxist and critical theory, post structuralism and more latterly Peirce and bio-semiotics. Malcolm’s main thesis was that the linguistic turn has, for the last 10 years been overturned by the affective turn with cognitive science, sensorially and the primacy of emotion and the quantum revolution in the life sciences jostling with cultural insight, and demanding our attention. He ended by pulling out 9 potential future directions for semiotics to play in perhaps ‘re-wilding’ the discipline.

In the afternoon, we did some ‘rewilding’ of our own: we all bundled into the back of a bus and took a drive about 80 km East of Tallinn to a national park where we walked through a beautiful Estonian landscape and were told by Kalevi Kull, bi0-semiotician and head of the semiotics department at Tartu University about carbon cycle, the Umwelt of birds and the uniqueness of larches, birches and the peat bogs of Northern Estonia. We ended up at a waterfall a bucolic spot where we had a picnic of leftover paella, salad and bread in the sunshine – a beautiful convivial afternoon chewing over the rollercoaster ride of the conference and mourning its passing. Great finale.


Figure 26: Kaie Kotov looking happy before the group photo Figure 27: nature tour Figure 28: me, Marina and Gleb


The aftermath, since I have returned from Tallinn has been a whirlwind with people uploading photos, writing comments and sharing impressions. Most of the feedback from this event has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic and full of praise as any previous event. I know it is known as a cliché that the President of the IOC says at the end of every Olympics closing ceremony that it’s been the ‘best games yet’, but that does seem to be the consensus about this Semiofest; Tallinn has taken it to new heights!

In conversations afterwards, the abiding impression I have is that most people come away from Semiofests with an overwhelming sense of having received VALUE. Delegates in informal conversations afterwards intimated to me that they would have been willing to pay far more for such an event. And many said that they could not believe the price when considering it. Others that they were surprised by the combination of quality content and warmth. And one that the event has ‘overturned their expectations of what a gathering of applied semioticians might be like. That is music to my ears!

Some were here to find out how to build a semiotics capability at their own agencies, some because they want to commission more semiotics, and of course most to share knowledge and learn from their peers in a supportive milieu. Our mission is to keep Semiofest non-profit and accessible to all and this is what makes it special. In order to provide the best quality including attracting great keynotes and we need to make a modest surplus from each event to cover our running costs. We did that this year but we also need to ensure we get ongoing support. More news on that to come…

My abiding impressions of Semiofest Tallinn, apart from the cobbled streets, cream coloured and turquoise buildings, unexpected sunshine and amazing malty rye bread, was of a painstakingly curated event, crammed full of quality of content, and an atmosphere full of warmth, humanity and ethos of accessibility, sharing and mutual benefit at its heart. Certainly, as a co-founder, the most heartening thing about it is that we continue to strive to be a prototype for conferences that shies away from the soulless corporate facelessness and extortionate pricing of most corporate conferences and attempt to create an ethos of genuine collegiality and sharing that many academic conferences struggle to match. So, we look forward to next year with baited breath. We could be anywhere from Europe to North America to South America to Asia. It all depends on the bids we receive in the next few weeks… We’ll then strive to make Semiofest 2017 even better than Tallinn 2016. As Malcolm said, Semiofest is itself a cultural of innovation and we attempt to approach ‘utopia by increments’.

From the perspective of the Semiofest Board, we approach each annual Semiofest recipe like a prototype, seeing each annual version as a beta as good as it can each year but always with the premise that we adopt a kaizen those of constant improvement year on year, near resting on our laurels, striving to make every iteration of Semiofest better than the year before. This year, the Estonia team led by Kaie Kotov and supported by a crack team supported by Tartu Uni has set the bar extremely high for other Semiofests to follow.

Thanks for coming this year and I look forward to celebrating Semiofest 2017 with you next year. In…? Check www.semiofest.com soon.