Jump to: navigation, search
Jacques Bertin

Semiotics is the science and study of signs and symbols, including language and other systems of communication. It is a discipline that is very similar to the philosophy of language, in that they both share a common focus on language. It is an important theoretical framework for Cartography, specifically the design of effective map symbology. Cartographers use symbols to represent direction, location, distance, function, characteristics, etc. These features of the real world are simplified and symbolized on maps as points, lines, and areas. GIS professionals must be aware of the signs and symbols they use and the effect they have on map readers. Choosing the best strategies for symbolization comes from knowing the variety of visual resources there are.


While the science of semiotics was originally founded by Charles Sanders Peirce in the 1860s,[1] its theories were first applied directly to cartography by Jacques Bertin in his 1967 book, The Semiology of Graphics.[2] Bertin developed a framework of visual variables available to the cartographer, including size, shape, value, texture or pattern, hue, orientation, and shape. These resources are then used to draw attention to certain elements within the cartographic endeavor. The real application of applying semiotics is to increase the ease of visual literacy within the cartographic process. All structure however is tied to the desires of the cartographer although there are some generally accepted rules of good design and semiotics. See Symbology for more details on cartographic elements.

Alan MacEachren further developed the use of semiotics as a theoretical framework for Cartography in his 1995 book, How Maps Work,[3] in which he surveys the entire field of semiotics, relating each theory and concept to cartographic design principles.

The Semiotic Triad

Paris Road Map - This map denotes signs and their inherent meanings. The relationship between the signs, meanings and real work objects provide the map reader with road and destination information using objects that provide the geographical context.

According to Peirce, symbols enable communication by forming a relationship between three distinct elements:

  • Sign: the physical data (visual medium, sound, etc.) being transferred. For example, a red line on a map is a sign. The visual variables developed by Bertin is a classification of types of graphical signs.
  • Interpretant: a general concept that provides meaning for a symbol, such as "highway" or "high income."
  • Object: a particular feature of the real world that is being denoted by the sign, such as Bexar County, Texas.

If map symbology is working properly, map readers observe the signs on a map and easily link them to both the proper interpretant and object. For example, "this red line is a highway, specifically U.S. Highway 6." This basic recognition aids subsequent analysis and decision making (e.g., "highways are usually faster than other roads, so I will travel Highway 6 to get to that city.")

Three Branches of Semiotics

Semiotics contains three branches which need to be taken into consideration by cartographers:[4]

  • Syntactics: the study of how signs should relate to each other to create a cohesive and clear whole. For example, the cartographic principle of visual hierarchy is a form of graphical syntax.
  • Semantics: the study of the relationships between the three elements of the semiotic triad; that is, how "meaning" is established. In cartography, studies of the intuitiveness of map symbols and cultural differences in cartographic norms are semantic notions.
  • Pragmatics: the study of the effects of symbols on their users. In cartography, pragmatics includes studies of how map readers use the information they glean from maps to make decisions.

Binary Opposition

Binary opposition is defined as two terms or concepts that have opposite meanings or are in stark contrast with one another.[5] It is one of the foundational points of Semiotics.[6] Examples include: Black and White, on and off, good and evil. Binary opposition is used in maps to show a stark contrast in one area versus another. See Contrast (map design) for more details.


  1. Peirce, C. S. (1994), Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotics, James Hoopes, ed., paper, 294 pp., University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  2. Bertin, Jacques (1983) Semiology of graphics: Diagrams, networks, maps (English translation), Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  3. MacEachren, Alan (1995) How maps work: Representation, visualization, and design, New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Cauvin, C., Escobar, F. and Serradj, A. (2013) A Permanent Phase: The Semiotic Transformation, in Thematic Cartography and Transformations, Volume 1, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA. doi: 10.1002/9781118558133.ch7
  5. "Binary Opposition | Define Binary Opposition At Dictionary.Com". N. p., 2016. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.
  6. Brabazon, Tara."Anne McLeod 5- doing semiotics." Audio Blog Post. "tarabrabazon's podcast." Tara Brabazon. July 19, 2013. Web. September 6, 2016

Chapter 3: Semiotics in Cartography, Ohio State Universtity.

Trifonas, Peter Pericles, International Handbook of Semiotics.