The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 34, Issue 3/4, 2018

Applied Brand Semiotics

Mark Lemon
Pages 371-398

Packing in Meaning
Applying Jakobson’s Model of Communication to Packaging Design

From the level of the sign to culture, the practice of semiotic analysis concerns the construction and description of models. Within commercial semiotics, a few of these models (notably Greimas’s semiotic square and Raymond Williams’s concept of residual, dominant, and emergent), have proven particularly useful due to their ability to summarise cultural phenomena in a form readily digested and applied by marketing professionals to their brands. Packaging design is a frequent subject of commercial semiotic enquiry and draws on a wide array of semiotic phenomena ranging from visuals, to textures, and the lived experience of interacting with the package. How can we approach a comprehensive understanding of the potential of packaging design to communicate meaning? In what ways can we say that a package can ‘mean’, and how as semioticians can we help analyze and create novel packaging solutions that further brand meaning? Roman Jakobson’s general model of linguistic communication proposes a diverse array of cross cultural communicative functions for language, but is not currently a key model in the commercial semiotician’s toolkit. This paper proposes that this linguistic model has the potential to be translated into the multisensory realm of general semiotics and applied to packaging design. It will particularly consider how Jakobson’s six communicative functions (emotive, referential, poetic, conative, metalingual, and phatic) are relevant to the numerous non-linguistic sign systems (colour, texture, shape, typography, imagery, material etc.) employed in packaging. In so doing, this paper proposes a system for understanding the meaning potential of packaging design as not only an aesthetic vehicle but also a strategic tool for the cross-cultural development and communication of brand identity.