Sorry if I annoy you, I’m just doing my job… well.

April 19th, 2016


Lenora Rauch and her highly significant Bonsai tree © Deutschland '83

‘Man, you are really annoying’ a client recently told me – and she was right, I am. We were working on a brand for her new business and I’d been asking her about who her client-base were, it turned out she wasn’t entirely sure and we took some time out to work out the answer, a process that was difficult and confronting for her. It would surely have been easier for us both if I hadn’t pushed her so hard, if I’d just been happy with a more general answer. Indeed, if her offering had been general a general answer would have sufficed, but it wasn’t, it was quite specific and I knew that understanding her audience more deeply would help the brand communicate much more effectively and so, in turn, make her business more likely to succeed. This isn’t just brand-monger’s spin, it’s scientific fact and to demonstrate I am going to take you back to the dark days of the cold war…

…Watching the very last episode of ‘Deutschland ’83’ earlier this year, as the paranoia of the East German Stasi pushes the whole of Europe towards the brink of disaster, we see Lenora Rauch (Stasi handler and Aunt of undercover soldier Martin) absent-mindedly picking at the leaves of the bonsai tree on her desk. Up until that point Lenora has been a bit of a mystery, is she Stasi through-and-through like the men higher up the chain of command obviously are, is she just doing what needs to be done to survive in the situation she finds herself in or is she playing some other kind of hand brilliantly close to her chest? For those who spotted it, that moment with the bonsai tree revealed all – she is clever, patient, an expert in the long game and when her denouement unfolds as a graceful escape, a long time in the planning, involving a handsome African attaché and a stack of false passports, thanks to the brief scene featuring the bonsai tree, I am not surprised.

I am particularly thrilled when I spot a significant glimpse of a bonsai tree. Partly because you don’t see them all that often and uncommon things always come with a frisson more excitement, partly because they’re tiny and I LOVE tiny things, but mainly because as a sign it is really clever – the signifier (the image of the tree on the screen) is neat and subtle whilst the signified (the idea of a person having a very well thought-through, long-term plan and the patience to let it unfurl in its own time) is rich and complex.

The concept of the signifier and the signified being the two parts of a sign and signs themselves forming the basis of communication is the foundation of semiotics, sometimes called the science of signs. Here’s a simple example: signifier ‘dog’, signified ‘idea of four-legged, furry, domesticated animal’. However, where semiotics gets interesting is when you realise that whilst the signifier, in our case ‘dog’, is fairly stable, the signified varies from person-to-person and between contexts: ‘ferocious beast likely to bite’ / ‘cute, loving, faithful companion’.

Let’s just pause to think about that more carefully – in order for a piece of communication to do its job properly the visual (or oral) cues must create the required understanding in their audience, and the implication of that is that the audience must be known to be sure the meaning is as intended.

Knowing how to manipulate signifiers (knowledge which forms the foundation of information design) is absolutely key to effective communications but equally as important is having a clear understanding of the people you’re targeting. This is why I ask such annoying questions and challenge our clients in ways they often aren’t expecting, but it’s also why our work, like the bonsai tree, is really clever.


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog, but I want to know what other things could have been signified by the bonsai tree to different members of the audience? I’m thinking I might see Lenora Rauch as someone who stunts the growth of free spirits. Is it unfair to judge in that way, having not seen the film, just basing it on that one sign out of context?

    by: Ann on 20th April 2016 at 11:08 am


    • Hey Ann, thanks for reading this blog and for your insightful comment – you’ve brought up one of the major complications with the concept of ‘an audience’: at what point do individuals become part of a larger audience and then get treated as a group? It is an interesting fact that we are much more malleable and obedient than you’d think, we often give up our individuality willingly when it comes to understanding signifiers particularly on TV and screen. For example when we watch something that’s really mainstream we accept and understand mainstream signs but we are the same person who looks for and understands much more complex signs when we know we’re watching something more niche. Context is the other variable of the signified, and as an information designer the way you aim to control the understanding is by setting the scene of the piece using, yes you’ve guessed it, even more signs!

      by: shaell on 20th April 2016 at 12:10 pm


  2. I had always thought that when I am communicating I am speaking in a very unambiguous way, passing on information, facts and opinions, that can only really be interpreted in one way. The idea that my communication could just be signifiers, that suggest and point to things, that could be interpreted in a different way is rather interesting. I now want to look at whether you could categorise an audience by how they interpret a particular signifier. You could even deliberately lead different people in different directions using the same signifier, knowing that they will interpret it differently. I think novel writing, especially detective stories must be a real signifier fest, but perhaps full of false signifiers, which seems rather dishonest.

    by: Ann on 20th April 2016 at 9:15 pm


    • Interesting and true Ann, semiotics rather blows one’s mind! I almost lost the ability to communicate at all when I first started to learn about it; such a profound thought that written and verbal communication is so much less stable than we think. The detective novel / film / tv show would be a great place to contain a new found interest in signs, they are stuffed with them and because of the nature of the genre they never have to be explained because we’re only interested in what turns out to have really happened. Significance without any of the responsibility!

      by: shaell on 21st April 2016 at 3:51 pm


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