Beyond the Obvious: A visual textual analysis of the value of commercial signs

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Beyond the obvious: a visual textual analysis of the communicative value of commercial signs.

Ruth Brolly,
Ulster University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Signs punctuate the urban environment, ranging in form, format and purpose. They provide information about the world in which we live. Commercial signs particularly inform as to the affordances of place, indicate where services or goods are available, linking information to individual and, through their text and discourses, linking individual to place. This paper employs an interdisciplinary approach to investigate how the role of commercial signs extends beyond their obvious function, through observation of further levels of signification within their visual text. Examples provided are from images gathered during multi-sited ethnographic field studies undertaken in the city of Belfast.

People are active and dynamic in the urban environment, signs are generally static objects, artefacts; however, it may be argued that they cannot be passive. Just as people interact directly or indirectly with others in the urban environment, so too do they interact with signs – even when not engaged in the act of reading or interpreting their messages, signs provide visual stimulus and environmental cues as to location and safety of the individual. Clusters of commercial signs attract users to places during the day and illuminate at night – where there are signs there are eyes and there is surveillance – they aid wayfinding, forming vital components of the cognitive map. This paper argues that even when commercial signs are not the subject of deliberate or focussed interaction, the aura of these signs, through their location, shape, form, colour and condition, remains perceptible by, and of value to, the individual in a sign-dense environment.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication5th Annual Research Student Conference in Art and Design Centre for Art, Design, Research and Experimentation University of Wolverhampton
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 21 Jun 2013

Bibliographical note

This conference was attended in 2013, at which time the researcher was undertaking a PhD at Ulster University Belfast. The themes explored were those to be further expanded for the PhD thesis.


  • Signs
  • Semiotics
  • Belfast
  • urban environment
  • place
  • Space
  • Ethnography
  • field study


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