A stroll on the Danube Island leads our columnist to ponder the significance and use of signs and symbols
The lockdown in Austria had started to come to an end and, since it was a public holiday, the sun was shining and the temperature was around 28°C, I decided to take a walk on the Donauinsel (Danube Island). The objective was to practise my skills in identifying and interpreting the semiotics along the way. Although not part of my plan, I also ended up considering elements of the culture and imagining the opposing forces of a mandala in what I would observe.
The Danube Island is a narrow, 21 km-long island that lies between the Danube River and the parallel man-made channel called the New Danube. Despite considerable protest by the residents of Vienna, the construction of the channel commenced in 1974 as part of a sophisticated flood-control system (the Danube runs through Vienna). The 2 800km-long Danube is Europe’s longest river: its source is in the Black Forest mountains in Germany, it runs through a number of countries in Europe and it finally ends in the Black Sea in Romania.
Today the island is a recreation spot for many residents and visitors, who enjoy water sports, cycling, walking, running, bathing, fishing and much more, including just getting out of the city and enjoying nature.
How did semiotics influence my walk?
My initial plan was to look at semiotics with regard to signs and symbols. However, I ended up considering elements of the local culture and imagining a mandala and its opposing forces in what I was seeing. Little did I realise I was also considering aspects of biosemiotics (nature).
There are very few notices regulating the behaviour of visitors. I saw only a few, including one asking people not to feed the wildlife (swans and ducks). A second sign warned people that they were entering a training zone – a section of the river where rowers trained – and asking them to take care while swimming there.
The third sign was slightly more prominent, marked with the letters FKK. The same letters were painted on the tarred path I was walking on. I later found out that it was a warning that visitors were entering an area for nudists.
Being out of the city, enjoying the fresh air and the beauty of nature has an undoubtedly positive effect on a person’s mental well-being. It was good to hear the birds singing in the trees and the sounds of the water being gently splashed by the paddlers’ oars; to watch the swans gliding by; to see the greenery and blossoms on the trees and the flowers on the banks of the river. Relaxed by all the sounds, smells and colours, I moved easily between my conscious and unconscious mind.
As mentioned, only a few signs were on display and I saw no board listing a set of rules and regulations. It seemed that visitors were trusted to appreciate the environment and to take responsibility for their own safety.
For example, numerous waste bins were provided, but there were no signs instructing people to use them. There were life rings positioned along the river, free for anyone to use if they got into difficulties.
There was not much graffiti on the island (apart from under the bridges). One artist, however, had spray-painted the words “Keep it natural” on a wall. Because I am aware that all signs and symbols have significance, I tried to interpret the meaning, and ended up with two guesses. One could be that an environmentalist painted them, because directly opposite it on the other side of the river there was an old power station; on the side where I was standing there was a wind turbine. Perhaps the artist had focused on the use of natural wind to generate energy.
My second guess was that someone who was pro-nudity was celebrating the nudity areas of the island.
I saw that children had drawn pictures with chalk depicting a butterfly, birds, stickmen and a heart. Once again, I paused to interpret the meaning. In my mind, it was obvious they were symbolising nature, family and love.
I noticed an elderly man running in my direction, wearing only a pair of running shorts. As he approached, I saw that his entire body was covered in tattoos. I would have loved to spend some time with him, enquiring about his body art and learning about its significance. But, since he was clearly enjoying himself, I didn’t want to stop him.
Back in Vienna…
I crossed the channel to the city and immediately my thoughts and emotions changed. Suddenly I was confronted by what felt like a different world. There were warning signs everywhere instructing people where they could (and could not) walk and cycle. There were information signs. Graffiti art was much more evident, and the messages were very different from those on the island. When I reached the national football stadium, I turned my conscious thoughts to the different forces (mandala) between the two worlds that I’d encountered during my walk – the island, where everyone was equal, and this large stadium, where power was reflected before, during and after a football match.
So, what does this have to do with the workplace?
Across the world, safety requirements, rules, warnings and information take the form of symbolic safety signs, slogans, incident rate boards, safety and health notice boards, banners and more.
We know that signs and symbols influence and prime the unconscious mind. All signs and symbols (including text) have significance and influence. It is therefore very important that consideration be given both to the message and to the spin-offs of the message. An individual might, for instance, understand a message very differently to what was intended.
Therefore, we should:
• Consider the trajectory and spin-offs of the messages that we place on signs, banners and in other communications;
• Appreciate that, instead of enabling comprehension, excessive verbiage can cause confusion or an overload of information;
• Realise that signs are not the answer to solving problems (for example, believing that the mere existence of a sign warning that forklifts operate in the area will prevent collisions);
• Ensure that the intention of the sign or symbol is clearly understood; and
• Understand that people do not have to be overcontrolled with the use of signs and symbols.
For leaders, semiotics is about being observant and interpreting signs and symbols (including text and language) and using them to engage in conversation, and understand the culture that exists in the workplace, both in a positive and a negative light. For example, what are the messages depicted on posters and banners and what are the possible spin-offs? What slogans are being used for safety and health in the company, the site being visited or a particular department? Are there mantras in place, such as “zero harm” or “safety is a choice you make”, and understanding what their spin-offs and trajectories are?
Do we overcontrol employees through the use of signs and symbols? Are the goals in the slogans unachievable; do the signs have little real value? Is their spin-off a team of frustrated employees? I am not proposing that there should be no controls in place. However, as leaders, we should ask ourselves whether too many controls are unnecessary and impractical. There needs to be a balance between providing controls and trusting that the employees can be responsible for their own safety – similar to the way things are done on the Danube Island.
An explanation of semiotics
Semiotics affects the unconscious mind in the way that we attach meaning to what we see or hear in the environment around us – be it at work or in our private lives. Semiotics is also linked to some elements of culture. The interpretation of a sign or symbol could have a different meaning to people depending on culture, upbringing or group dynamics.
Semiotics derives from studies into how signs and symbols create meaning both in a visual as well as linguistic manner. A symbol is a mark, sign or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship and is interpreted by the individual’s different concepts and experiences. Signs and symbols are not only visual and can be audial or acoustic as well.
For example, when walking through a city and the traffic light indicates red for pedestrians, most people will automatically stop. This act is not a conscious decision but comes from the unconscious mind. When the light turns green, we then proceed to walk. In some cities, there is an audial sound as well to assist visually impaired persons. I have often found myself starting to cross the road when I hear the audial confirmation without checking if the light is green. Sometimes we even start crossing when noticing others do so – without even considering if it is, in fact, safe to do so.
Our unconscious mind is constantly alert to semiotics and, as a result, influences the way we react to the unconscious messages. However, the culture of the people around us could result in the reaction to the semiotic message being different from its intent. For example, if living in a country or city where it is normal to ignore the red traffic light, then unconsciously people interpret the importance of the meaning of the red traffic light differently and therefore ignore it. This is often a result of group dynamics where – just because others cross while the red light is on – it becomes the norm. I have touched on this in-group, out-group aspect in some of my previous articles, including the one on smokers littering the streets.