In social semiotic discourse analysis, a distinction can be made between analysis and interpretation. The two aspects are equally important but different in kind:  analysis concerns the signifier, interpretation concerns the signified.

Analysis deals with visible or audible evidence (or evidence from other senses) which should not be too difficult for different analysts to agree about. In analyzing the logos of oil companies for instance (Johannessen, in  press), it should be possible to agree that the BP logo (at least as we write, in November 2015) uses the colours green, yellow and white, while the Shell logo uses the colours yellow and red. Such an agreement is of course based on a culturally specific system of colour names (cf. Van Leeuwen, 2011, for a discussion of different ways of classifying colours), but this does not generally lead to significant differences of opinion and is therefore able to ground the social semiotic analysis firmly in empirical evidence.

Interpretation deals with meaning, creating more space for different interpretations. But this does not mean that interpretation is entirely subjective. The key is the way the interpretations are argued for. Social semiotic interpretations combine two kinds of arguments, arguments for positing the meaning potential of the signifiers, and contextual arguments. Arguments for establishing the meaning potential can be of three kinds. They can be based on fixed codes, explicit rules for linking signifiers with signifieds, as for instance in the case of traffic signs. A signifier, or configuration of signifiers can also have a shared meaning on the basis on provenance, in which case the interpretation must be supported by documentary evidence, and it can be based on experiential meaning potential, that is on shared experience. The colour green in the BP logo can be interpreted as indicating ‘concern for the environment’ on the basis of documentary evidence, for instance intertextual comparison with other texts in which this meaning is linguistically anchored. When combined with BP’s widely reported culpability for a massive oil spill in the Caribbean, the meaning ‘concern for the environment’ is plausibly disputed, though not of course disproven – there is no proof in matters of interpretation. The colour red in the Shell logo can be interpreted on the basis of our shared experienced of red, which, despite its wide range of possible meanings, always involves a sense of energy or requires energetic action, whether it is the red of passion, the red of danger, or the red of warmth, or any other kind of  red. When this colour then appears in the logo of an energy company, interpreting it as signifying ‘energy’ becomes at the very least plausible. Any other interpretation should be argued in a similar way.

Finally, the wider significance of the text or semiotic resource analysed needs to be argued in broader sociological terms. In the case of the green logo, we could, for instance, think of Habermas’ account of legitimation (1976) in which he argues that contemporary legitimation disengages ‘generalized motives’ from the discourses they derive from. The colour ‘green’, as interpreted here, does seek to legitimate BP as an environmentally aware company, but in a way that does not even begin to specify what that might mean.

Social semiotic interpretation therefore needs to integrate three things: a knowledge of language and other semiotic modes; a knowledge of culture and history; and the sociological insight that can help us understand the role of discourse in social life. With this it renews and reinvigorates the art of interpretation in a way that is suited to our times.

Citing this entry:

van Leeuwen, Theo. 2016.  “Interpretation.” In Key Terms in Multimodality: Definitions, Issues, Discussions, edited by Nina Nørgaard.


Habermas, J. (1976). Legitimation Crisis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Johannessen, C.M. (in press). “Experiential meaning potential in the Topaz Energy logo: A framework for graphemic and graphetic analysis of graphic logo design”. Social Semiotics.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2011). The Language of Colour. London: Routledge.