Charles Peirce is one of the most influential figures in the history of Semiotics. He made an enormous contribution to semiotic analysis by introducing scientific logic to the analysis of the visual. This is attributed to the capacity of his semiotic theory to accommodate visual signs, point that has been neglected by a linguistically inspired semiology. However, most applications of Peirce’s semiotics tend to use only a fragment of his several typologies of signs.
When we think of Peirce, we think of a triadic relationship. Peirce’s view of the process of semiosis is the result of three. He expressed that phenomena should be classified as a single triadic set of categories. A phenomenon is either First, something in itself; Second, exists as a dyadic relation to something else; or Third, a mean inseparable from a purpose. Peirce’s most well known postulate is based on the idea that there are three kinds of signs in relations to objects: icons or likenesses, indexes or Indications, and symbols or general signs. These inter-related components are essential for a sign to exist. What is decisive in his theory is the mediation of a sign or representamen between the object it represents and the interpretant.
Icons or likenesses are also called by Peirce Firstness as these do not depend on anything else. Firstness is a sign that refers to an object because it is connected to its own characteristics. It is the possibility of being without the connection to any other sign. Icon is pure sign without any disturbances. On this stage, the subject cannot act as a sign until it has been incorporated, but the incorporation has nothing to do with the characteristics of a sign. Firstness implies quality and refers to a ground. The design alone is pure likenesses. The icon has the possibility of showing. Firstness is the present.
Indexes or indications are physically connected with their object. Indications are connected to what is real, it is the fact. Indications show about things. Index is the connection with the physical, it is visibility and materiality. It is relating with the ‘no-sign’, a thing or a fact that can be a sign only if it is connected through their physical qualities. Index is a sign that refers to an object which denotes what truly concerns to that object. The index implies indication. It is the image. Secondness is the past.
Symbols or interpretants – the most distinctive feature of Peirce’s account -are best thought of as the understanding we have of a sign/object relationship. Symbols or Thirdness are about combination, and it makes reference to the association of icons and indexes. Symbols refer to the association of general ideas that help the object to be interpreted as such. For Peirce signification is not a simple sign/object relationship; a sign signifies only by interpretation. Symbols have the possibility of speaking. Thirdness is the future.
Peircean triadic theory refers to the relation that Firstness is related to Secondness, but only being expressed in its Thirdness. It is about correlation. The conception of a second implies the possibility of a third. If we relate this to design, the icon is pure design, idea and possibility; giving a name to a design is giving significance. Showing a design is to acknowledge the visual functions aestheticising its materiality, but at the same time, it only makes sense with interpretation. For Peirce designs are an effect of three.