Material culture and design are the main storytellers of our society. Design has become the common language to describe our relationship with objects and the subconscious messages they convey. Objects define us; they are signs of who we are and who we are not. Visual shopping is a semiotics methodology that helps to shape these stories, bringing disperse concepts together and trying to make sense of a culture by analysing its cultural language. Visual shopping is about curious collecting, giving access to culture through combining theoretical approaches from material culture and design in equal measures.
Visual shoppers immerse into specific social spaces, analyse culture by collecting stimulus such as images, packaging, and other popular culture materials with semiotic, anthropological and design eyes. Visual shopping is not about – as some people might think– going out and taking photographs at random. It is about collecting, interpreting and validating relevant cultural codes, which can influence future trends in consumption spaces. Visual shopping is a process that enquires the relationships between material cultures and social environments.
Accessing and inquiring cultural spaces via visual shopping
The meaning of space as a semiotic sign is understood in relation to objects and people. The background of this thinking has been shared by Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Peirce, Debray, just to mention a few. Even Einstein contemplated the relationship between space and objects in his theory of relativity. Meaning is created when distinctions are recognised as qualities of the space, which are dependent on material and visual cultures. This is where we began to recognise space as a semiotic sign. Space creates paradigms and defines sign distinctions.
The spatial quality of material culture has a profound impact on the way we as society, interpret things in our daily lives. Space contributes to nonverbal aspects of communication based on cultural rules, objects and images. Images and objects speak more about people than people can talk about themselves. Studying material and visual culture in specific cultural contexts open a better understanding of their role in meaning. Visual shopping as a semiotic approach helps to understand meaning in different scenarios from design to social environments. This methodology is aware of multiple realities, and multiple interpretations, it is cautious of presumptions about a community.
When accessing cultural spaces, it is essential to identify the nature of the visual and historical context prior a visit, just to determine possible cultural scenarios. A visual shopper should be aware that pre in-situ interpretations are always provisional, and they need to be validated during and post-fieldwork. It is necessary before starting any fieldwork, to have a clear understanding of the research questions, in order to identify scenarios, geographical locations, situations that are potential sources of cultural information. The process of collecting key visual information helps us to construct a semiotic view of specific cultural contexts. However, the process of understanding meanings during fieldwork, require the visual shopper to find and organise information, establish relationships, and making connections between visual signs, objects, and cultural ideas.
Space as a semiotic sign: Analysing visual shopping data
Cultural data as with other objects may not be evident by the non-semiotic, anthropological, or designer mind. The visual shopper understands the vocabulary or “language” of signs that are played in the cultural space (linguistic and visual) through which they articulate cultural values.
Space can communicate meaning via different categories: design vocabularies, material culture and sensorial vocabulary. Design vocabularies correspond to the different visual characteristics of the semiotic stimulus in a specific cultural space, such as typographies, colour palettes and compositions. These vocabularies also refer to the historical or aesthetic reference points of graphic and architectural design (E.g. Bauhaus, modernism, etc) and the cultural values they represent. The analysis of design vocabularies is comparative and tends to be contrasted with broader cultural contexts. Space analysis should also cover relationships with material cultures such as decor, furnishings, buildings, sign systems, clothes, among others. Sensorial vocabularies imply a collection of stimulus related to taste, hearing, smell, touch, and of course sight. These three elements are particularly useful for analytic purposes: each element highlights different features of the cultural space and their relationship in the creation of meaning. The separation creates a system to the analysis of visual shopping data.
Making sense of cultural spaces
The process of collecting key visual information helps us to construct a semiotic view of specific cultural contexts. However, the process of understanding meanings during fieldwork, require the visual shopper to find and organise information, establish relationships, and making connections between visual signs, objects, space, and cultural ideas.
The most difficult part of studying cultural spaces, especially for a researcher without an orientation towards semiotics, is acquiring the habit of searching for the right signs in spatial elements; translating the visual vocabularies and sensorial experiences into categories that can be use effectively on brand and communication strategies.