SAM Seminar: Semiotic technologies: The case of Smart Art

When:18 Aug 2015, 5pm - 6:30pm
Venue:Robert Webster Building, Room 327
Who:Theo Van Leeuwen, University of Southern Denmark
Theo van Leeuwen

In Reading Images, Gunther Kress and I attempted to write a grammar of the visual applicable to figurative as well as abstract images, and to images as well as diagrams. However, over the years it became clear that diagrams raise a number of questions which have not been systematically addressed: the multiple meanings of arrows, tree diagrams and other conventional elements, the meaning potential of stylistic variations such as the use of boxes or circles (or other shapes) for the participants, the rise of mind maps and concept maps, and so on.

As we wrote Reading Images, Microsoft was also developing an account of diagrams, implemented in SmartArt, a resource for diagrammatic text production which is considerably more complex than that offered by Reading Images – it has no less than 9 categories of diagram, each with up to 40 subtypes. Today SmartArt is standard with Word as well as PowerPoint and increasingly often used, especially by administrators, but also in many kinds of academic writing.

After a brief recapitulation of the Reading Images approach to diagrams and the problems which it has left unsolved, the paper will provide an analysis of Microsoft SmartArt as a semiotic resource which is language-like in the way it provides systems of choices as well as conventions for their use, some hardwired into the system, some providing choices to users.

The paper will conclude by arguing that, just as languages evolve the way they do to serve the needs and interests of the societies whose languages they are, so language-like digital semiotic resources serve the needs and interests of the global corporations who have built them, and the neoliberal values that underpin their practices.


Professor Theo van Leeuwen worked as a film and television producer in his native Holland and Australia. Later he studied linguistics in Sydney and Paris, and variously taught film production, media studies and semiotics at Macquarie University, the London College of Printing and Cardiff University. Between 2005 and 2013 he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, and since September 2013, he is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, Honorary Professor at Lancaster University and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education, London. He has published widely in the areas of social semiotics, critical discourse analysis and multimodality. His books include Reading Images – The Grammar of Visual Design (with Gunther Kress); Speech, Music, Sound; Introducing Social Semiotics; Global Media Discourse (with David Machin); and Discourse and Practice – New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis and The Language of Colour. With Carey Jewitt, he is a founding editor of the international journal Visual Communication.


SAM Seminar Series 2015
Convenor, Collin Chua – c.chua@unsw.edu.au

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