Representation by Design:
Mining the Source
Karenin, Pete(r). What if gender roles in advertisittng were reversed? Good, 2015. Web. 31 Dec. 2015. http://magazine.good.is/articles/intermission-what-if-gender-roles-in-advertising-were-reversed
By Kris Heintz Nelson
University of Northern Colorado
Kris Heintz Nelson is an Associate Professor, and the Interim Foundations coordinator for the University of Northern Colorado. Kris currently teaches Drawing One, Two-dimensional Design, Art Appreciation, and Art in the Environment.
Her current research interest explores how diverse instructional practices in introductory art studio courses can encourage unique ideation and promote social justice. She is active in presenting her research and instructional practices to K-12 educators throughout the state of Colorado.
This unit is a hybrid, combining art history, studio instruction, and visual culture
and has been interwoven into a freshman foundations drawing course where
students are taught observational skills, use of media and process, and
introduced to the creative processes of generating ideas and developing
The inquiry is intended to guide students to question dominant assumptions
regarding representation and how artists engage in visual research.
As a requirement, novice art students submit four drawings completed during the
sixteen-week semester, which have been completed outside of class time. The
drawings are each generated from a given word: Privacy, Data, Boundaries,
and Threshold. The drawings are expected to demonstrate learned skills from
class activities and studio exercises (such as exploring line, space, shape, value,
proportion, as well as conceptual problem solving).
Downloadable Supporting Media:
Additional, downloadable readings are posted at the end of this feed.
Gallery of Student Work:
Representation by design is one of the idea-generating explorations currently
utilized for the word: Boundaries. Students are challenged to explore, identify
and evaluate “the boundaries” of representation in media by mining the source
The unit is taught through a semiotic lens, predicated by the understanding that
visual forms, images, and advertisements can be understood as signs, which
indicate layers of social, cultural, and political meaning. Through semiotics,
students are guided to identify denoted (obvious) visual signs, interpret
connoted (suggested or implied) messages in order to generate a deeper
Visual Culture: Framing the Data
Visual culture is a hybrid between anthropology and art history, and involves
examining the cultural value of an image over the aesthetic value (Herbert
1996). Where art history explores the artistic intentions, visual culture examines
the impact of material culture, considering the context of where, when, why to
aid in understanding visual signs.
Students are asked to consider the plethora of visual images and signs which
surround daily life, including advertisements, print, television, movies,
photographs, and labels on clothing. It is difficult to fully assess, depending on
our personal experiences, on average we view somewhere between 3,000 and
20,000 advertisements in a given day. According to Ellen Gammerman, from the
Wall Street Journal, in 2013. 1.6 trillion photographs are taken annually, 350 million
images are uploaded to Facebook everyday, and 100 hours of video are posted
on YouTube every minute.
Two Strategies for understanding the saturation of images:
Strategy One: Examine contemporary commodity culture, through
advertisements, identify and deconstruct visual signs.
Strategy Two: Select fine artists, which respond and exemplify investigation into
visual culture and representation
Guiding students to understand the basics of Semiotics
Semiotics is introduced to students by providing a brief overview that we
interpret our world on a daily basis through identifying and understanding signs.
Signs are tangible, they are what we see, hear or experience, and can be
written, verbal or non-verbal. Semiotics asks us to identifying visual signs within art
and culture and inquiring what they may signify, and how they function to
Simplified examples of visual signs for discussion include:
• Street signs: we literally obey street signs; such as “no U turn” or “do not
enter” or “merge ahead” we see the sign and follow the signified
• Color: In Western culture we can understand color as a visual sign-blue
denotes sadness or melancholy, where red suggests alarm or alert.
• Nature: We can interpret visual signs of the environment, if we look outside
and see the ground is wet, we interpret the sign of increment weather,
and we may need an umbrella or jacket.
Humans are constantly in the act of seeing, hearing, experiencing, and
interpreting visual signs. Signs are dependent upon context in order to create
Semiotics helps guide students from mere looking towards seeing, engaging
• What do I see (what is the sign)?
• What makes “it” mean something?
• What is signified?
• What determines the meaning?
• What is the level of meaning?
Activity: Identifying Signs through Denoted and Connoted
Terms are defined:
Denoted: What we see, what is indicated, apparent, obvious. What is denoted is
the visual sign.
Connoted: What is signified, suggested or implied by the visual sign. Connoted
messages extend beyond the literal interpretation.
Once defined, students are invited to articulate their understanding by
identifying denoted signs and connoted message through class exercises.
Students are shown images of visual art, and first asked to objectively describe
the form they see. They are guided to include relevant observations including
media, materials, use of elements (line, shape, space, color, value, texture), as
well as principles of design, (balance, focal point, contrast, containment, unity,
Students are then asked to articulate their understanding of the subject and
content of a given image, and asked to consider how the form supports the
content. This discussion leads to interpretation of what is signified from the visual
sign, i.e. connoted.
Expanded Discussion: Connoted messages are often subtle, implied, suggested
and revealing social and cultural constructs.
Constructs defined Lois Fichner-Rathus, in Understanding Art defines constructs
as the intellectual, rather than physical product of a culture. Constructs are the
shared sense of the way things “should” be, governing the way men and women
interact, helping to maintain stereotypes, ideologies and power.
Introduction: Deconstructing Constructs
Once students have experienced identifying denoted visual signs, and
interpreting connoted messages, they are invited to further dismantle the layers
of meaning by deconstructing constructs.
Representation by Design:Mining the Source,
Examining Advertisements from the Past
Crowley, Julian. 10 most sexist print ads from the 1950s. Business Pundit, 2012. Web. 31 Dec. 2015. http://www.businesspundit.com/10-most-sexist-print-ads-from-the-1950s/?img=21450
Because it is often easier to see prevailing paradigms and constructs from the
past, students are invited to examine advertisements from the 1950’s, 1960’s and
70’s where stereotypes are prevalent, pervasive, and “outside” contemporary
sensibilities. Students are prompted to identify dominant signs including physical
attributes, social roles, gender expectations, race, and authority. Students are
asked how visual signs relate to the context of the culture, and challenged to
consider what has not been represented.
The exercise begins with looking at advertisements with the following prompts:
• What is the sign?
• What makes “it” mean something?
• What determines meaning?
• How might this connect to the context of where, when it was created?
Representation by Design: Mining the Source,
Examining Contemporary Advertisements
Tuck, Roy. Hero cologne, fireman. Web. 31 December 2015. http://www.roytuck.com/626203/consumer-advertising/
Students are then shown a selection of contemporary advertisements, and
asked to articulate their understanding of the visual signs, describing what is
obvious or denoted, and moving to interpreting what is signified by the sign:
connoted, implied or suggested.
• Discussion questions include: What is the advertisement “saying”
• What might the message suggest about society, culture, gender
• Are stereotypes represented? If so, are they accurate?
• Who holds the power in the image?
• What dominant themes present?
• What is connoted regarding body image, body type, race, and authority?
• Are representations positive, negative, or neutral?
• What is being sold, a product, a belief, or culture?
• Does mass media, stereotypes, cultural/gender expectations shape our
understanding of self?
• Do they mirror reality?
• Should we be concerned that stereotypes begin as abstractions and
transform into expectations?
• Are representations (signs) neutral?
Supporting Artists Who Explore the Construction of Identity and Representation:
Opie, Catherine. Chloe, 1993. Chromogenic print, 20" x 16" inches. Regan projects inventory. Web. 31 Dec. 2015. http://www.artnet.com/artists/catherine-opie/chloe-a-4u9i47dKux6avi3gzspcKA2
Students are then introduced to contemporary artists as exemplars who explore
and question the boundaries of representation and the construction of identity
as a mobile social construct.
Anna Utopia Gordano
Kerry James Marshall
Conclusion: Through this unit, students are prompted to explore and deconstruct
representation in contemporary media through a semiotic lens, identifying and
interpreting visual signs. The objective is to inspire students to examine the
assumptions of culture, as well as embrace their own understanding of identity as
a source for creative exploration.
The students are not required to complete their project solely on representation,
but many students incorporate the ideas and continue to explore visual signs
and identity as a social construction.
Suggested readings and supported documents are included for the instructor,
and provided for students to reference.
This unit is introduced in a Foundation Drawing 1 class. All foundations work at
the University of Northern Colorado is evaluated on Formal, Technical and
Sample self-evaluation and instructor evaluation:
Conceptual/ Resolving of Idea: