DesLens: Masking Signs

I thought I’d write about something we can all relate to in this current pandemic. An item that has quite frankly been seen as one of the most polarising objects in recent years; one that has divided opinions between the east and west; one that have been seen as both essentials of everyday heroes and symbols of oppression.

I’m talking about none other than the facial mask.

To understand why this seemingly unassuming facial covering has had such massive implications and divided opinions, we first have to understand a branch of linguistics known as semiotics, or more specifically the Saussure Theory.

The Saussure Theory was a foundation of modern linguistics laid by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist from the 20th century. He theorized that language is a system of signs, that we make meaning from drawing links between the signifier and the signified.

A generic diagram from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.

Signifier

The mode of communication, be it through word, sound or image etc.

eg. The word, image, pronunciation or any other production of the term ‘mask’, m-a-s-k.

Signified

The mental model and concept of the sign.

eg. The idea of what a mask is. The concept of a piece of facial covering.

By distinctly separating the signifier from the sign itself, the relationship between them is arbitrary. There is no definite meaning to the word that the letters m-a-s-k form and the meaning is only retained through continuous usage by people. The relative autonomy between signs and reality shapes how we perceive the world around us and elegantly explains the dichotomy between the polarising views on the facial mask. It emphasizes on the preconceived notions that we may have formed around the concept of what a mask is as well as the context required to retain this perception.

A Singaporean Etsy Store selling graphical reusable facial masks.

In Asia, the face mask is seen as a protective facial covering worn even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, during flu and cold seasons. It is seen as both a form of protection for others and self, which also reflects the role of the individual within the community in many Asian societies. The mask is even seen as any other fashion accessory, much like sunglasses, earrings etc., worn even when it’s not the flu season by perfectly healthy individuals.

A medical professional in the US wearing a surgical mask.

In the western hemisphere, the facial mask had always been associated with danger or when one’s health is at risk. In regular settings, it’s usually only worn by medical professionals, dentists, or in specialist contexts such as coal mines, etc. where there are associated elements of risk, emergencies, or danger. Furthermore, the significance of looking at someone’s face when having a conversation is much more prevalent in the West than in Asia. Obscuring any part of it may be seen as impolite or rude for the other party cannot read your expression. Hence, with these negative connotations attached to the facial mask, it has not only become a sign of danger but breaks pre-established social norms. It may be seen as the literal masking of an individual’s ‘threat’ rather than a form of protection — a hidden dagger and not a shield.

This contrast in the concept of what the mask signal have reached a point where semiotics is now having a real-life impact on human lives and entire nations’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reflecting back on this as a designer, the significance of what signs mean and the actions it entails for users has never been clearer. In my opinion, our role lies in understanding the relationship between users’ mental model of products designed and the vehicles which carry the meaning. Perhaps our role is to toy with and question this relationship and others’ interpretation of the elements within the world we live in.

The purpose of the DesLens series of articles is to serve as thought experiments on various lenses that designers can put while exploring their works or life. These thought experiments seek to seed questions for designers, to continuously build upon our approach and may come from a variety of different fields such as psychology, sociology, architecture etc. It complements the multifaceted exploration channels that designers use while exploring in order to connect the dots that are uncovered along the way.

Saussure Theory — https://literariness.org/2018/03/12/key-theories-of-ferdinand-de-saussure/

Semiotics of the mask — https://brill.com/view/journals/sime/1/1/article-p40_4.xml?language=en

Designer living in sunny Singapore. I enjoy exploring new perspectives that can shape creativity and design.

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