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National Pride, Global Capital: A Social Semiotic Analysis of Transnational Visual Branding in the Airline Industry


Abstract and Figures

In this article we examine 561 different airline tailfin designs as a visual genre, revealing how the global-local binary may be managed and realized semiotically. Our analysis is organized into three strands: (a) a descriptive analysis identifies the strikingly restricted visual lexicon and dominant corporate aesthetic established by tailfin design; (b) an interpretive analysis considers the communicative strategies at play and the meaning potentials which underpin different visual resources; (c) a critical analysis links these decisions of design and branding to the political and cultural economies of globalism and the airline industry. Specifically, we show how airlines are able to service national identity concerns through the use of highly localized visual meanings while also appealing to the meaning systems of the international market in their pursuit of symbolic and economic capital. One key semiotic resource is the balancing of cultural symbolism and perceptual iconicity in the form of abstracted stylizations of kinetic effects. Although positioned unfairly in the global semioscape, airlines may resist straightforward cultural homogenization by strategically reworking existing design structures and exploiting possibly universal semiotic meaning potentials.
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National pride, global capital: a social
semiotic analysis of transnational visual
branding in the airline industry
University of Washington, Seattle, USA
In this article we examine 561 different airline tailfin designs as a visual
genre, revealing how the global–local binary may be managed and realized
semiotically. Our analysis is organized into three strands: (a) a descriptive
analysis identifies the strikingly restricted visual lexicon and dominant
corporate aesthetic established by tailfin design; (b) an interpretive analysis
considers the communicative strategies at play and the meaning potentials
which underpin different visual resources; (c) a critical analysis links these
decisions of design and branding to the political and cultural economies of
globalism and the airline industry. Specifically, we show how airlines are
able to service national identity concerns through the use of highly
localized visual meanings while also appealing to the meaning systems of
the international market in their pursuit of symbolic and economic capital.
One key semiotic resource is the balancing of cultural symbolism and
perceptual iconicity in the form of abstracted stylizations of kinetic effects.
Although positioned unfairly in the global semioscape, airlines may resist
straightforward cultural homogenization by strategically reworking existing
design structures and exploiting possibly universal semiotic meaning
corporate branding • globalization • perception • kinetic stylization •
semioscape • social semiotics • universal iconicity
In 1997, at a reported cost of some £60 million (US$120 million), British
Airways (BA) famously decided to break from its long-established aeroplane
livery based on the red, white and blue of the British national flag by
launching what was described in the press as ‘a bold global image based not
on a single logo but a series of related designs from around the world’.
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Vol 6(3): 305–344 [1470-3572(200710)6:3; 305–344]
visual communication
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According to its own publicity, this new World Images branding was intended
to reiterate the airline’s desire to be perceived as global and caring’, and to
manifest its long-standing claim to be the ‘world’s favourite airline’. As part
of this rebranding strategy, new tailfin designs featured colorful, ‘ethnic
patterns taken from world-wide arts and crafts, such as Native American
wood carvings, Japanese calligraphy, German pottery, Scottish tartans and
Egyptian wall hangings (see Figure 1b). John Sorrell, one of the two designers
who worked on the World Images concept, stated: ‘Our task was to position
BA as a world brand, the equivalent of Coke or Microsoft, but one which is
based and has its roots in Britain.
What no-one at BA, or the design company commissioned to come
up with the new branding strategy, had predicted was the public criticism
and media outcry that would follow this decision by the national ‘flag-
carrier’. Along with many high-profile figures, then Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher openly expressed her own disapproval of BAs new identity,
characterizing it as unpatriotic and foolish.
By 1999, BA had started
suffering major financial losses, explained in part by adverse public opinion
towards its multicultural’ branding strategy. It became apparent that part of
the post-privatization customer appeal, and therefore financial success, of BA
had in fact been its reputation as a long-standing European airline with the
added image of Britishness as being ‘traditional’ and, therefore, reliable in its
standards of service.
In May 2001, in a major climb-down, BA finally announced its
intention to restore a more recognizably British corporate image to its entire
fleet of 338 aircraft. According to Mike Crump, the airline’s senior design
manager at the time, this major corporate failure was rationalized as the
airline’s desire to bring back consistency and unity to the BA brand’. When
asked about the replacement of the World Image series, however, another
spokesperson acknowledged a more nationalistic concern: ‘Britishness has
been at the core of BA and that view is held worldwide.
Visual Communication 6(3)
Figures 1a–c British Airways’ tailfin designs: (a) pre-1997; (b) ‘world’ images; and (c) current.
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People today routinely fuse the near with the far, the traditional with
the new, and the relatively unmediated with the multimediated, to
create expansive material and discursive worlds that transform life
experience and radically reconfigure the meaning of cultural space.
(Lull, 2001: 1)
As a case study of corporate branding, the BA story dramatically highlights
the tremendous tension which sits at the heart of the airline industry’s
commercial agenda nowadays. On the one hand, major international carriers
must address an inherently modernist need to represent and establish the
nation state; in fact, regardless of the often insupportable cost of running an
airline, the maintenance of a flag-carrier continues to have enormous
symbolic value for national governments. On the other hand, however,
airlines must also confront the demands of global capitalism by competing
in increasingly competitive, multicultural, lifestyle-driven environments.
Airlines like BA, therefore, inevitably struggle to manage the balance between
servicing national identity and maintaining global appeal. In this context,
national symbols and stereotypes are often entrenched within international
corporate brands, to the point that – in the case of BA – a sense of Britishness
itself becomes an essential commodity in establishing the global image or
reputation. As such, nationality evidently continues to be a powerful
organizing principle in spite of the economic and mythological allure of the
global village’.
A concern for the apparently contradictory demands of local and
global interests is, of course, central to most debates about contemporary
social and economic life (see, for example, Hall, 1991; Lash and Urry, 1994;
Held and McGrew, 2000; Lull, 2001). This complex tension is often
represented by the polarizing terms globalization and ‘localization. In this
article we are concerned to explore a little further the local–global divide as it
is manifested in the airline industry by focusing on one particular semiotic
site: the design of airline tailfins. We do this partly in and of itself as an
analysis of an ubiquitous, everyday visual genre, and to see if studying the
visual offers different insights into global communication practices. Our main
intention, however, is to use this micro-level analysis as a means of revealing
the discourses which frame and inscribe the genre, and, in turn, of showing
how the genre reframes and reinscribes these same discourses. In doing so,
we follow the work of Van Leeuwen (2002[1993]) – also Machin and Van
Leeuwen (2004) and some of our own earlier work (e.g. Thurlow and
Jaworski, 2003; Jaworski and Thurlow, 2004) – in demonstrating the ways
seemingly ‘innocent textual practices or communicative events reconstitute
important areas of social life and how, in Lull’s words quoted earlier, they
‘reconfigure the meaning of cultural spaces’. More generally, we want also to
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examine the semiotic realization of globalization as the dominant discourse
commonly invoked to explain and legitimate the workings and re-orderings
of global capitalism (or globalism) and so-called global culture.
Recognizing the global
As Appadurai (e.g. 1996) makes clear, the global economy is a complex
system, in which five different dimensions – or global flows – stand in
overlapping and disjunctive relationship with one another: ethnoscapes,
mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes and ideoscapes. These transnational
movements of people, media content, technologies, money and ideologies
typically and unpredictably interconnect, as with the airline industry which
offers itself as an interesting nexus of multinational technologies, interna-
tional finance and global mobility. This is an industry which also capitalizes
on the image repertoires and ideological models invoked by its branding
strategies. Indeed, one of the key domains of globalism is also the exchange
and spread of symbolic and cultural capital (cf. Bourdieu, 1991); as such,
globalization realizes itself in and through discourse. In Thurlow and
Jaworski’s (2003) terms, globalization thereby also functions metadiscur-
sively as an identity resource and marketing brand for companies to stylize
themselves and their customers as global players.
It is for this reason that Appadurai’s otherwise instructive schema
arguably lacks a scape’ falling somewhere between the political ideologies of
states (ideoscapes) and mediatized cultural products of television, cinema
and music (mediascapes). Perhaps a more specific kind of linguascape (cf.
Jaworski et al., 2003) or, better still, semioscape might help bring into focus
the non-mediatized but globalizing circulation of symbols, sign systems and
meaning-making practices. In his essay titled ‘Remaking Passports: Visual
Thought in the Debate on Multiculturalism, García Canclini (1998), for
example, argues that a theory of art capable of explaining changes in
contemporary visual thought and artists’ practices needs to account for ‘the
oscillation between a national visuality and the deterritorialized and transcul-
tural forms of art and communication (pp. 375–6). In his view, the national
matrices of artistic and visual production are increasingly influenced by the
logics and strategies of the international market. Whereas foreign influences
and cosmopolitanism were key in 20th-century national arts as ways of
rethinking cultural heritage, the transition to the 21st century has brought
about an increasing deterritorialization of visual imagery. In a context more
closely related to our own analysis here, Machin (2004) has recently made a
similar case in his critique of image banks where, he argues, the globally
distributed imagery of organizations like Getty Images evidences a shift
towards a globalized visual language predicated on the absence of specificity
and descriptive detail. Importantly, not all semiotic flow may be accounted for
by media communications; the circulation of visual meaning happens also by
means of more inexplicit patterns of communication (without the ‘s’).
Visual Communication 6(3)
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Without meaning to underplay the undeniable dialectic of economic
and cultural life, it is ultimately an interest in cultural memisis’ (Waters,
1995; also Walker, 2004) which underpins our article here; and, specifically,
the memitic (or even just mimetic) transmission and uptake of very
distinctive semiotic resources deployed in the design of aeroplane tailfins. In
our analysis, we have wanted to examine the link between the visual
aesthetics and cultural topoi which characterize airline corporate branding
and the global power relations that underlie these semiotic practices. In
particular, our analysis is framed by what Appadurai (1996: 32) identifies as a
central issue in global interconnectivity: the putative tension between cul-
tural homogenization and cultural heterogenization. In this case, we are
concerned to understand how designers balance semiotic strategies aimed at
fitting into a globalized aesthetic or ‘feel’ for corporate branding with
strategies for conveying the distinctiveness of local, national imagery. This is
a way for us to examine in detail how globalization realizes itself semiotically
and to map the global semioscape a little further.
Corporate branding and the airline industry
In the era of multimodality semiotic modes other than language are
treated as fully capable of serving for representation and for
communication. (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001: 46)
Concerns expressed by scholars like García Canclini and Machin about
the potential homogenization of the semioscape are closely allied to the
increasing power of communication in everyday life and especially of visual
communication (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001). With the shift from
manufacture-based to service-driven economics, post-industrial (often
Western) economies have become more and more semioticized (Lash and
Urry, 1994); that is to say, dependent on symbolism, imagery and design (see
Figures 2a–f). Often, in fact, there is little apparent materiality to the
‘products’ being sold; instead, what is the exchange of capital hinges on the
promotion of ideas, images and lifestyles. Furthermore, what materiality
there is, is typically given substance and meaning by the narratives or
discourses that frame it (Harré, 2002). And this textual mediation of
contemporary life requires greater, critical awareness of the process by which
people come to be positioned (and exploited) by discourses such as
globalization (Fairclough, 1999, 2003).
For Lash and Urry (1994), international travel is in fact one of the
best examples of an industry which is deeply semiotically embedded, since a
key part of what is actually consumed is the semiotic context of the service
and the imagery of tourist destinations pre-figured in brochures,
guidebooks, holiday travel programmes and so on (see Thurlow et al.,
forthcoming). Regardless of the domain, however, the quintessential mani-
festations of this intensification of the semiotic are undoubtedly marketing
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and advertising, commercial practices which rely almost totally on the
generation of images, ideas and lifestyles. Just as Cook (1992) argues in his
analysis of commercial advertising, what makes corporate branding partic-
ularly available to critical analysis by communication scholars is that it is so
explicitly designed to generate economic capital through the exploitation and
creation of symbolic capital (cf. Bourdieu, 1991). What is more, airline
marketing in particular involves a remarkably diverse range of goods and
services which (often deliberately) blur the boundaries of materiality and
symbolism (Thurlow and Jaworski, 2006).
As semiotic practices, advertising and corporate design are complex in
terms of their organization and multimodality; as such, a theoretical under-
standing of any particular text or genre ideally demands a consideration of a
range of discursive elements: medium, mode, situation, participants, func-
tions, rhetorical techniques, co-texts, intertexts, and other genres altogether
(Cook, 1992). Kress and Van Leeuwen (2001) also note that meaning is never
to be ‘found’ in any image or visual text itself, but rather in its situated
design, production and distribution; it is also to be located in the discourses
which contextualize and constitute the image or text. In this article, we have
chosen to isolate the one key and very noticeable feature of corporate
branding in the airline industry – the design of tailfins – working on the
assumption that they are commercially important, publicly available, and
conveniently isolated for analysis. Although we do not engage fully with the
complete multimodality of these texts, our discussion focuses on some of the
significant (in both senses of the word) discourses which frame them.
That said, some production value information is essential for our
analysis of this particular feature of airline branding. The airline industry is a
notoriously changeable one: it entails vast amounts of money (a new Boeing
737 typically costs about US$64 million; the larger Boeing 777, US$200
Visual Communication 6(3)
Figures 2a–f Six globally recognized logos/trademarks (see also pp. 327 and 339).
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million), requires huge public or private-sector investment, works with
surprisingly slim profit margins, and is especially susceptible to political
upheavals and fluctuations in the price of oil.
In the last five or six years
especially, the airline industry has been undergoing major changes due to
various external (e.g. the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York) and market
pressures (i.e. increased competition and smaller profit margins); indeed,
some of the airlines under review in this study have since gone out of
business (e.g. Swissair and Sabena). One particular manifestation of recent
changes has been the deregulation of the ‘skies and the rise of so-called low-
cost carriers, both of which have undoubtedly had a de-nationalizing effect
on the industry. As part of this broader context, however, just as many new
airlines have been started up as national governments (especially in the
emerging economies of eastern Europe, China and Africa) continue to invest
– literally and symbolically – in the notion of a flag-carrier. At the same time,
longstanding international airlines (e.g. BA, Lufthansa and Air France/KLM
in Europe, United, Northwest and Air Canada in North America, Singapore,
Thai International and Cathay Pacific in East Asia, and, especially, Gulf Air
and Emirates in the Middle East) have likewise been competing to strengthen
their claims to flag-carrier status while looking also to extend their image as
major global players. As with so much commercial practice these days, a
crucial component of economic success and survival is corporate branding
(Mollerup, 1998). In fact, many international airlines have been furiously
rebranding themselves in the last few years in a desperate, and largely
cosmetic, bid to recapture market control and sustain profitability.
The current study
The initial impetus for our analysis arose from work which one of us has
been doing with colleagues at Cardiff University on language and tourism as
a global cultural industry (e.g. Thurlow et al., 2005, forthcoming). In
particular, in other studies (Thurlow and Jaworski, 2003, 2006) the focus has
been on inflight magazines and frequent flyer programmes as two intensely
semiotic practices central to the airline industry, which also shed light on the
ideologies of global travel and thus global capital. All of this work has been
concerned to examine tourism discourse from a multimodal perspective (cf.
Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001) by looking at interactional, linguistic and
visual data.
In order to identify a representative sample of airlines for the current
analysis, our primary resource was Hengi’s (2000) booklet Airline Tail
Colours which, amongst other things, offers approximately 590 images of
different airlines tailfins from around the world.
Tailfins are perhaps
the most visible instance of airlines’ corporate branding strategies which
typically include the overall livery of aeroplanes, interior décor, flight
attendants uniforms, website and ticketing design, and so on. From this
basic resource we drew together a corpus of 561 different airline tailfins for
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examination. To accompany this article, and as a way of making our content
analysis more available to scrutiny, we have published an online resource
which shows over 100 examples of the tailfin designs in our corpus
Our analysis of this corpus sought to address two broadly defined
research questions, one directed towards visual analysis, the other towards
ideological critique:
(a) What are the (main) semiotic resources employed in the visual genre
established by airline tailfin designs, and how are they organized?
(b) On this basis, how are airlines seen to be discursively managing
the tension created by their local/national and global/international
Methodologically speaking, we have situated our study in relation to
social semiotics (e.g. Hodge and Kress, 1988; Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996,
2001; Van Leeuwen, 2001, 2005; Iedema, 2001; Jewitt and Oyama, 2001).
Rooted in principles of semiotics (e.g. Peirce, 1931–58), semiology (e.g.
Barthes, 1972) and iconography (e.g. Panofsky, 1991[1927]), social semi-
oticians share a primary concern for elements of signification, connotative/
cultural meanings and historical contexts. Social semioticians, however, look
to extend these interests by viewing all semiosis as social action embedded in
larger economic and cultural practices and power relations. As such, social
semiotic analyses typically critique the mechanisms of representation by
which visual resources are deployed to achieve ideological ends. Social
semiotics therefore looks not only to relate texts to contexts, but also to
speculate on related social tendencies and their political implications,
recognizing that ‘the signs of articulation (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001: 41)
in any text form the basis for later articulations of the same ideological
discourses into other texts. The systematic analysis of texts also allows for the
potential renegotiation of meanings that would be otherwise articulated as
fixed, irrevocable and natural’ (Iedema, 2001: 201).
One of the main goals of a visual social semiotic analysis such as ours is to
offer an ‘inventory of compositional structures’ (Kress and Van Leeuwen,
1996: 1) established by social and institutional convention, but with a view
also to understanding how these conventions come about, and who gets to
establish and benefit from these conventions. In order to structure our
investigation, and as a convenient means for presenting our discussion here,
our analysis has been arranged according to three particular, but related,
strands of activity:
Visual Communication 6(3)
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(1) Descriptive text analysis: following content analytic procedures (cf. Bauer,
2000), we begin by identifying the basic semiotic repertoire used across
all 561 tailfin designs in our corpus. Our discussion starts, therefore, by
offering a typology of signs with some initial comment about the visual
lexicon of tailfin design.
(2) Interpretive text analysis: in seeking to understand something of the
grammar’ by which this lexicon is organized, our second step is to
consider some of the different ways in which meaning potentials are
established; specifically, and with reference to precedents in fine art, we
focus on the role visual perception and cultural signification play in
creating visual meaning in tailfin design.
(3) Critical text analysis: the final strand in our analysis is to consider the
apparent link between tailfin designs and the political–cultural economy
of the airline industry. In this instance, our focus is on the semiotic
strategies used for generating (or leveraging) symbolic capital and on the
power relations which appear to frame the practices of global corporate
At each stage in this analysis we have been interested to consider
the ways in which designers are seen to work within generic visual
‘structures (or aesthetics) in order to agentfully represent distinctive
corporate and national identity, while simultaneously appealing to a broader,
international imagination.
Signs of motion: a typology of visual content
In conducting our content analysis, we decided from the start to focus on the
most striking visual imagery and motifs used by the 561 airlines in our
corpus. For the sake of convenience and because of the variable photographic
quality of our original data source, we chose not to examine colour or layout/
space in any detail. (In an article in this journal, Kress and Van Leeuwen,
2002, note the difficulties inherent in discussing colours and, therefore, in
analyzing their communicative functions.) Our content analysis was
organized into an extensive schedule co-coded for the main visual lexemes
(or referential units in content analytic terms) across all the tailfin designs,
while also accounting for any other striking combinations of different items.
For example, we counted all instances of the visual motif ‘bird’ (under the
broader category of ‘animals’) and ‘sun (under celestial objects’), before also
counting the number of times these two elements were combined: in this
instance, there were 64 different occurrences of the bird-and-sun motif,
accounting for 45 percent of all the occurrences of birds and 72 percent of
suns (see Figures 3a–d). Whenever tailfin designs combined a number of
basic visual elements they were coded for more than one referential unit.
Summarized in Table 1, what this analysis of the primary visual content
revealed was a strikingly limited visual lexicon.
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Briefly, the two colours that recurred most across airlines were blue
(in 58% of all instances) and red (43%), with both colours often part of the
airline’s national flag featuring in the design, and with 55 per cent of all
occurrences of blue used as the dominant background colour. As with other
celestial’ motifs (e.g. suns, globes and stars), the colour blue is an obvious
metonymic resource for iconically representing flight, but one which also
carries the added symbolic meaning potentials of luxury and royalty (see
Finlay, 2003). For us, however, it is the potential of blue to signify national
identity which sets the scene for our subsequent analysis. According to the
online resource Flags of the World [], all national
flags employ only seven basic colours; of these, red is by far the most popular
(74% of all flags), followed by white (71%) and then blue (50%). Notably,
this particular combination of colours is that used in major colonial flags
such as those of the UK, France, the Netherlands and the United States. As
such, this offers a simple precedent for the way in which visual discourse
comes to be influenced by certain powerful design aesthetics. In over a quar-
ter of the tailfins, regional identity was also indicated by the incorporation
Visual Communication 6(3)
Table 1 Summary of tailfin content analysis
% of
Type Token No. of occurrences total airlines
Colours blue 326 58
background colour 177 32
red 241 43
National emblems flag 47 9
image* 97 17
Animals bird 142 25
mythological 25 4
other 14 3
Celestial objects suns 89 16
globes 98 17
stars 37 7
Markings rays 14 3
waves 87 15
spirals 24 4
arrows 164 29
stripes 248 44
Company name in full 66 12
acronym 140 25
diagonalized 94 17
* These emblems included botanical items (e.g. flowers, trees) and artefacts (e.g. masks, swords).
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(and/or stylization) of a national flag or some other recognizable emblem
(see Figure 3a – Swiss Airs flag, Aer Linguss shamrock and AeroMexico’s
Aztec figure). In these cases, national/domestic identity was explicitly
Perhaps not surprisingly, the semiotic repertoire of tailfin designs is
deployed primarily in the service of ‘flight’ and/or the visual, metaphoric
representation of movement through air. As such, the most obvious resource
for signifying flight is the depiction of a bird; in fact, a quarter of all designs
relied on this simple iconicity, although with differing degrees of stylization
or abstraction (see Figure 3b; we return to this point shortly). In keeping
with the traditions of heraldry, other zoological emblems or mythological
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
(a) national emblems: flags, botanical, artefacts
(b) animals: birds, mythological animals, other
(c) celestial objects: suns, globes and stars
(d) markings: rays, waves, spirals, arrows, stripes
Figures 3a–d Examples of main tailfin visual-content categories.
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animals were often represented as in flight or about to ‘take off (in heraldic
terms, as ‘volant’ or ‘rousant’) while other animals were often ‘penned’, i.e.
winged, as in depictions of mythological winged lions and the well-known
image of Pegasus (see Figure 3b). The use of ‘celestial objects’ such as suns,
globes and stars similarly signifies a sense of distance and space/air, arguably
with an added potential for globality’ or ‘world-wide’ (see Figure 3c).
Beyond the obvious iconicity of birds in flight, the most recurrent
visual motifs were more geometric patterns. In our analysis the category
‘markings in fact applied to 95 per cent of the entire corpus, with almost all
tailfin designs employing one of the following motifs: rays, waves, spirals,
arrows and stripes (see Figure 3d for examples of each of these). For the most
part, therefore, the semiotic repertoire of tailfin design signifies flight
through a mixture of figurative and non-figurative (or at least less figurative)
resources, summarized as follows:
icons of flight (e.g. birds, wings, aeroplanes)
icons of spatiality and distance (e.g. blue [sky], globes, suns)
icons and symbols of directionality (e.g. arrows)
icons and symbols of speed (e.g. rays and stripes)
icons and symbols of motion (e.g. spirals and waves)
At this stage in our discussion, we mean simply to highlight the
apparent standardization and relative lack of diversity which underpins the
visual lexicon of international tailfin design. On the face of it, the dominant
visual aesthetic revealed by our content analysis seems to be an exemplary
manifestation of the kind of cultural homogenization which troubles many
lay and academic commentators on globalization. Indeed, with no explicit
industry standards, no binding regulations regarding what is permissible or
appropriate in airline branding, the decision to ‘buy into the norm is left
entirely to airlines and the branding/marketing agencies they consult. While
it is true that there are powerful, usually Western, commercial agencies in the
airline branding market (e.g. Landor Associates, TrueBrand), their market
influence cannot reasonably account for the extent of the uniformity in our
large, international corpus. Instead, it seems that, just as a national airline
itself works symbolically to fulfill the imagining of a nation state (cf.
Anderson, 1983; Thurlow and Jaworski, 2003), part of this process entails
ascribing also to the look of a proper’ airline – a corporate design regimen
long since established by European and US commercial airlines.
Perhaps the
most striking example of this is the remarkably ubiquitous bird-and-sun
motif (see earlier) which was first adopted as early as 1926 by Lufthansa, the
German flag-carrier, and currently one of the world’s largest international
airlines (see Figure 5a later). (Interestingly, 8 of the 10 mainland Chinese
airlines in our corpus rely on variations of this one visual device.)
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An initial reading of our dataset certainly suggests that individual
airlines find themselves obligated to fit into a globalized design structure in
order to leverage symbolic and, ultimately, economic capital. Towards the
end of the article we will suggest this pursuit of symbolic value is also
recursive insofar as smaller airlines must always struggle to keep up with
constantly re-evaluated visual currencies.
Customizing the global repertoire: the ‘grammar’ of tailfin design
In and of itself, the existence of such a strikingly restricted visual lexicon is
revealing. There are nonetheless also other, more interesting, semiotic
strategies being employed which enable airlines (and their marketing people)
to rework and customize this otherwise dominant aesthetic. Visual motifs
are, of course, inherently polysemous (e.g. the multiple signification of
directionality, speed and flight by arrows), and the overall meaning of flight
is almost always achieved combinatorily (e.g. the use in a single tailfin design
of stripes, an arrow, sun and globe on a blue background may at once convey
motion, direction, distance and space). Individual airlines are thereby able to
rework the global repertoire in order not only to achieve the principal
branding goal of balancing recognizability and distinctiveness (Mollerup,
1998), but also as a means of customizing the genre for national (or dom-
estic) significance. Accordingly, we are able to start identifying something of
the visual grammar’ (cf. Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) by which the basic
lexicon is organized. Here too we find evidence of greater design creativity –
albeit still structured by genericity – through the use of three communicative
strategies: combination, localization and abstraction.
As social semioticians point out, visual meaning is best thought of as
the manipulation or exploitation of resources rather than the application of
codes (Jewitt and Oyama, 2001). In creating a distinctive tailfin, designers are
therefore not simply restricted to selecting one or other of the basic visual
motifs; they can also maximize their appeal to the generic image of a ‘proper’
airline by, in the first instance, combining multiple motifs. Good examples of
this can be seen in Figure 4a where, for example, Volare from Italy mixes
‘national’ emblems (the Lion of St Mark, the colours of the Italian flag), a
series of celestial objects (stars, themselves positioned as a globe) and wave
marking (the Italian flag colours). Similarly, in Figure 4b, Ansett Australia
combines its acronym (‘A’) while also referencing the stars of the Australian
national flag. In Figure 4c, Northwest Airlines of the USA cleverly works
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) (f)
Figures 4a–f
Examples of the
combination of
visual motifs.
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together an arrow pointing northwest on a globe and its acronym (‘NW’)
into a single design trademark. The combination of lexical items not only
affords greater variation – essential for creating a distinctive brand image –
but also enables designers to amplify the signification of flight.
The opportunity to customize is perhaps most obvious in the
incorporation of national emblems in other ways which do not disrupt the
basic format of the genre. For example, given the immediate iconicity and
design genericity of birds, airlines like Gulf Air (based in Oman) and Air
Niugini (Figures 4d and 4e, respectively) can also instill a sense of national
identity through the choice of a particular, often regional, bird such as the
bird of paradise or falcon. Air Niuginis bird of paradise fulfills its generic
potential even further in the curved line of its tail feathers which also invokes
a globe. This kind of figurative localization is similarly achieved by the use of
different national flags. Meanwhile, for Air Tahiti Nui (Figure 4f) the effect is
created by using a tropical flower – in this case stylized as a star (i.e. celestial
object) and combined with other generic elements such as a stylized globe.
Another powerful communicative strategy used in tailfin design is the
abstraction (or stylization) of basic visual motifs. This is highlighted well in
the recurrent use of the bird-and-sun motif in Figure 5 which shows a range
of customized responses to the prototypical standard of Lufthansas tailfin
(Figure 5a) and the very unusual photographic iconicity of US-based Frontier
Airlines duck (Figure 5b), or the figurative iconicity of Khalifa (Algeria)
airlines’ silhouetted eagle (Figure 5c). (See also Gulf Airs falcon in Figure 4d
on p. 317.) While Xiamen Airlines of China (Figure 5d) arguably retains just
enough iconic value to retain the significance of its regionally appropriate
crane, the progression from Figure 5e to Figure 5j shows, we think, how
increasing degrees of abstraction render the same basic motif more and more
Visual Communication 6(3)
Figures 5a–j Examples of increasing symbolism/abstraction.
(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
(f) (g) (h) (i) (j)
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symbolic in Peircean terms (1931–58; see also Chandler, 2002). To this end,
we find Fiskes (1990) schematic representation of the Peircean semiotic
system (see Figure 6) useful for showing how increasing semiotic motivation
establishes the degree of iconicity (or literalism) of any image, while abstract
symbols derive their meaning through habitual familiarity and cultural
convention. In social semiotic terms, this distinction might also be thought
of as one of modality whereby increasing ‘likeness’ represents a stronger
claim to truth/reality (see Van Leeuwen, 2005, for more on this).
The relationship between these two meaning potentials – or modes of
signification (Chandler, 2002) – is clearly dialectical and always a matter of
degree. In practice, iconicity is never absolute, and any sign may be
simultaneously iconic and symbolic. For example, it is a matter of point of
view as to whether designs such as those of China Northern (Figure 5e),
German airline Condor (Figure 5f) or Poland’s LOT (Figure 5g) are rendered
meaningful by their iconic or cultural recognizability. On the other hand,
without the intertextuality of the genre itself (our privileged perspective in
reviewing a corpus beyond most peoples experience), the signification of
‘bird’ is all but dissolved in the tailfins of Turkish Airlines (Figure 5h),
Lithuanian Airlines (Figure 5i) and Karat of Russia (Figure 5j). We return to
this issue later.
The layering of signification through strategies such as combination,
localization and abstraction not only serves to amplify the visual meaning of
the designs but, while drawing on several of the stock resources available,
these semiotic strategies also allow room for a more agentful individual-
ization of the standard design aesthetic which otherwise structures the
generic format. It is at this point, therefore, that we start to see how an
otherwise global genre may come to be localized by the domestic discourses
which feed the genre (Machin and Van Leeuwen, 2004; Van Leeuwen, 2005).
In addition, we also see another very important semiotic resource at play
which potentially sheds an even more interesting light on the way tailfin
designers achieve the balance between global and local signification.
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
Figure 6 Schema for the dialectic of signification (based on Fiske, 1990, after Peirce,
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The stylization of motion: semiotic resources for kinetic effects
The more abstracted an image, the more ambiguous – or problematic, even –
the traditional distinction between denotation and connotation at the heart
of semiotic/semiological theory. For example, given the iconicity of the
photographic representation of a bird in Frontier Airlines (Figure 5b), the
separation of denotative meaning (i.e. a duck in flight) and connotative
meaning (i.e. flight and motion) – or even iconological meaning (i.e. a
regional emblem) – is arguably more readily available. By contrast, the
abstracted symbolism (again in Peircean terms) of the bird used by Condor
(Figure 5f) creates a possibly strategic visual ambiguity: is this a denotative
arrow which suggests or connotes a bird in flight? Or is this a denotative bird
which, styled as an arrow, connotes motion? (Of course, to use Barthes’
[1972] term, the preferred meaning of this particular tailfin design is clearly
anchored by the name of the airline itself.) Processes of abstraction mean
that denotation and connotation are, as we suggest, intricately or dialectically
interwoven; this in turn reveals the constant or inevitable exchange between
the two modes of meaning. Any distinction is only ever analytical and
relative, and it is the mobilization of these different semiotic resources which
ultimately gives the design its significance and power. (We ourselves rely on
the Peircean schema explained earlier for analytic convenience only.) For
example, it is certainly more helpful to allow for the simultaneous areoplane/
arrow/bird meaning potentials in Lithuanian Airlines tailfin (Figure 5i,
recently changed) rather than necessarily trying to separate literal or primary
meaning from associative or secondary meanings.
With this in mind, one key visual resource exploited skilfully by
airlines and their design consultants is the use of various non-figurative
techniques for amplifying the signification of movement and motion – what
we have called the stylization of kinetic effects. Exemplified in Figures 7a–h, we
identify the principal means of producing kinetic effects in tailfin designs:
rippling or brush strokes (e.g. of flags);
diagonalizing (e.g. of lettering and emblems);
streamlining or darting (e.g. of birds);
gradation or tapering (e.g. of stripes or globes).
Although not necessarily discrete categories in practice, each of these kinetic
effects works by metaphorically invoking a slightly different manner of
iconicity: rippling/brush strokes (a more recent feature in tailfin design made
technically possible with air-brushing) generate their meaning through the
physical manifestation of energy passing through/over a substance (e.g. a flag
blowing in the wind, ripples in water, or, most obviously, the strokes of a
paintbrush); similarly, diagonalizing works through an association with the
direct effect of speed (e.g. an object being blown over or bending in a wind);
while streamlining and darting reference the technological and physical
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reduction of friction for greater speed (e.g. ‘with the speed of an arrow’). The
final category, gradation (i.e. the gradual thinning of lines) and tapering
(similar to streamlining, the thinning of the ends of lines or curves), seems to
work slightly differently through a geometric illusion which we examine in
more detail later. In specifying these four kinetic effects, we mean to
distinguish them slightly from the more figurative markings discussed as part
of the basic lexicon (most notably rays, waves and arrows); however, there is
a clear overlap between these semiotic resources.
These particular stylization techniques enable airlines more subtly to
rework the standardized or generic visual lexicon; in fact, the kinetic effects
are so prevalent that they themselves serve to constitute the generic format of
tailfin design. For example, the use of diagonalizing and streamlining makes
it possible to stylize as kinetic just about any company name (e.g. Figure 7b)
or national emblem (e.g. Figure 7f). (Of all instances of company names
used in the tailfins in our corpus, 17% were diagonalized.) In the case of
diagonalizing, this visual effect also works complementarily with the material
structure of the tailfin itself – as does the streamlining of the ‘monara or
peacock in the Sri Lankans tailfin design (Figure 7c). (In keeping with the
localization strategy, the peacock is considered a sacred emblem in Sri
Lanka.) It is also possible for designs to combine, and therefore amplify,
different kinetic effects, as with the Belgian airline SN Brussels (Figure 7h,
now defunct) which uses both gradation and tapering. (This same tailfin
design already employs the basic visual lexicon of a globe, acronym and
wave marking
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
Figures 7a–h Examples of stylized kinetic effects.
rippling or diagonalizing streamlining gradation
brush strokes or darting or tapering
(a) (b) (c) (d)
(e) (f) (g) (h)
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The four semiotic techniques for kinetic effect also represent
increasing levels of abstraction in their representation of speed/motion, and
so, even within this category of iconic markers, iconicity appears to be
relative. Partly for this reason, we were initially loath to attach specific
interpretations to these design effects, being particularly aware that meaning
potentials are usually understood to be at least cultural, at most personal.
Nonetheless, what is notable, we think, is that these effects appear to work
more than just metaphorically, and derive their significance also through a
certain materiality – a perceptual rather than cultural iconicity. Before we
continue our analysis proper, however, it is worth side-stepping for a
moment to consider in a little more detail the nature of the relationship
between perception and culture which we think underpins the semiosis of
tailfin design.
In discussing the relationship between form and content in written and
spoken language, Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 127) note how metaphors of
content function in such a way as to signify additionally that more of form is
more of content’. To exemplify this, they offer He is very, very, very tall and He
is b-i-i-i-i-ig! as ways of showing how typographic and verbal extension or
reduplication metaphorically imply the superlative. This observation is
particularly useful to us in understanding the effect of kinetic layering we see
in tailfins since it also shows how the duplication or repetition of key visual
motifs in tailfin design serve to intensify connotations of speed, distance and
flight. Multiplication adds emphasis. Furthermore, this interplay between the
literal and the metaphoric – the iconic and the symbolic – is clearly a delicate
one. In their discussion of multimodality, Kress and Van Leeuwen (2001)
examine the nature of the relationship a little further, noting specifically how
‘material qualities can also acquire meaning, not on the basis of “where they
come from, but on the basis of our physical, bodily experience of them (p.
74). In this way, therefore, the meaning of signs or texts is always produced
through their provenance (i.e. the ideological connotations of the myths they
evoke, cf. Barthes, 1972; equivalent also to Foucauldian discourses), as well as
through their experiential meaning potential.
An aside: the study of motion in art
As something of an aside, artistic avant-gardes and, more broadly, modernist’
artistic movements provide a fertile ground for the study of the combination
between perceptual clues and cultural uses of kinetic visual themes. This work
also offers a useful historical dimension to our current analysis because it
provides a precedent for the organization of visual semiosis around per-
ceptions and meanings related to the notion of movement. Prime examples of
how both perceptual clues and cultural–historical conceptions of movement
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(and related ideas, such as speed, change, future) are to be found in the work
of Suprematists (e.g. Kasimir Malevich), Constructivists (e.g. El Lissitzky),
Futurists (e.g. Tullio Crali, see Figure 8) and by Op Artists (e.g. Bridget Riley
and Richard Anuszkiewicz, see Figure 9). (Colour reproductions of the images
discussed here are also to be found on our accompanying website – see
earlier.) In all these cases, artists have experimented with different semiotic
resources for portraying motion and movement. We can take just two artists
as examples: Tullio Crali and Bridget Riley.
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
Figure 8 Futurism: Tullio Crali’s Aerial Duel.
Figure 9 Optical art: Bridget Riley (left) and Richard Anuszkiewicz (right).
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Throughout the 1930s, Italian Futurists created works of art that
celebrated modern life. According to Day (1999), Futurism is associated with
three main ideas: modernity, simultaneity, and the technical and formal
devices to represent the two former ideas. Firstly, Futurism revolves around
modernist motifs such as cars, aeroplanes and telephones, as well as their
corresponding qualities (e.g. speed, dynamism). Secondly, this artistic
movement emphasizes the increasing compression of time and space in
modern life, as it celebrates new forms of transportation and communication
that reveal multifarious and competing sensations about the city while also
making the world seem smaller. Thirdly, and most interestingly, the term
‘Futurism itself can refer to ‘the technical and formal devices used by artists
to “represent” any of the above (the fragmentation and fracturing of picture
space, the juxtaposition or collaging of different materials/elements as a way
of “expressing” sensations of speed or simultaneity)’ (p. 206).
As one of the best-known artists in this movement and of particular
relevance to the current article, Tullio Crali’s ‘aeropaintings feature
modernist themes such as aeroplanes and war-related dynamism. In his
painting Aerial Duel (Figure 8), Crali represents flight and dynamism not
only by figuratively portraying aeroplanes in the sky, but also by employing
many of the same semiotic techniques used by airline tailfin designers, such
as the streamlining, diagonalization, darting and spiraling of geometric
elements. As artist Umberto Boccioni (1946) writes, the ‘plastic dynamism of
Futurist art lies in the intersection of various spatial planes and in the
continuity of the ‘forces’ at work in a painting (or sculpture). This suggests
that in static images dynamism, or movement, originates from a combi-
nation of variation (fragmentation of surfaces) and repetition (continuity of
The notion of plastic or ‘virtual movement (Parola, 1969: 9) is key to
another artistic approach to visuality, that of Optical (Op) Art. In the 1960s,
Op Art fused mathematical and psychological principles of visual perception
with conceptual motifs of repetition (seriality) and variation. One of the key
principles of Op Art – progression (consecutive and sequential) – relates to
movement in its purest form:
In its simplest terms, progression could be defined as moving from
one stage to another. Let us illustrate this with a basic form. If we
draw a square and repeat it within itself, we are working with a
consecutive progression. It is repetition in a stark manner: only the
size of the image diminishes. The width of the line remains constant,
as does the negative space. (Parola, 1969: 61)
Parola describes consecutive progression as ‘a series of mirror images, with
negative and positive space remaining stable’, whereas sequential progression
‘stresses gradual variations in either the image or the surrounding space, or
both (p. 70). In either case, movement is conveyed through variation within
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a rigorously maintained order. Parola goes on to explain that, while variation
(e.g. in size) is embedded in an order of repetition in consecutive progres-
sion, in sequential progression ‘we can increase, decrease, reverse, or turn,
but always with some relationship to the previous stage. We strive for change
while maintaining unity’ (p. 70).
Op Art’s principle of progression is best exemplified by the work of
prominent artist Bridget Riley (see Figure 9). Riley’s Op Art employs this
principle to create ripples, bends and perspectival illusions. Repetition of
elements such as dots, squares or stripes is paired up with elements of var-
ation, such as formal distortions (circles that progressively turn into ellipses),
the curving of otherwise straight lines (into waves), etc. This combination of
repetition and change is enhanced by the use of mostly pure black and white,
which emphasizes effects of flickering and thus also contributes to the
creation of an illusion of movement (Livingstone, 2002: 56).
These two historical examples of kinetic’ art illustrate how modernist
themes, aesthetics and, ultimately, ideologies may be expressed and conveyed
by means of similar formal and perceptual principles (e.g. variation and
repetition, change in continuity) while also being organized in different ways
(e.g. the figurativeness of Futurist themes vs the mathematical psychological
approach of Op Art) by the cultural and historical discourses in which they
are situated. In principle, these examples also set a cultural precedent for the
aesthetic that is found in airline tailfin design. In doing so, they raise two
important questions: What are the culturally specific, cross-cultural or even
universal meanings in the visual branding of an international airline? How
might these meanings intersect and interact with the agendas of global
Perception, difference and movement
As with the Op Art of Bridget Riley and Richard Anuszkiewicz (also Figure
9), semiotic techniques such as the use of gradation in tailfins are based on
relationships of difference. For example, in and of themselves, stripes express
a difference (and an ambiguity) between background and foreground. In
addition, varying degrees of thickness (i.e. gradation) of otherwise homo-
geneous stripes introduce variation within repetition. Tapered stripes add a
relationship of difference between two opposite ends of the same spatial
plane. Similarly, streamlined, darted or diagonalized objects (e.g. birds,
animals, flags or lettering) displace familiar perceptual objects from an
imagined center located on a perfectly horizontal or vertical line, which
would constitute their normal’ location (e.g. we usually read text on a
horizontal line) or posture (e.g. birds or animals at rest, frontal and ‘flat’
representations of flags, such as the ones found in books or atlases).
As such, the illusion or sense of movement/motion that these semiotic
techniques express stems partially from the characteristics of visual percep-
tion because humans are extremely sensitive to relationships of difference
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within the perceptual field. In other words, perception is differential in
nature. The relationship of difference that is most salient to the human eye is
the one represented by the actual movement of an object in a relatively static
space. In her work on the relationship between art and perception,
Livingstone (2002) points out that the human visual system is sensitive to
Because of center/surround organization, neurons respond best to
sharp changes, rather than to gradual shifts in luminance. The visual
system is wired up this way so it can ignore gradual changes in light
and the overall level of the illuminant, which are usually not
biologically important. (p. 54)
For this reason, therefore, it is usually much more efficient, biologically
speaking, for humans to encode only parts of an image in which there are
changes or discontinuities (i.e. relationships of difference) rather than the
image as a whole. In fact, as Livingstone points out, most of the information
in any image lies in its discontinuities (p. 55). In this way, a static image can
imply or represent movement partially by taking advantage of less salient
relationships of difference. For example, gradation is a static visualization of
a progression from thinner to thicker (from closer to farther?), especially if
the colour and type of stripe remain otherwise unvaried (as in Figures 7d
and 7h – also the last tailfin in 3d). By the same token, diagonalized or darted
elements (epitomized by arrows) make our eye follow a direction (a
movement) on the continuum that goes from lower to higher (or vice versa)
and/or less to more convergent (in one final point, the tip of the arrow). We
are literally drawn into (ocular) motion.
In other words, both techniques use what Tufte (1997) has called the
‘smallest effective difference to make a given perceptual element salient. This
is best exemplified by geological maps, where subtle and gradual variations
in color hues (e.g. from light blue to dark blue, from light brown to dark
brown) mark a difference in depth or height, between different points of the
same continuum (from highest to deepest). According to Tuftes explanation,
if everything were to be emphasized, for example by varying not only the
thickness of stripes but also their colors and directions, as a consequence
nothing would be actually emphasized. This is because human attention is
selective in nature and humans are thus not able to retain and organize a
large number of stimuli at the same time and for an extended period of time.
This also implies that humans are perceptually more sensitive to relation-
ships of difference that rely on a high degree of salience, such as in the case of
actual movement within an otherwise static perceptual field.
In addition, as Gombrich (1982) explains, perception of the sensory
world, including that of images, is a process that deploys over time, and it is
for this reason that static images are capable of making the viewer remember
and anticipate movement:
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If perception both of the visible world and of images were not a
process in time, and a rather slow and complex process at that, static
images could not arouse in us the memories and anticipations of
movement. (p. 61)
This process is best explained by Hochbergs (1972) earlier description of
how visual perception works:
Any object is usually examined by a succession of multiple glimpses,
and the various regions that are looked at each fall in turn on the
same place in the eye. That is, the separate parts of the figure all have
to be brought at different times to the central part of the retina, the
fovea, if they are to be seen in full clarity of detail. (p. 60)
Humans therefore perceive all perceptual objects, including static images, in
a dynamic way, through continuous movements of the eye.
We emphasize that tailfin designs rely on perceptual clues con-
tributing to the illusion of movement because we believe that there is
therefore a cross-cultural, perhaps even universal, recognition of the semiotic
techniques employed in these designs as representations of movement. In
other words, however abstract (e.g. stripes, spirals, geometric motifs) or
culturally specific (e.g. ethnic’ images, flying or ascending birds of all kinds,
mythological animals, acronyms in local alphabets) the visual elements of
tailfins, most of the designs rely on fundamental, shared perceptual clues to
convey notions of speed, flight and generally movement.
A caveat: cultures of perception – the case of stripes
In his discussion of the very familiar logos used by Apple (Figure 2f) and
IBM (Figure 2e), Floch (2000) addresses both the direct impact of stripes
and the ways in which the meaning of stripes has been organized
(institutionalized, then reversed) over time. With reference to relationships
of difference, Floch discusses the perceptual qualities of stripes: ‘First there is
the impact, the effect of perpetual motion, which makes the striped surface
stand out in its context’ (p. 60). However, he then also considers historical
transformations in the meaning of stripes, describing how, in the West,
stripes went from being diabolical, perverse signifiers to being symbols of
It is for this reason particularly that it is important to acknowledge
how any perceptual elements in a design are inevitably situated in cultural
and historical terms. Panofsky’s (1991[1927]) groundbreaking work in
iconology, for example, has shown how Western cultures have increasingly
naturalized linear perspective, to the extent that linear perspective is regarded
as the most accurate approach to the representation of objects in space.
However, as Panofsky argues, linear perspective is itself a cultural construct,
and not a perceptually necessary or universally available approach to
pictorial illusionism.
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Given humans’ perceptual capacities, therefore, there are a number of
means by which illusions of space, movement, etc. may be created. These
ways are always culturally influenced, however naturalized they may become
over time. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that this range is always limited
by the nature of visual perception. Therefore, it can be argued that linear
perspective (or other visual effects) is not completely conventional, that it is
not completely arbitrary or culturally constructed. Although – just like words
(see Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, see earlier) – images are artificial construc-
tions, they may contain perceptual clues, such as outlines or perspective
itself, that allow us illusionistically to perceive them as ‘real’.
To this end, we agree with Messaris (2003) who argues that, taken to
its logical conclusion, the Panofskian view otherwise would make us unable
to make a meaningful distinction between images and words as different
modes of communication:
If images appear real to us, it is not simply because we have
internalized their conventions, but also because those conventions
successfully capture something about the way our perception operates
in real-world vision. (p. 553)
Many of the elements that are used to represent or imply movement in tailfin
designs rely on perceptual clues that are therefore widely recognizable. This is
not to say, however, that many of these elements are not also rooted in a
cultural and historical discourse that simultaneously organizes and
conventionalizes their meaning potential.
We live in a time of . . . fluid communications with transnational
orders of information, style, and knowledge. In the middle of this . . .
we find codes that unify us, or at least permit us to understand
ourselves. (García Canclini, 1998: 379)
Usually, when scholars like García Canclini talk about globalization, about
transnational processes of codification, they reasonably assume that what
makes for unification is a matter of culture. Lash and Urry (1994), for
example, talk about how globalization is marked by a kind of ‘aesthetic
cosmopolitanism (p. 253). In globalization and social theory, as in visual
communication scholarship, questions of human cognition are somewhat
unfashionable. Nonetheless, on the basis of our analysis here, we suggest that
there are other factors at play which might also account for the global
semioscape; that might help explain how concomitant or embedded culture-
specific meaning systems are able to circulate as successfully as they do. We
refer here to the possibility that the perceptual qualities of certain images
may afford them universal significance.
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Just as airlines manage the global/local tension by skilfully reworking
the genericity of a globalized aesthetic and by incorporating local visual
material, the basic content of tailfin designs may also be transnationally
stylized though an aerodynamic appearance afforded by perceptually moti-
vated kinetic effects. In fact, it is the interaction of the perceptual and
cultural/historical qualities of airline corporate branding which provides a
less obvious explanation for why local and global meanings are able to co-
exist so successfully.
In Figure 10, culturally specific national emblems are quite apparently
used as important and probably very meaningful sources of national pride in
tailfin design. Different examples are the stylized flags of France and South
Africa in the Air France (Figure 10a) and South African Airways (Figure 10b)
tailfin designs, as well as the Maori ‘koru or fern frond in Air New Zealand
(Figure 10c) and the ‘jumpee’ or white orchid flower in Thai Airways
International (Figure 10d). In each case, however, these emblems are
rendered more internationally significant by drawing on a more univer-
sally recognized semiosis – specifically, the kinetic stylizations of darting,
gradation, diagonalization, tapering and, for Air New Zealand, brush
stroking. Given our earlier discussion, the international significance of the
designs is a matter of more than ‘just cultural resonances such as the codified
mythologies of national flags or the intratextuality of airline liveries. Nor are
they to be explained simply by their physical situation (i.e. the obtuse
triangulation of the tailfin itself). Instead, we suggest that these designs may
signify transnationally through the apparent universality of their experiential
meaning potential or perceptual iconicity.
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
Figures 10a–h The balance of meaning: cultural symbolism, perceptual iconicity and
visual self–othering.
(a) (b) (c) (d)
(e) (f) (g) (h)
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In taking this position we know we run the risk of sounding
objectivistic; however, we remain convinced of the co-constitution of
objectivity/subjectivity and universality/relativity (see Lakoff and Johnson,
1980; Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001; Chandler, 2002). For the most part,
therefore, we speak of the universality of kinetic effects in tailfin design in the
same way that cultural anthropologist Douglas (1966) considers the
universality of social distinctions of cleanliness and impurity, or cognitive
linguists Lakoff and Johnson (1980) discuss the ubiquitous use of
orientational metaphors such as up and down. For example, Lakoff and
Johnson view the tendency to value ‘up as superior and down as inferior to
be rooted in both our biological/physiological and cultural experiences of
the spatially higher and the spatially lower. Similarly, Kress and Van
Leeuwen (1996) propose a spatio-semantic framework for the syntagmatic
arrangement of print media and visual imagery. What links these different
perspectives is an appreciation of the dialectic interplay of culture and
perception in symbolic life. Whether or not perceptual or experiential visual
resources guarantee universally available meanings remains a moot point.
While we would distinguish perceptual iconicity from the kinds of
figurative iconicity we discussed earlier (e.g. birds, the colour blue or globes),
iconicity is always an act of perception – compared with symbolism, which
relies on inference and judgement (Hodge and Kress, 1988). Culturally
and historically specific tailfin motifs, then, may be rendered globally
recognizable by virtue of their perceptual, not to say material, qualities. Of
course, however ubiquitous birds are, their physicality, representation and
significance may be culturally – or at least geographically – relative. Hence
the localizing use of specific, regional birds by some airlines. Nonetheless, as
with Japan Airlines (Figure 10g), Garuda Indonesia (Figure 10h) and Sri
Lankan Airlines (Figure 7c), this may also be done in conjunction with a
degree of kinetic stylization which functions not only to amplify the visual
significance but, we suggest, also to universalize it. There is, therefore, a
balancing of the culturally specific meanings (e.g. national emblems), cross-
cultural understandings (e.g. creatures of flight) and perceptual qualities
(e.g. kinetic effects) in so many tailfin designs. Returning to our schema from
before, we might depict this interplay of modes of signification or degrees of
modality as in Figure 11.
Visual Communication 6(3)
Figure 11 Schema for the balancing of symbolic and iconic meaning potentials in tailfin
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In and of itself, the balancing of these modalities is a key visual
resource, one which allows for local and globalized meanings to co-exist and,
in fact, to work off each other. Whereas a Western, for example, traveler
might not be able to infer the particular cultural meaning of the ‘koru or
‘jumpee’, they will still be able to recognize it as a signifier for flight and/or
movement. The design of Saudi Arabian Airlines (Figure 10f) exemplifies this
interplay best with its combination of appropriate visual lexemes (e.g. the
colour blue, a globe) and its incorporation and reworking of the Saudi
national emblem of a date palm and two crossed swords. Importantly, these
are kinetically stylized through the tapering of the globe and the additional
streamlining of the swords and tree. (A comparison with the official emblem
confirms this stylization: see the homepage of the Saudi embassy in London
[].) In the sense that Bell (1999) explains
audience design, many tailfins thereby reveal a skilfull management (no
doubt deliberate on the part of designers) of the polysemous capacity of
signs (or styles) to invoke multiple meanings and identities simultaneously
(cf. also Bakhtin, 1981[1935]). The system works, semiotically speaking,
through the deployment and manipulation of key visual resources, including
the balancing of perceptual motivation and cultural convention. In this way,
a careful compromise is struck between the desire to represent local cultural
meanings and the need to be relevant to an international market – of
servicing national pride and securing global capital.
Visual self-othering and the commodification of the exotic
It is not simply the case that tailfin designers must mitigate or translate the
provenance or symbolism of local/national imagery. There is also a case to be
made for strategically retaining something of the relative unintelligibility or
ambiguity of local meanings. Herein lies a mystique worthy of commodi-
fication. As the BA rebranding debacle showed, national identity and
national sentiment have symbolic value not only for the domestic market.
In the face of global economics, multinational corporations – mani-
fested most obviously in the airline industry by so called ‘global alliances
and transnational governance, nationality is often thought to exercise less
and less influence. And yet, as Lull (2001) reminds us, the nation is a
discursive product that is perpetually marketed back to its own people and to
other nations’ (pp. 15–16). As Lull then goes on to note, the nation state
continues to function as a political and symbolic resource of ‘extraordinary
importance’. The nation state may well be imagined, but it is by no means
imaginary (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992: 11). Certainly, national emblems and
national stereotypes are exploited by marketers (and others, e.g. politicians)
for economic and political gain. Thurlow and Jaworski (2003) refer to this as
the globalization of nationality’ (p. 600) following Smiths (1990) discussion
of the modernist nationalization of pre-modern ethnicities (e.g. the
Victorian reinvention of Scottish and Welsh rituals).
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
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As all marketers know, where there is meaning there is money. In
looking to balance a concern for national identity and global image, airlines
therefore recognize the symbolic and economic value in exploiting the
potential, connotational meanings of local emblems. Just as language users
invoke identities through their stylized performances of others’ ways of
speaking (see, e.g., Bell, 1999), airline marketers also self-style or self-other
(Jaworski and Coupland, 2005), in order to define and project an identity
specifically meaningful to their foreign audience. To this end, symbolic
capital is also generated through the strategic display of exotic markers of
difference. (Tourism marketing is, of course, rife with this; see Thurlow et al.,
2005.) Paradoxically perhaps, the (figurative) stylization of an airline as
exotic will typically require a restriction of (perceptual) stylization.
The symbolic capital of self-othering is exemplified in AeroMexico’s
use of a winged Aztec warrior or Saudi Arabian Airlines self-orientalizing use
of Arabian swords and a palm tree (Figures 10e and 10f). Here, designers
fulfill genericity through standard visual content and kinetic stylization, but
in ways which retain the symbolic cachet of these metonymic national
stereotypes. So, although running the risk of being obscure to the inter-
national audience, national emblems also service airlines need to be
sometimes exotic. This is a way of establishing a definitional identity (or
corporate brand) for commercial gain and, of course, economic profit.
Another, perhaps more subtle, example of this same strategy is the use of the
mythological Garuda bird or the crane in the tailfins of Garuda Indonesia
(Figure 10h) and Japan Airlines (Figure 10g), respectively. In these cases, just
enough explicit meaning is available, but little more; that is, just enough for
people to recognize an exotic’ bird while not perhaps sensing its local
significance as an institutionalized national emblem. In effect, therefore,
international travellers are made aware that they are ‘missing meaning if the
emblem is to appear foreign and exotic. It is in this way that the careful
semiotic balancing of design components enables domestic travellers to value
the tailfin design (‘That’s our bird’) while also enabling foreign travellers to
appreciate its difference (‘That’s their bird’).
Globalization is the direct consequence of the expansion of European
culture across the planet via settlement, colonization and cultural
memisis. . . . [and is a process whereby] every set of social
arrangements must establish its position in relation to the capitalist
West. (Waters, 1995: 3)
Attention to local conjunctures needs to be linked, at all points, to
global processes without falling into the by-now-tired modernist
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binary of the universal (global) sublating the particular (local),
explained through a colonizing master-narrative of undifferentiated
homogenizing forces meeting endlessly specific and hyper-detailed
adaptations doomed to defeat. (Wilson and Dissanayake, 1996: 6)
In these two statements, the authors may at first seem to be presenting
opposing visions; however, together, they account for an important feature of
globalization. While global capital–culture continues to be totalizing in its
demand, its influence and effects are never completely and uniformly
realized – nor is it simply imposed and/or embraced. On the contrary.
Globalizing forces may ‘invade local culture (Giddens, 1999), but their
impact is often confused and mystified by domestic priorities. By the same
token, the reduction of the semioscape (or any other transnational flow) to
overly binarized global and local processes obscures the co-constitutive
nature of the interplay between them (Wilson and Dissanayake, 1996; also
Hall, 1991). In fact, our micro-analysis of just one textual example – the
generic practices of airline tailfin design – has, we think, revealed this
interplay nicely. While airline branding represents a clearly Westernized (or
Western-driven) aesthetic, it is by no means a completely homogenizing
imposition. Indeed, visual semiosis affords plenty of negotiation of this
global genre, and airlines are able strategically to co-opt the aesthetic to their
advantage. Likewise, to say local agents glocalize is also to simplify
directionality and agency in this process. Airlines assert national pride while
also embracing global capital.
In terms of the conceptualization offered by Thompson (1995),
airline corporate branding epitomizes globalization: it is an economic–
political–symbolic activity which occurs in a global arena, is organized on a
global scale, and entails a degree of reciprocity and interdependence. In fact,
what is so striking about the limited visual repertoire we see in our analysis is
that there are no regulations which dictate the design of tailfins; instead,
these are largely independent, commercial choices. Having said that, the
marketplace inevitably demands (inter)dependence and self-regulation. As
such, the industry aesthetic is characterized precisely by the kinds of
globalized diffusion – rather than imposition or localized appropriation.
Although very different from the type of televisual formats, or genres, that
Castells (1996) discusses when explaining his idea of ‘supertext, the tailfins of
many international airlines are in many ways excellent examples of this
blending of meanings drawn simultaneously from symbolic resources at
both the local and global level (see also Thompson, 1995, on ‘symbolic
distancing’). Of course, the symbolic and economic dimensions of
globalization are inextricably interwoven, and the deployment of semiotic
resources such as the ones found in tailfin designs is, at once, a means of
distinction and conformity within the agendas that are set by global
capitalism. Semiosis therefore plays a crucial role in the positioning of a local
actor (such as a flag-carrier) in the international market.
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
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Airlines are clearly adept at deploying the inherently discursive nature
of globalization, recognizing that it is as much a matter of consumer lifestyle
and marketing brand as it is of economic reconfigurations (Thurlow and
Jaworski, 2003). Just as the inflight magazine is a globalizing genre which
renders airlines simultaneously international and national, other aspects of
airlines’ corporate branding manage to blend and balance the otherwise
disparate demands of national pride and global capital. This expression of
the double-bind act globally, act locally’ and the concomitant re-imagining
of nationality is what Jaworski and Thurlow (2004) elsewhere explain as a
kind of new internationalism. Certainly, in an increasingly competitive
marketplace, the success of international airlines depends on strategic
differentiation and global positioning; on a careful balance of the locally
meaningful, the internationally identifiable and the globally’ recognizable.
Shifting the goal posts: the dialectics of globalism
One point we have tried to make though our micro-analysis is the potential for
local communicative agency in spite of the structuring effects of a globalized
design aesthetic. In many respects, corporate branding in the airline industry
evidences what Lash and Urry (1994: 285) see as a defining characteristic of
disorganized capitalism: the decentering of power (away from historical
bases such as the UK and the USA) and the absence of a clearly identified
hegemonic power base. It should not be forgotten (or underestimated),
however, that power is by no means distributed equally and influence seldom
flows evenly across national borders. Indeed, the kinds of global flows
identified by Appadurai (1996) are disjunctive and non-isomorphic, marked
by concentrations (Thompson, 1995) of people, technologies, financial
resources, information, news images and ideologies. Furthermore, such
global forces are evidently not neutral but always subject to economic
privileges and political agendas – ultimately to unequal relations of power.
Needless to say, the global semioscape is equally variable and uneven.
Advantaged by the greater symbolic value of their semiotic practices and
resources, certain people (or countries) are able to accrue symbolic credit in
addition to (infra)structural privileges established over time (cf. Lash and
Urry, 1994: 287). Indeed, the genericity and dominant aesthetic of airline
branding is still heavily motivated by the economic priorities and advantages
of richer (Western) countries. And the design agenda continues therefore to
be set by richer countries.
In a quintessentially semioticized maneuver, many of the major
international airlines (especially in western Europe, east Asia and in the USA)
have recently been reinventing themselves by means of rebranding – a central
part of which entails the redesign of their liveries and, specifically, their
Briefly, we see this happening in two related ways evidenced in
Figure 12 and characterized by the contemporization, ‘aestheticization and,
ultimately, globalization of the design aesthetic.
Visual Communication 6(3)
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In Figures 12a to 12d, we show the relatively recent rebranding
of Austrian Airlines, Luxair of Luxembourg, Ethiopian Airlines and Finnair of
Finland. Created by different agencies (e.g. Landor Associates, Sek & Grey
of Finland), contemporary design tastes demand softer, more curvaceous
lines. (In terms of kinetic effect, this has the added benefit of enhanced
streamlining.) In the overall airline livery, the current fashion for a smoother,
less cluttered (or busy) aesthetic is mirrored by a number of other recurrent
choices: the increasing roundedness of lettering (a loss of capitalization
arguably related to the impact of the internet and other technologically
motivated typographies); the loss of the cheat-line along the side of
aeroplanes in favor of a cleaner’, monochrome, often white, fuselage (or a
diffuse line which bleeds’ across the fuselage); and a reduction in the use of
heavily saturated colors in favor of greater pastelization. What accounts for
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
Figures 12a–h Examples of recent design re-brandings.
old new old new
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these subtle changes in the fashion of corporate design is beyond the scope of
our article; there are other changes, however, which are more telling.
Rebranding is one change, albeit cosmetic, which helps to keep
airlines looking (and feeling) up-to-date and cutting-edge. In a fiercely semi-
oticized world, design may be all that is needed: an airline like Northwest
Airlines may repaint its aircraft without necessarily replacing them. (Thurlow
and Jaworski, 2006, discuss similar semiotic maneuvers in the use of
frequent-flyer programs.) In this sense, the rebranding itself assumes the role
of signifier, communicating a refreshed or renewed product – or at least
persuading customers that this is the case. Following the ideas of
Featherstone (1991) and Du Gay and Pryke (2002), however, we note with
interest how another type of current rebranding additionally manifests
aestheticization in its privileging of design over substance. Where the same
curvature of line and minimization of detail is seen in the new corporate
images created for Northwest Airlines, Japan Airlines and Gulf Air (Figures 10e
to 10g), each rebranding also entails an increasing abstraction of logos
whereby specifically national semantic content is visually diluted (e.g. the
geographic compass location for Northwest, the localized crane motif for
JAL, the national colours for Gulf).
In the case of Georgian Airlines (Figure
12h), formed in 2004 as a new flag-carrier, the rebranding by Lila Design
(Netherlands) involves a total change of tailfin design which drops the
Georgian flag altogether in favor of a generically consistent (i.e. the spiral)
but nationally ‘insignificant’ pattern. This diminishing of national specificity
seems to be an even more strategic move to re-evalute the visual currency in
pursuit of greater profit margins and extended, global reach. Here, for
example, is how an April 2003 press release from the agency TrueBrand
(USA) explained the much publicized rebranding of Northwest Airlines (see
Figure 12e):
The new identity clearly communicates the airlines [sic] brand
attributes, which were defined in employee and customer research as
global, savvy, confident, higher quality and forthright. This strategic
design solution will save the carrier 20% in future painting costs. [It] is
a pragmatic move, signaling confidence and the attitude of a global
player intent on building an ever stronger market position and brand.
(source:, emphases added)
Even though airline liveries have always been changing (see Ruud Leeuw
[]), the amount of rebranding activity in the airline
industry over the last several years has been especially extensive. Led by a
number of major US and European design agencies – most particularly
Landor Associates (Austrian, Japan Airlines and Gulf Air) – this apparent
globalizing aestheticization of tailfin design appears also to mirror the one
described by Machin (2004) in his examination of global image banks such
as Getty Images where photographic images are valued more and more for
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their stylization and genericity. Smaller airlines such as Georgian (Figure
12h) and Ethopian (Figure 12c) must simply keep up if they are to project
the kind of international (or global) image needed to remain competitive
against the dominance of richer countries and larger carriers. Just as newer
airlines (see our online resource) have positioned themselves within the
visual order, symbolic capital is reconfiguring itself and a new design
structure is emerging.
Although politicians and economists often talk of globalization as if it were a
given reality, and as if the world were already globalized, in truth,
globalization is typically invoked as a discursive resource to explain and
justify the ongoing re-orderings of global capitalism (Fairclough, 2003;
Thurlow and Jaworski, 2003). Micro-level analyses such as the one presented
here are able to show how globalism is being worked out in practice; however
insignificant or innocent these semiotic moments may seem, they act as
channels and agents of global capital. This is what Fairclough (2003) refers to
as textualization – the process whereby social and economic realities are
represented and established discursively. It is also the socially constructed,
discursive nature of ‘globalization which makes it so suitable for analysis by
social semioticians and critical discourse analysts.
Corporate branders are unquestionably very astute and skilled at what
they do; seldom, however, do they have an articulate (meta)language for
explaining how it is that their designs ‘work’. Nor are commercial agents
often inclined to reflect on the ways their practices function ideologically and
politically. On this basis, what we hope to have shown in this article is, first,
an example of how visual meaning is generated in complex ways, for example
through combination, localization and abstraction. Indeed, structuralist
semioticians have demonstrated well how meaning is generated by the para-
digmatic selection and syntagmatic arrangement of signs such as this. Meaning
potential, however, is also realized by degree; by the deployment of resources,
but also by the extent to which they are activated and balanced. In these
terms, one key semiotic resource we have looked at here is the balancing of
cultural and perceptual iconicity. As such, our consideration of airline tailfin
design reminds us that the possibly universal perceptual qualities of visual
meaning must be central to analyses of visual communication.
What we have also offered in this article is a specific, micro-analytic
example of how globalism is negotiated and realized through visual semiosis.
Our analysis shows, we think, the complex tussle between globalizing and
localizing forces, between international and national orientations, between
semiotic uniformity and semiotic diversity – and the interplay of all three.
On the face of it, the synergistic relation between the perceptual and the
cultural in visual imagery appears nicely to parallel the global/local
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
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synergism of the ‘transnational imaginary’ (Wilson and Dissanayake, 1996:
2). However, the link between the semiotic and structural synergies is more
than analogous; the two are themselves dialectically co-constituitive. Visual
discourse not only manifests socioeconomic realities or, as with the corporate
branding of airlines, manages them better; discursive practices also work to
reinscribe and reproduce patterns of economic exchange.
Processes of homogenization and heterogenization are not simple
either-ors; nor are participants in the global market without agency and
control. Indeed, the visual affords creative and powerful means (or
meanings) for local agents to rework the dominant, Western aesthetic in the
global semioscape. Airlines and their marketers also strategically invoke
design genericity in order to leverage the symbolic and, ultimately, economic
capital of more well-established airlines. Just as visual branding enables
larger airlines to re-present themselves as up-to-date, competitive global
players, smaller airlines are able to deploy many of the same semiotic
resources in their effort to keep up with the constant reformulations of
global capitalism. Which is not to say that the playing field is even.
Capital always favors those who started first, those who control the
mechanisms of cultural and economic production. Just as globalism
keeps reconfiguring itself, so too it seems the global semioscape is constantly
being refashioned.
We are especially grateful to NARA-Verlag [] for permis-
sion to reproduce the tailfin images from Hengi (2000) selected for reference
here. We would also like to thank Sean Almeida and Paul Ford for their help
in preparing the article’s accompanying website (see p. 312). Our work on
this article is made possible in part by funding from the Leverhulme Trust
(grant no. F/00407/D) to the Centre for Language and Communication
Research at Cardiff University where, as an Associate Research Fellow,
Crispin Thurlow is part of a research programme on Language and Global
Communication [].
1. Margaret Thatcher is said to have declared, ‘We fly the British flag,
not these awful things’, while draping a handkerchief over a model
of a newly-liveried BA plane (BBC News Online: []).
2. Commercial aircraft costs based on information available at the
Boeing website [].
3. Hengi’s (2000) listing is very similar to another comprehensive
collection of airline trademarks and logos available online
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4. One of the world’s oldest commercial airlines, Germany’s flag-
carrier Lufthansa (founded in 1926) is said to have also been the
first to develop a company logo – in this case, the bird-and-sun
motif which we found to be so ubiquitous in our corpus. In Figure
13, airline trademarks from the 1950s likewise indicate the origins
of the standard lexicon in use today.
5. It is worth noting that, in Mythologies, Roland Barthes (1972)
interpreted the Citroën trademark (see Figure 2b earlier) in
similarly kinetic terms: that it ‘was proceeding from the category of
propulsion to that of spontaneous motion, from that of the engine
to that of the organism (p. 89). Other well-known examples where
effects of motion are strategically deployed are DHLs combination
of diagonalization and gradation (Figure 2c), and the darting and
tapering of Nike’s famous ‘swoosh’ trademark (Figure 2a); FedEx
(Figure 2d) meanwhile embeds a figurative arrow (between the e’
and ‘x’).
6. Livingstone (2002: 66) similarly discusses how equiluminant
colours can be used to generate a sense of motion through the
appearance of vibration. For a demonstration of this with refer-
ence specifically to Richard Anuszkiewicz’s Plus Reversed,see
7. Given arguments about – and the economic realities of – the
deterritorialization of capital and the rise of multinational business,
it is important to acknowledge that many of the larger international
airlines are becoming increasingly detached from the nation-state,
whether through privatization (e.g. BA), transnational mergers (e.g.
Air France and KLM) or global alliances’ (e.g. oneworld, Sky Team
and Star Alliance). As such, the notion of the ‘flag-carrier’ is
necessarily rendered more complex (e.g. in the wake of BA’s World
Images rebranding, Virgin Atlantic famously declared itself the
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
Figure 13 Old 1950s ‘Flying Springbok’ trademark from South African Airways (left);
old 1950s logotype from Régie Aérienne Interinsulaire of Tahiti (right).
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British flag-carrier by marking its planes with the Union flag).
Nonetheless, at the same time, smaller countries are still starting up
publicly funded flag-carriers in their efforts to establish nationhood
(e.g. Armenia, Yemen), just as countries like Switzerland have been
prepared to continue investing and losing public money in order to
sustain flag-carriers.
8. A short account of the branding strategy behind the Thai Airways
logo is available (25 July 2005) through the airlines website [www.
THAI_logo.htm]. Replacing an earlier visual stereotype (a Thai
classical dancer) used since 1960, the orchid logo was designed in
1975 by Landor Associates to create a more international image’; in
2005, this too was tweaked for a ‘new look [that] not only has a
refreshingly contemporary approach, [but which] will also help to
promote THAI’s brand image and impact in the many countries it
serves. This example shows nicely the constant re-evaluation of
visual currencies (see Figure 14).
9. In another case of globalizing aestheticization, Irish flag-carrier Aer
Lingus faced a public outcry in 2003 after announcing that it was to
drop, or at least deprioritize, the national emblem of the shamrock
from its aeroplanes. (Guardian Unlimited [http:// observer.,6903,915312,00.html])
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Figure 14 Rebranding of the Thai Airways logo.
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CRISPIN THURLOW’s research on discourse and difference’ examines the
ways people use language and other semiotic modes to negotiate and
produce the boundaries of cultural diversity and social inequality. His books
include Talking Adolescence: Perspectives on Communication in the Teenage
Years (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) and the forthcoming Tourism Discourse:
The Language of Global Mobility. He is currently working on a major project
which examines super-elite mobility and the discursivity of elitism.
Thurlow and Aiello: National pride, global capital
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Address: Department of Communication, University of Washington, Box
353740, Seattle, WA 98195, USA. [email:]
GIORGIA AIELLO is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication
at the University of Washington. Her doctoral project, ‘Visions of Europe:
The Symbolic Production of Transnational Identity in Contemporary
European Visual Discourse’, is a social semiotic analysis of the ways selected
visual texts ‘imagine European identity in the wake of European integration
and globalization.
Address: as Crispin Thurlow. [email:]
Visual Communication 6(3)
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To address the dearth of research in visual pandemic communication, this paper proposes the VISTA framework drawing together research from visual communication, persuasion, crisis communication, and health communication to propose that effective health crisis response includes minimizing visual complexity, using strong iconography and symbolism, and effective text to accompany the visual material. The framework was applied to a cross-national comparison of the English and Scottish governments’ COVID-19 pandemic response on Twitter finding that the framework’s application provides good evidence to explain the substantially worse health outcomes across the pandemic in England compared to Scotland. The authors argue the three critical lessons learned from this analysis are that governmental pandemic communication must: (1) use clear visual branding for its pandemic response; (2) combine effective visual and text-based messaging; and (3) keep pandemic messaging positive.
“Girl crush” is a relatively new genre in South Korean pop music (hereafter “K-pop”). Unlike the stereotypes of female idols being cute and submissive, idols of the “girl crush” genre usually show provocative “girl power,” challenging the patriarchy by incorporating feminist messages in their works. In March 2022, a girl group (G)I-DLE released a song entitled Tomboy, which went viral for its outrageous music video delivering a bold statement about women being independent, fearless, and abandoning toxic heterosexual relationships. This study conducts a social semiotic analysis of Tomboy with a postfeminist lens and comes up with three findings: first, the music video of Tomboy has shown a postfeminist sensibility by exhibiting an entanglement of feminism and antifeminism; second, Tomboy has tackled a queered theme by focusing on women’s collective empowerment and sisterhood against patriarchy; third, “girl crush” has revealed the limitations of celebrity feminism, making the relationship between “girl crush’s” success and feminism questionable.
Encounters involving different cultures and languages are increasingly the norm in the era of globalization. While considerable attention has been paid to how languages and cultures transform in the era of globalization, their characteristic features prior to transformation are frequently taken for granted. This pioneering book argues that globalization offers an unprecedented opportunity to revisit fundamental assumptions about what distinguishes languages and cultures from each other in the first place. It takes the case of global Korea, showing how the notion of 'culture' is both represented but also reinvented in public space, with examples from numerous sites across Korea and Koreatowns around the world. It is not merely about locating spaces where translingualism happens but also about exploring the various ways in which linguistic and cultural difference come to be located via translingualism. It will appeal to anyone interested in the globalization of language and culture.
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Branding of Digital Tourism; The rapid development of today's technology has changed the way all sectors are branding, making brand images, marketing. With the impact of digitalization on all sectors, companies have started to reach the target audience, known as the potential consumer, more easily, faster and more effectively. Through these digital services, marketing, branding, and image activities have made it easier to reach the specified audience, but they also have some challenges. The image of the company or brand, which was previously limited to its own information, has changed today with every tourist turning into a sort of travel writer, with tourists passing infinite information and comments to each other through digital channels. Every tourist/consumer is now a brand-new image maker. With a vast majority of the world's population like 62.5% being an internet user, concepts such as digital branding, digital brand image become even more important.
This article explores how a semiotics of the artistic aesthetics of New York City storefronts is deployed as activism against processes of gentrification and redevelopment. We examine how this creative endeavor by two local photographers compares to our own ethnographic and linguistic interventions uncovering and addressing storefront signage in gentrifying Brooklyn. We also compare this art activism to the ways in which developers and nations use art in various ways in the service of their placemaking goals. In doing so, we highlight both the innovative power of artistic framing to preserve and protect storefronts as salvage anthropology as well as the limits of this effort. We conclude with a discussion of how ethnography and activist art can yield different, yet critical mobilizations in the pursuit of maintaining multicultural communities and diversity in the neo-liberalizing city.
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Branding in the tourism industry.
Mobile phone usage has increased at an unprecedented rate across the Pacific over the past 10–15 years, radically transforming the way communication takes place. The catalyst for this transformation is generally attributed to the breakdown of monopolies previously held by national telecom corporations over their own domestic markets, and the entrance of one particular new provider, Digicel. This paper examines the strategies through which Digicel has managed to insert itself into the visual landscape of the urban spaces of Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga. Through multimodal analysis of digital photographs from the landscapes of these countries' capital cities, the paper shows how the global company makes use of a range of techniques to establish its own place and identity as a local network. These techniques include the demonstration of largesse and dominance over competitors, slogans that stake a claim to belonging, and the use of local language terms and images that juxtapose the local with the global. Through these techniques, Digicel manages to position itself simultaneously as the provider both of fast and reliable global communication technologies and of a truly local, national service, while also radically transforming the physical spaces of our cities as it has made itself at home here.
Considering the popularity of websites in social contexts and their significant force in producing collective discourses, attitudes, and patterns of behaviors, this study critically examined the projection of visual ageism on news websites during the COVID-19 pandemic. The social semiotic theory of visual grammar developed by Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006, 2020) was the theoretical framework for the visual semiotic analysis of photographs. The search for data was conducted between March 2020 and July 2020. The study searching protocol included strings “older adults AND COVID-19”, “the elderly AND coronavirus”, “older people AND COVID-19”, and “old people AND coronavirus” in Google led to retrieving 71 photographs of Iranian older adults from Iranian news websites. The semiotic analysis of the photographs showed that the Iranian new websites continue to embrace a mindset that degrades the old people.
Affluent in semiotic resources and containing great communicability, Chinese university emblems have yet to attract much academic research. Drawing on studies of social semiotics, typographic landscaping and multimodal concepts, this paper explores the linguistic and social dimension of meaning-making practice and the entanglement of Chinese and Western elements in Chinese university emblems. Examining 156 university emblems in mainland China, this research developed a denotational inventory of Chinese university emblems. Adopting Kress and van Leeuwen’s grammar of visual design, this research also scrutinised the connotative meaning of the visual contents. The findings show that the ensemble of meaning-making is achieved by the orchestration of three pivotal frameworks: synchronisation of various semiotic modes, influence of the social reality of China and imbuement of domestic and foreign ideologies. Consequently, the neo-Chinese style of modern Chinese university emblem design is constructed. With its integrative approach, the nuanced and comprehensive analysis of this research will generate fresh insights into the exploration of the social semiotic and typographic landscaping of university emblems in China.
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Anchored within current issues and debates in the field of Linguistic Landscape (LL) scholarship, this edited volume is concerned with politics of language and the semiotic construction of space in multilingual and multi-ethnic Asian countries. Spanning Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, the chapters explore how different individuals and collectivities use semiotic resources in different spaces-schools, airports, streets and shops as well as online platforms-to reinforce or contest existing social structures, bearing strong implications for language maintenance and cultural revitalization, construction of ethnolinguistic and national identities, and socioeconomic mobility. Part I looks into how globalization and its accompanying forces and influences-such as the importance of English in socioeconomic mobility-come into contact with local Asian cultures and languages. Part II examines minority languages, demographically and socio-politically established in the countries, shedding light on the role of LL that plays in both their minorization and revitalization processes. Part III investigates how LL is utilized as a site for constructing identities to pursue socioeconomic, political and cultural goals. It is within this perspective that the presence and salience of English in the LL of the countries along with the use of the Asian languages is analyzed and understood, shedding light on how Asian heritage languages and cultures are preserved and/or certain identities in the times of political unrest or economic development are expressed. This fascinating insight into linguistic landscapes in Asia will be of interest to researchers, students and policy makers in sociolinguistics and applied linguistics anywhere in the world.
'Imagined Communities' examines the creation & function of the 'imagined communities' of nationality & the way these communities were in part created by the growth of the nation-state, the interaction between capitalism & printing & the birth of vernacular languages in early modern Europe.
The now-classic Metaphors We Live By changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are "metaphors we live by"--metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. In this updated edition of Lakoff and Johnson's influential book, the authors supply an afterword surveying how their theory of metaphor has developed within the cognitive sciences to become central to the contemporary understanding of how we think and how we express our thoughts in language.
THE DEBATE ABOUT GLOBALIZATION AS A WORLD PROCESS, AND its consequences, has been going on now in a variety of different fields of intellectual work for some time. What I am going to try and do here is to map some of the shifting configurations of this question, of the local and the global, particularly in relation to culture and in relation to cultural politics. I am going to try to discover what is emerging and how different subject positions are being transformed or produced in the course of the unfolding of the new dialectics of global culture. I will sketch in this aspect towards the end of this first talk and develop it in the second when I shall address the question of new and old identities. The question of ethnicity spans the two talks.