Simplicity and Complexity in Sign Formation


By David Cornberg, Ph.D.


      In this essay I use semiotics and complexity theory to examine processes of sign formation.  My historical focus is primarily contemporary although some examples come from the recent and ancient past.  I define simplicity and complexity as two opposing tendencies.  Simplicity is the tendency to have fewer differentiable elements.  Complexity is the tendency to have more differentiable elements.  Some examples will show this definition to be intuitively and historically well grounded.

      The creation of simplified characters for written Chinese by the Mainland Chinese authorities has utilized the reduction of strokes as its primary transformative principle.  The reduction of strokes decreases the number of separate gestures and graphical components that are necessary to write a particular character.  For example, ge, the most widely used measure word in written Chinese, has been decreased from ten strokes to three strokes. The evolution of advertising logos also shows a reduction of elements.  The logos for Chevrolet and Buick cars in the United States, for example, contained many components in contrast to the current logos for such companies as Nike, which has one stroke, and Hang Ten, which has only those two words.  Finally, the languages with the most complicated grammar and syntax, such as Latin and Athabascan, are either entirely literary or are used by very few people.  Those languages now in use by larger numbers of people, such as English and Chinese, are both simpler than their older versions and show many signs of increasing simplification.

      With these understandings of simplicity and complexity, we can turn now to sign formation.  Sign formation can be understood as the effort of one entity to gain the attention of another entity.  Because the second entity at the time just prior to attending to the sign must have been in another configuration, gaining attention requires changing the form of attention in some way.  Sign formation focuses the meaning of attention.  Meaning includes both meinung and bedeutung.  Signs are formed by intentional entities that attend to formal aspects of the signs, such as size, color and location, and intentional entities intend for other entities to interpret the signs.  Signs can be attentional only or both attentional and intentional.

      Animal signs exhibit these possibilities.  When a moose walks through deep snow toward a willow browse to eat, it leaves tracks in the snow.  The tracks are attentional, not intentional.  The intention of the moose is to move to the willow to eat.  The moose does not intend to leave tracks in the snow.  The tracks reflect the attentional path of the moose; the tracks are a semiotic record of the attentional trajectory of the moose.  The tracks show that the moose walks forward a few steps then stops to listen.  It walks forward a few more steps, possibly turning to the left or right, as it remains constantly vigilant for predators.  The moose makes signs.  The tracks are signs but they are attentional only.  When a bear scratches a tree with its claws, it makes signs that are both attentional and intentional.  The bear marks the tree to show a boundary of its territory.  The bear attends to where it puts its claws and it intends for other animals to interpret its claw marks.  When a dog barks at strangers, it pays attention to formal aspects of its sound such as direction, intensity and threat.  It intends other living things to interpret its bark as a sign.  In all cases of signs that are either attentional or are both attentional and intentional, sign formation focuses attention, and attention includes both meinung and bedeutung.

      The signifying functions of signs always happen in time.  Signs function in three dimensions of time simultaneously.  A sign evokes recognition because some or all of its elements re-mind the attender of past experiences.  A sign focuses attention in the present because it stands out or differs from its surrounding, ground, background or environment.  A sign points toward an unknown future because it stands for something that may or may not appear or that may or may not give or leave other signs in the future.  Signs activate retention, attention and protention simultaneously.  A sign is a mnemonic device, a present signal and a future harbinger all at the same time.

      With this basic framework for understand how signs work, we may now turn to simplification in sign formation.  Recent simplification in sign formation has taken place with the growth of the largest number of human beings ever known to have been alive at one time on the earth.  Decrease in the number of strokes necessary to write and read Chinese characters accommodates not only the increasing speed of verbal processes in Mainland China but also the increasing number of people who have very different abilities in memory, recognition and production of strokes.  Decrease in the complexity of commercial logos accommodates the same kinds of increases in global commercial transactions.  Such simplification, of which the Nike single-stroke logo is perhaps the most famous example, but to which could be added the McDonald’s golden arches, can be interpreted as a trend toward the use of lowest common denominators in human transactions.

      The lowest common denominator refers here to signs whose signification is accessible to the largest number of people.  Such signs typically eschew any verbal components, any images of people and any moving parts.  In international safety communication, these signs, such as the red circle with the diagonal bar through it that signals no vehicle entry, or the skull and crossbones that signals poison, consist of abstract, geometrized and stylized figures whose meaning has been fixed by convention.  In commercial use, these signs are visual objects whose primary signification is a product that anyone with money, and access to a commercial market, can buy.  The commercial signification is four-fold: the sign, such as a logo, the potential customer, money and a product or products.  Eliminated from such signs are all references to race, religion, gender, language, political persuasion and physical location on the earth.  These signs are as close to simple integers, such as 1, 2, and 3, as possible.  These signs utterly standardize both communication and action.

      Like numbers, they present a binary reality.  With safety signs, it consists in doing or not doing the action indicated.  With commercial signs, it consists in liking or not liking the product and in buying it or not buying it.  There are no gray areas, no areas that need reflection or contemplation and no requirements for complicated action of any kind.  Such signs make minimal demands on the viewer for intelligence, knowledge, skill, sensitivity or appreciation.  They contrast strongly with older signs, such as the family crests in Europe and the characters that adorned lintels and posts of gates and doors, along with carvings, in older China.

      The comparison with integers is not accidental.  Computer simulations in complexity theory use binary, digital languages to model many natural processes, such as biological adaptation of living organisms in diverse environments. Organisms are defined in a simulation as digital entities that follow a small number of rules that allow them to interact with other entities and with digital resources.  One line of inquiry in these computer experiments is whether there is any limit on the evolution of better and better adaptations.  There does seem to be such a limit:  “As systems with many parts increase both the number of those parts and the richness of the interactions among the parts, it is typical that the number of conflicting design constraints among the parts increases rapidly.  Those conflicting constraints imply that optimization can attain only ever poorer compromises.  No matter how strong selection may be, adaptive processes cannot climb higher peaks than afforded by the fitness landscape.  That is, this limitation cannot be overcome by stronger selection.” (Kauffman 53-4)  As complexity increases, the solutions to problems of survival “fall toward the mean fitness” (Ibid. 52).  We may suggest that for a language under pressure to be accessible to larger and larger numbers of people whose native dialects of the language differ or for whom it is a second language, the language must become simpler.  We may also suggest that for commercial products to be accessible across boundaries of race, gender, language and location, their advertising must become simpler.  We note here that simplification has no necessary correlation with increase or decrease in quality.  However, the empirical facts seem to be that, as “[a]ccessible optima become ever poorer, and fitness peaks dwindle in height” (Ibid. 52), so the abilities of people to deal with simpler signs decrease in quantity and quality.

      Education offers a slightly different perspective on the effects of larger numbers of people on the existence of qualitative difference. Research carried out on the educational effects of different teaching techniques has shown no significant differences in outcomes when the student samples are large enough.  In small samples, the effects of teacher differences and student differences can give significantly different achievement outcomes for different techniques.  However, in very large samples those differential achievement outcomes disappear toward a mean achievement. (Cf.  Evidently, the preponderance of average students and teachers among those who participate in the studies pulls the means into approximately the same range of values for each set of outcomes.  Sign formation coupled with very large numbers of people seems to force simplification toward lowest common denominators.

      Interaction between large numbers of humans and behavior also involves simplification of sign formation.  Behavior may be seen as a type of sign formation that involves gesture for the purpose of gaining and changing the form of another’s attention.  Behavior is commonly considered to be expressive.  By joining these two views of behavior we constitute behavior as ongoing sign formation.  Ritual is behavior that is repeated within spatiotemporal and other boundaries, such as gender, age and apparel.  There seems to be a strong correlation between the complexity of older rituals, such as marriage, and the smaller populations that used them, and the simplicity of newer rituals, such as mass weddings or the queued, standardized weddings performed in city halls, and the enormously increased human population that uses them.

      Of particular importance for social and political process is a clear understanding of the dynamics of violence.  Violence involves simplification in many registers of signification, such as spoken language, written language and physical gesture.  I define violence as power breaking power. (Cornberg 3-14)  This definition includes lightning splitting a tree, a bullet crushing a skull, a sumo wrestler breaking a hold or a fullback breaking through a line of blockers.  Under this definition, all instances of violence involve one type of power breaking the hold of another type of power.  In social life, instances of mass violence take place almost every day in many different places worldwide.  We may ask why mass demonstrations, with verbal and physical violence, are so popular?  The idea of simplification in sign formation seems useful here because demonstrations involve large numbers of people who simplify the expression of the feelings and ideas to the least common denominators of physical gestures and verbal slogans.  Especially when emotions are strong, both gestures and slogans become means of directly resisting certain kinds of power.  The repeated demonstrations at meetings of international economic bodies have brought together people from many different language groups with many different issues.  Their solidarity sign is resistance to what they see as the destructive effects of global capitalism.  Their common actions are verbal and physical attack and physical obstruction.  In these situations, violence is much simpler than negotiation, discussion or accommodation.  Violence also is a much simpler way to channel the power of large numbers of people into effective action.  The prevalence of violence in human affairs, such as political processes and athletic contests, suggests that violence as a sign is a lowest common denominator of large numbers of people in action.

      Foregrounding connections between population size and lowest common denominators in sign formation does not imply accepting the largely discredited opinions that population density “will be positively and significantly associated with pathological behavior in humans” and “with harsh treatment of infants by parents or caretakers” (Levinson 743).  Levinson used statistical techniques to analyze the relevant literature, including field research by E. N. Anderson, Jr. on methods of dealing with crowding in dominantly Chinese, inner city, lower socioeconomic areas of Hong Kong, Singapore and Penang (Levinson 742).    Based on both his comprehensive review of the relevant literature and his own research, Levinson reaches the following specific conclusions:

      Internal density [of population] is not significantly related to any of the social pathology variables.  In fact, density is negatively related to divorce and sexual anxiety and therefore cannot possibly be a cause of either.  Likewise, the relationships between density and suicide and density and witchcraft attribution are so weak that density can be dismissed as a plausible cause of these two variables as well.  However, even though the correlations are low and statistically insignificant, the relationships between density and homicide, drunken brawling, and male insobriety cannot be dismissed on the basis of the correlational evidence alone. (745)

      There are three observations to make on these findings that are relevant to connections between population size and lowest common denominators in human sign formation behavior.  First is the limiting recognition that population size and density are related but are not the same phenomenon.  Population size, for example, puts limits on the ability of human beings to live outside close human relationships.  Many people who are born in cities like New York, Mexico City, Shanghai and Calcutta, for example, never spend time in rural areas or wilderness areas.  Second is the parsing comment that homicide and brawling are both types of violence and insobriety is involved in a high percentage of violent crimes.  Third, and most important, I think, is the comparative recognition that the social settings studied by researchers like Anderson cooperation for their proper functioning far more than they require competition.  This last point can be made more finely.

      In densely crowded, inner city environments, such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Penang, resources are limited physically, socially and economically.  Residents and visitors must abide by many rules, both explicit and implicit, in order to achieve any kind of success in their endeavors.  For example, to become a successfully reproducing member of the species, a male or female must connect sexually with another member of the species.  This connection requires a certain amount of competition with other members, but in densely populated areas it would seem to require even more cooperation with the local customs that support success in such relationships.  If we look outside such densely populated areas at international arenas of athletics, national interest and global business, we find cooperation, to be sure. However, we also find extensive systems of competition in which the goal is not to meet, mate and reproduce in relatively low-stress, low-conflict contexts, but to beat someone else in the effort to gain attention, gain loyalty, gain victories, gain territory and gain market share.  Specific examples are Jews vs. Arabs in the Mideast, Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims vs. Hindus in India, missionary proselytizers of all stripes vs. each other all over the world, athletic teams and their supporters vs. other athletic teams and their supporters, blacks vs. whites in the US, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia vs. each other over the Spratley Islands, and international corporations vs. each other.

      If we focus on sign formation in these contexts, we find that simplification and violence are common practices.  This finding, while not the result here of rigorous social science research, nevertheless constitutes a propaideutic criticism toward new research that distinguishes methodologically between population size and density and between cooperation and competition.  We may suggest that there are three independent variables: homogeneity/heterogeneity; population size/density; and competition/cooperation.  The first variable has values such as religion, language, parentage, economic status and social status.  The second variable has values such as large-dense, large-sparse, small-dense and small-sparse.  The third variable’s values could be (relationships structured as) win-win, win-lose and lose-lose.  I would suggest, as a guiding hypothesis, that the greater the heterogeneity, size and density, and win-lose structuring, the more simplification and lowest common denominators in sign formation and in sign formation behavior.

      I turn now to the oldest example of a sign in my presentation (See Appendix I).  The image you see came from a photograph I took in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.  The pot in the photograph is part of their collection of Neolithic pottery from living sites in China.  This particular pot is a Neolithic clay jar, about 1 foot high and 1 foot wide.  It was cast sometime between 2350 and 2050 BC.  Its design is a swastika, or wan, centered in a cross, centered in a circle.  A band of white pigment outlines the wan.  A band of red pigment around a band of black pigment outlines the circle.  The cross has four arms done in black with white, right triangles, slightly curved on their hypotenuse, marking off the joint between the ends of the arms and the inner, black band of the circle.  The entire design repeats four times around the pot, echoing the four sections of the wan, the four arms of the cross, and the four divisions of the circle.

      I would like to suggest the following interpretation of this sign.  First, it functions in three dimensions.  The four armed cross signifies the shape of royal burial sites in many parts of ancient China.  The earth was dug down into two trenches that joined at right angles in their middles.  The middle space of the middle intersection of the cross was dug down deeper than any other part of the cross to make a burial pit or chamber for the corpse. The wan in the center of the cross points backward in time toward an even more ancient understanding of the structure of life as spiralic.  That is, every body that moves in space inscribes a helical, or spiral, trajectory.  The spirits of human beings are no exception to this pattern.  The bent arms of the spiral represent the coils of the spiral that come close to each other but never quite touch.  The bent arms of the spiral also represent manifestation in time and space, in which the birth and decay of matter forms the spatiotemporal directionality described in physics by the second law of thermodynamics. The wan signifies rebirth and reincarnation.  The red outer circle represents the red clay that in turn signifies the world of life, light and living matter.  The inner black circle signifies the dark passages from death to life in birth and from life to death in death.  The whole image is mnemonic for the living and signifies the entire cyclical structure of all life, including human life.

      If we entertain this interpretation, we may then hypothesize simplification in sign formation over a relatively long time-period.  The outer circles decompose into the single circle of life in American Indian graphic mythology.  The interior cross decomposes into the uncircled cross of Christianity.  The wan decomposes to the wan of Buddhism and the swastika of Nazism.  If this suggested process has any credibility, then we may speculate that human history shows a rhythm of simplicity and complexity in sign formation.

      By way of conclusion, I would call attention to the fact that movies, cartoons, comics, novels and TV shows of many different genres feature more and more “action” and less and less dialogue.  The cinematic days of Bogart and Sam discussing life and fate over a cigarette and drink in a closed, quiet, deserted bar, with neither nude women nor brutal fights, are over.  Violence and non-verbal gestures increasingly dominate the imagery that everyone on the planet takes for entertainment and, to a great extent, also for news.  In these semiotic phenomena, the complexity of actual events and relationships seems to be increasingly simplified toward an international signage that excludes any differences based on language, religion, ethnicity, gender, education, profession, social position, upbringing or geographical location.  Everyone on the planet must now deal with such differences more intimately and more powerfully than ever before, but homogeneity in sign formation compensates for heterogeneity in reality.  Homogenization of communication compensates for heterogenization of contact.  Simplicity in sign formation compensates for complexity in everyday reality.  Semiotic reality becomes simple signs in simple formats for simple consumption.  Important implications of this trend probably appear in personality development, social interaction and intellectual production. Further systematic, social science research could illuminate our contemporary world in all of these areas.


Cornberg, David (1997) LifeTree Family Ways: An Alaskan, Family-Centered Human Services Training Curriculum, Fairbanks, AK: Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Kauffman, Stuart (1993) The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, Oxford: Oxford UP.

Levinson, David (1979) “Population Density in Cross-cultural Perspective,” American Enthnologist 6: 742-51.

Appendix I.  Neolithic Clay Pot. (Photograph taken by the author in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.)