Notes towards a semiotics of kinetic typography

Theo van Leeuwen*, Emilia Djonov

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    14 Citations (Scopus)


    This paper traces the development of a new semiotic mode, kinetic typography. Kinetic typography began with the experiments of filmmakers like Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Later, film title designers like Saul Bass and Pablo Ferro drew on the shapes of letters with inventive metaphors – serifs, for instance could make letters walk, because they can stand for shoes as they are elongated horizontals on which something stands. In Saul Bass’ titles for Hitchcock's Psycho, the splitting of letters became a metaphor for the split mind of the film's main character. Such inventions eventually became part of a lexicon of clichés drawn on by designers across the world. Eventually, researchers and software designers began to formalize and systematize the language of kinetic typography, and the fruit of their work is now widely available, not only to specialists, but also to anyone who uses PowerPoint or Adobe AfterEffects, even though users may not always be aware of the lexico-grammatical rules which underlie the menus they choose from. And computers, being agnostic as to the kind of “objects” their operations operate on, apply these grammars to letters as well as other graphic forms, thus consolidating the multimodality of the language of movement. The second part of the paper discusses these formalizations, drawing on the kinetic design literature. Based on M.A.K. Halliday's transitivity theory, it sketches the outlines of a systemic grammar of movement that can make the meaning potential of kinetic typography explicit. The paper concludes with an analysis of art works created by David Byrne which use PowerPoint as a medium. Using PowerPoint's relatively simple movement grammar, Byrne has nevertheless succeeded in using movement creatively, giving us a glimpse of a future of creative writing which has kinetic typography at its very centre.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)244-253
    Number of pages10
    JournalSocial Semiotics
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2015


    • David Byrne
    • kinetic typography
    • film titles
    • visual grammar
    • metaphor


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