From the beginning of the article:
What will we make of the following figure?
[The ‘figure’, an m with a 4th ‘leg’, cannot be rendered in HTML, and it has therefore been omitted from this abstract]
It has clearly been taken out of its context. If we knew where it came from, we might know the medium in which it was created and in which it functioned, and that might indicate to what sign system it belonged. We would then probably be able to know what it means or to assign it a meaning.
Its clear and careful design has made us determine spontaneously that it is a visual sign and therefore intended to be understood. That determination is based on a habitual mental comparison with other signs. But beyond the quasi-instinctual, culturally conditioned assignment of this visual object to the large class of man-made visual signs we have to weigh alternatives in order to decide what kind of visual sign this might be. Our comparisons become more deliberate as we try out its insertion into the various classes or systems of signs that would allow us to make sense of it. Should we think of it as large or small, as standing by itself or as an element in a larger, complex sign? If it were part of some architectural design, it might be read as a graphic representation. Would that also work if it stood by itself? What would it represent? What other, similar visual representations would support such a reading? How would it function? Could it be a logo? It shares with many modern logos an intermedial quality that invites a reading both as an abstract graphic representation and as a letter. Can we read it as a letter? Does it belong to an unknown alphabet? It almost is a letter in ours – an m with an extra ‘leg’, which draws attention to itself. Should we then read it as functioning within the alphabetic sign system, even though it deviates from the norm? How would we interpret it if we did? Are there similar signs constructed of individual letters or words but structured in unconventional ways? Is this a mini-text belonging to a category of verbal texts with strong affinities to this one? If there is such a category, how would the characteristics shared by its members and the conventional approaches to them help us interpret this text?