If you haven’t already seen a sharp increase in semicolon tattoos on your social media feed, you soon will, following an ideological make-over of what the symbol stands for.

When writing creative copy, the responsibility of communicating a brand’s message is almost always focused on the words. Lesser acknowledged is the power of type symbols to convey a message, or more accurately; convey several messages at once, through a one-character implication.

There are few characters as adaptable as the semicolon, not only for its grammatical purpose but its semiotic meaning. As one of the oldest marks of punctuation, the semicolon behaved as a question mark for the Ancient Greeks and a symptom of the modernist movement in twentieth century literature. As Jennifer Brody notes in Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play, the symbol has a symbiotic sense of purpose: “its function is not inherent or essential, but rather culturally constructed and performed”.

Due to Project Semicolon, a mental health awareness movement headed by Amy Bleuel, social media is now performing the symbol’s new meaning:

“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

The movement aims to break through the stigma attached to mental health and suicide, encouraging those who have suffered or been affected by such issues to present the semicolon symbol somewhere on their body.

Project Semicolon is now viral. It was originally created as a single day where people were encouraged to mark a semicolon on their wrist, which behaved as a recognisable symbol to others invested in raising awareness. Today, the character has been accepted as a permanent symbol for the project- and the designated ‘semicolon day’ has turned into a lifelong semicolon commitment, with most participants opting to get it tattooed on their body.

Though the creator of the project explains that the tattoo is a “conversation starter” which aims to get “more people talking about mental health and suicide”, the catalyst to conversation itself is wordless. In Design and Arrangements: Making Meaning Material, Gunther Kress states that the meaning of a punctuation mark is “a semiotic issue; it defines what kinds of intra-textual entities there can be”.

The movement is a great example of how a well thought-out symbol can say a thousand words, and how punctuation can serve as an extremely powerful middle ground between copy and design.

Design and arrangements: making meaning material, Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication

(Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play 137) Jennifer Devere Brody

Blog by: Clare