The Inherently Subversive Power of Design

Treatise #8

Major brands and organizations spend millions promoting their aesthetic. I always find it amusing, as I think most people do, when someone takes their styling and alters it slightly to send a different message.

We often see this when activists or individuals seek to create a satire of that very brand. The idea of using that brand’s identity and altering it is usually to subvert it. Or, it can be to associate that brand with something else — usually to subvert through another channel.

I got the idea to write on this subject after seeing the street sticker below. That sticker took the Goldman Sachs logotype to caricature the greed of the company. Simple by changing the message but using the same lettering the sticker simply, quickly, and easily undermines the professional image Goldman Sachs is presumably seeking. Another example of this is the Coca Cola branding that has been changed to say ‘Capitalism’ that I used in an earlier post.

Gold In Sacks… lol

Although this technique is amusing on a small scale. I want to take this idea and scale it up.

The point I wish to make about these subversive graphics, is that they imply an inherent visual understanding of how we expect things to look.

When that visual understanding is altered, it can be subversive, amusing, even intellectually stimulating. It makes us scratch our head a little and say ‘huh…’

What if we thought of design in a different way? What if designers subverted (with good intent) the way things are expected to look? Designers will often self-censor to do something safe in order to please the client and not push it too far.

I think it is this self-censorship that causes things to look relatively the same each time. And the problem is that this results in people carrying on their lives completely on auto-pilot. Everything around them just becomes a blur, and there is no moment of ‘huh…’ This moment of stopping and thinking because we witness something just a little bit different is critical.

It is in this moment where regular people can begin to imagine alternative ways of seeing, thinking, and being. I also believe that having something just a little bit different is good design. Some clients may not want to stand out, but most companies or organization are different in some way. It’s this difference that can lead to a design that pushes the norm just enough to give that ‘huh…’ moment. In this moment, individuals become more aware and begin to take in more deeply what they are seeing and being asked to understand.

I think that creating more of these moments is both good for design, and good for society.