What can visual branding learn from subversive street art?

Embrace Creative Director Andrew Paterson looks at how street art is generating creative 'cut-through'.

— in Brands

If you are one of millions of Londoners who brave the rush-hour commute, you will no doubt pass dozens of signs and notices on your journey from corporate identity design to advertising messages.

But how much attention do you actually pay to creative branding? Has their familiarity as part of everyday visual clutter led to them becoming almost invisible, losing all meaning beyond shape and colour?

Alternatively you may have noticed that the visual wallpaper is sometimes not what is seems and is actually part of a growing trend of street artists subverting functional signs in London.

In East London and the City near to where digital design company Embrace is based, Clet Abraham, a Florence based artist, has been modifying no entry signs adding stickers that wittily transform the signs into visual puns on the visual brand identity. A one-way sign arrow becomes an angel or it punctures a heart. The no entry sign white bar becomes paper being cut by a pair of scissors or a heavy load carried away by a silhouetted figure.

On the London Underground guerilla stickers have been placed over real signage claiming:

“No eye contact. Penalty £200.”

“We apologise for any incontinence caused during these engineering works.”

“Peak hours may necessitate you let other people sit on your lap.”

Some people may not notice them first time round, but those that do will smile, remember them, share them and keep an eye out for more. By twisting the normal by a little it makes visual branding interesting and engaging and a witty way of lightening up the landscape of daily lives.

This is where brands can learn a lesson or two. By their nature brands need to be consistent and coherent, using colours, shapes and fonts to be recognisable in their audience’s minds. Letting the audience know who is talking to them is important, but it’s the twisting and evolving of the familiar that keeps the viewer engaged, and knowing that there is something new with which to be engaged.

But more importantly it’s the playfulness, wit and lateral thinking that opens the doors to a secret club of engagement in the audience’s minds that needs to be considered. Once you’ve seen them, you keep looking for more.

Brands using street art have included AXE in the US who have added stickers to fire exit signs showing four smitten silhouetted women chasing after the silhouetted man running to the exit. 

Al Noor Disability Centre designs used the same approach when trying to raise awareness of the training centre, which helps children with special needs realise their potential and find their place in society. Y&R Dubai made use of the globally recognised handicap sign, applying a vinyl sticker with the relevant elements, turning the handicap logo into a magician or basketball player or singer, creating hundreds of 'mini' billboards across the city.

In both cases the wit and intelligence makes the viewer look twice and want to find more. Once the brand has entered into the holy grail of the inner mind then there is more likelihood of a long relationship.

These lessons are particularly useful for the less adventurous clients with smaller budgets for creating a brand identity and its various incarnations. They can be spontaneous, add a layer of wit and gentle irreverence, and to break (design) rules in a low level way whilst maintaining the golden thread of visual brand recognition. It will also help word to spread outside the local marketplace which we realised when listening to Canadian Indie radio station indie88.com talking about the Underground stickers.

So even at a very low level way by being a bit more playful, irreverent, witty and lateral with seemingly familiar imagery and objects, brands can open the doors to their club of engagement, and take their audiences on a more fulfilling journey.

Photo Credit: Copyright © Clet Abraham

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