Is Subvertising Sustainable?

Corporate brands were once defined by careful, consistent, even strict application. An individual logo typically came with set positioning, a few associated typefaces and an accompanying finite colour palette. The designer’s freedom was limited.

This isn’t always the case today. Great care is still taken, but multiple marques, extended colour palettes and numerous typefaces are now interchangeable assets within complex visual identity systems. Many brands are designed to deliberately encourage experimentation and change(01).

Moreover, advances in graphic design software have helped to democratise creative asset availability and manipulation(02). If you have access to the files and the software then you’re free to try your hand at brand subversion. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

James Sommerville, vice president of global design at Coca-Cola, recently crowdsourced a collection of commercially minded artists, designers and illustrators. Since they had the files and the software, Sommerville decided to invite them to take part in Kiss the Past Hello(03). The project is painfully described as a ‘contour design mash-up campaign’(04). The resulting work is a collection of red, white and black posters, all intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Coke’s trademarked glass bottle.

Where aesthetic alone is concerned, several of Sommerville’s chosen designs have more in common with Adbusters style projects than they do with traditional commercial advertising. They depict Coca-Cola in low-fi halftone patterns, harsh blurs and even anarchic torn paper and smashed glass.


Adbuster Kalle Lasn previously approximated the form of Nike’s iconic logo in freehand paint, creating a bold anti-capitalist statement titled Rethink the Cool. The work challenged Nike’s form and authority(05). The rules have changed since Lasn put paint on paper. The popularity of counterculture projects like those created by Adbusters have inevitably led to the commercialisation of subversive aesthetic style. After kissing the past hello, the less media literate might be forgiven for confusing Rethink the Cool for another corporate ‘contour design mash-up campaign’.


Having survived brand attack companies now possess newfound brand confidence. They’ve endured manipulation and as a consequence they’re content to take a chance on identity systems that allow for less control. Therefore contemporary brands don’t so readily make for the found tools of activism. They are harder to subvert in a quickly discernible style, precisely because they encourage subversion in the name of self-promotion.

In turn the act of creating clear and direct campaign communications has become more complex. The correct interpretation of subvertised brands and subversive graphic design requires more time and thought, whilst concurrently good causes call for immediacy.

So if brand assets are easy to obtain, no longer fixed and content to court their own manipulation, is political subvertising still sustainable, or relevant? Should the practice continue within a campaign context? Alternatively is it time to be less haphazard and increasingly careful and consistent with campaign design? At the least we should be reconsidering our options. Kiss the past goodbye.

01. Creative Review. (2013) Flexible identity systems: all played out? Available: Last accessed 30/03/15

02. Graphic Design History. (n.d.) The Impact of the Computer on Graphic Designers. Available: Last accessed 30/03/15

03. Moye, J. (2015) Kiss the Past Hello: Coca-Cola Invites Designers to Recreate Art Starring Its Iconic Bottle. Available Last accessed 30/03/15

04. Dawood, S. (2015) Designers ‘mash-up’ Coca-Cola’s 10-year-old iconic glass bottle. Available: Last accessed 30/03/15

05. Adbusters. (2011) Unswooshing. Available: Last accessed 18/05/16