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Examining the Aesthetic Response to the BP Oil Spill

by Janelle Grace on June 25, 2010

Various logos dreamed up post-Deepwater Horizon disaster: (clockwise from top left) arc312 for LogoMyWay, FuturisticLOGO for LogoMyWay, DrakePSolus for LogoMyWay, zoom-dg for LogoMyWay, unknown for Greenpeace UK, and sophie for LogoMyWay.

An entry by an unknown contestant for Greenpeace UK’s Rebrand BP contest depicts conventions seen commonly throughout contest entries. (via Greenpeace UK's Behind the Logo Flickr set) (click to enlarge)

The BP Deepwater oil spill disaster has sparked a tremendous amount of creative outrage, some of which we’ve been exploring on Hyperallergic LABS all week. In addition to various protests and performances, not to mention some satirical Twitter feeds, there have been numerous attempts to critically appropriate BP’s logo. Amateur and professional graphic design illustrations have been circulated throughout the Internet to re-brand the corporation’s image to reflect its destructive nature.

The inherent attractiveness of the current BP “Helios” logo appears to be a big part of why there has been such an enormous visual response to the BP oil spill. BP became “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000, re-presenting itself as a leader in other more environmental friendly fuels. Designed by logo design firm Landor in 2000, the green and yellow sunburst looks like a bright, healthy flower, visually linking humble, lowercase “bp” with the green movement. The geometric shapes give a familiar, retro vibe. The glaring offenses of the Deepwater disaster are in such sharp contrast to this sunny image that the BP Helios logo has become a symbol ripe for distorting.

The thousands of designs entered in either contest to rebrand BP demonstrate the public’s desire to speak out on the disaster. Most commonly, there are a lot of spirited, if superficial, takes on the logo, many featuring the Helios sunburst dripping with black or brown oil, such as this one by an unknown designer from Greenpeace UK’s contest. While it’s certainly energizing to see so many people creatively engaged in the efforts to challenge and tarnish BP’s image, the images created often offer an unnuanced critique of the company. Aesthetically, an image like this would certainly pack a punch if spotted at your local gas station – the ecological green and yellow flower tainted by murky oil isn’t a pleasant image, and makes people think twice about the environmental concerns of oil usage. However, as an artwork meant to challenge the larger issues at hand, the image doesn’t offer much of a message beyond “BP’s oil is bad for the environment.”

Gremlin's entry for Logo My Way's contest draws connections between the oil industry and wars past and present. (via LogoMyWay) (click to enlarge)

A second, more layered and incensed critique of BP pops up among amateur logo re-appropriations. This image, from Logo My Way’s contest, by Gremlin, borrows the silhouette from Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong soldier Nguyen Van Lem in 1968. The BP sunburst logo behind the threatened figure evokes the imminent gunshot, suggesting the calamity and horrors of the victims of the Deepwater disaster. Instead of a gun, however, the person on the left brandishes the nozzle of a gas pump. This image underscores the power of the oil industry, suggesting that the public’s been forced into this dire energy situation. However, as reflective of the intricate nature our culture’s problems with the oil industry, this image is still limited in its message. The connection to the Vietnam War remains tenuous, and the multiplicity of factors surrounding in the oil industry’s environmental concerns are lost. While difficult to apply as an actual logo, it’s still a very arresting image.

Jason Permenter's image

Graphic Designer Jason Prementer presents an aesthetically cohesive but less emotional response to the disaster. (via jasonpermenter.com) (click to enlarge)

Then there are the less emotional images more commonly created by professional graphic designers. This image was designed by professional graphic designer Jason Permenter, featured on his tumblelog. It utilizes the sunburst shape of the BP logo to evoke a sunrise, a new day perhaps, on planet Earth. Our little planet floats in space, which is coated in the subtle rainbow sheen of oil spills. This size of the logo-sun in comparison to the earth reflects the power the BP Corporation has over us as a planet. The solid simplicity of the design is effective in sending the message that our future is going to be determined by this crisis. It’s not especially nuanced, and the prettiness of it belies the dangers involved, but it catches your eye and utilizes the logo and related aesthetics to send its message. Ultimately, cohesive imagery wins out over explicit political message.

For me, the bottom line of each image is the viewer’s response to the response. Does it inspire action, emotion? Does it illuminate a different way of looking at the symbol? How does form create and enhance meaning? If anything, these images prove the power of a brand’s logo over the consuming public, and many people are stepping up to the challenge of rethinking that omnipresence.

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