Taking the mimi

That clever piece of graphic design might communicate more than was intended, writes Leigh Paterson.

A wee while ago I was having a spontaneous conversation with a Mexican gentleman whom I had not met before.

The interchange was dynamic with a variety of ground covered across a wide range of topics.

I was in chitchat heaven.

However, the verbal exchange took a turn for the worse when I thought I heard him mention something about Ashton Kutcher.

Like a talking book of the most gutter-trash tabloid magazine available, I began gushing about Demi Moore and the break-up.

The stranger looked at me in disgust and said in loud drawling timbre ''I said ... Az-tec culture''.

This faux pas made me reflect on the beauty of miscommunication and how graphic design can be experienced in the same way.

For instance, a simple 180-degree rotation of the logo for the furniture and design brand nood could read as ''poo u''.

What kinds of conversations might graphic design be having with us that morph beyond what we simply see?

How does the experience of looking at graphic design allow the viewer to construct multiple meanings?

Sometimes the way graphic messages manifest themselves in the realm of the public can be lost in translation.

Mistakes, misunderstandings and mischief happen within graphic design that can circumvent the transmission of an intended message to an audience.

Designer-writer Rick Poyner asserts that where graphic design is concerned individuals have become active participants in the construction of the message.

Contemporary visual environments bombard us with heavy and aggressive forms of graphic ephemera, an unrelenting form of visual Tourette's.

It has therefore become an individual's job to try to construct meaning in the face of a heaving cacophony of logos, taglines, typography and images.

And despite graphic design's best intentions to create foolproof brand identification and recognition, new narratives present themselves.

This hit home during the multimillion-dollar Telecom rebrand to Spark.

PR consultants and brand experts weighed in noting how there was a disconnect in the use of the word spark and its associated connotations.

The new name and symbol to represent a telecommunication company seemed odd as a spark would be the last thing you would want to see happen to your laptop as you were logging on.

However, the most fascinating critique of the rebrand and its public perception came from a friend who was constantly working in reverse each time they laid eyes on Spark and the asterisk logo, declaring: ''Well, it's kraps backwards''.

This semordnilapic word play may seem inconsequential but the fact that French bottled water brand Evian has sustained decades of ridicule and been the subject of prolonged spoof advertising known as subvertising simply because Evian spelt backwards is naive, is not to be downplayed.

Through graphic parody an established brand in a public context can be critiqued or commented on beyond the control and polish of corporate brand management.

Originally existing as an in-joke in relation to bottled water, over time the subverted naive logo has become a means to comment on the commodification of water and to antagonise the core message of the brand.

This unsanctioned rebottling of the brand using typographic play in a sense has become a graphic tool and a means to respond to environmental and sustainability issues.

Interestingly, special interest groups have used the naive logo to promote ''throttle the bottle'' campaigns calling for the global reduction in the consumption of bottled water.

• Graphic design in some respects cannot control or guarantee fixed meaning; all brands are potentially open to potential forms of appropriation and unsanctioned adaptations.

This can manifest itself not just in the way a brand looks but the way a brand may be perceived.

There are blurry boundaries.

A logo, for instance, can shape-shift and remain a slippery signifier indefinitely.

This does not necessarily change consumer perception or create a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour, but it does allow playful subversions outside the dominant mode of message making.

Home-grown brand Fonterra has had similar graphic treatment in the form of Fonterror, emphasising either ''terror'' or ''font error'', ultimately making its way on to T-shirts and bumper stickers; a comment on the role of dairy in New Zealand reinforced by political fallouts and tainted milk scandals, national farming practices and associated national environmental issues.

Graphic design that co-opts the status quo and twists the omnipresent nature of a brand has in this instance the potential to create other avenues to comment on society.

This provides a salient platform to discuss social, political, cultural and environmental issues relative to the brand in question.

There is considerable visual literacy embedded in all parts of image and type treatment that are both symbolic and coded.

Hence the way a company chooses to represent itself to the public graphically is powerful and may sometimes take on a life of its own.

Morton Estate, a self-confessed ''leading producer of premium wine in New Zealand'', has used its own style of graphic appropriation to stimulate sparkling wine sales to women in New Zealand by creating a range of gender specific sparkling wine called Mimi.

The wine label busies itself to look French in the hope it will imply some sort of Champagne quality, restricted internationally by the Appellation d'Origine Controlee rules that govern the naming rights of sparkling wine as Champagne.

Mimi is of course a French word meaning cute and the associated female character that appears on the label seems to support this French connection.

Mimi unfortunately makes a laughing stock of itself by failing to see or acknowledge the cultural nuances that exist within New Zealand.

The te reo Maori definition of mimi becomes liquid gold as it translates as urine.

In an attempt to mimic and appropriate another cultural context Morton Estates' Mimi has blanked the cultural context at play in New Zealand in a way that I'm not convinced is excusable.

After all is said and done, graphic design provokes not only consumption but conversation and all of this left me thinking what does urine actually taste like?

• Leigh Paterson is a lecturer in communication design at Otago Polytechnic.

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