14 controversial moments in logo and brand design

Branding, logo design and advertising have always had the potential to stir up strong reactions, both in the design community itself and the general public. And the reach of social media means that, nowadays, the news can spread across the globe in no time at all.

Whether it's a rebrand that causes outrage because it undermines an already much-loved brand, an advert that offends or just a widespread dislike for the creative work itself – there are plenty of examples to choose from. Here are 15 logo and branding designs that split opinion across the board.

01. Uber

Controversial moments in branding Uber

Find that at 2am after a night on the Jägerbombs? You might as well walk.

Uber managed to outrage someone other than licensed taxi drivers when it ditched its big 'U' logo – which if nothing else was vital for spelling out icon obscenities on your phone's homescreen – and replaced it with a pair of app icons: one for the 'rider' app, and one for the app used by drivers, or 'partners'.

CEO Travis Kalanick – who worked alongside Uber's design team to create the new logos – has described it as bringing out the company's human side. Others have been less kind, some pointing out that it's going to be a lot harder to find this new logo on your phone when it's 2AM and you're tired and emotional, and others noting its resemblance to a sperm.

02. The Met

Controversial moments in branding The Met

Don't stare at it for too long, it'll make your eyes go funny

Wolff Olins – already well-versed in controversy thanks to its 2012 London Olympics logo (number 7 on our list) – stirred up another pot of designer fury with its logo for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A bold – some might say brave – typographic treatment that merges flare serifs together while playing fast and loose with leading, it's described by Wolff Olins as, "a crafted mark that looks to the past and to the future, or any place in between," while Justin Davidson of Vulture thinks it looks more like, "a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs."

03. Hillary Clinton

Controversial moments in branding Hillary Clinton

No-one's talking about how appallingly the red and blue clash, though

When Hillary Clinton revealed her new campaign logo in 2015, people were queueing up to criticise its design. Some reckoned it looked like a hospital sign, many believed that its big red arrow symbolised a shift to the right, and many disliked the simple design on the grounds that it just looked amateurish.

Meanwhile WikiLeaks claimed that it had ripped off its own logo, and others with an even slenderer grasp on reality were convinced it contained hidden messages about Hillary sliding into the White House or moving the country sideways. Of course, we have bigger things to worry about in US politics now.

04. Airbnb

controversial moments in branding

A Tumblr has been created to poke fun at the Airbnb logo

In 2014, accommodation listings website Airbnb launched an entirely new look. The 'Bêlo' logo aimed to symbolise a new era for the business but instead, it got a whole lot of fun poked at it. 

This Tumblr gives a sense of what consumers thought of the look, with some claiming it to be a copy of Automation Anywhere's logo, as well as a few other interesting anatomical comparisons (you can read DesignStudio's response to the criticism here). 

05. Dirty Bird

controversial moments in design

Does this controversial logo depend on how you look at it?

Dirty Bird is a catering company that attends music festivals in and around Wales. Whilst its food is popular, its logo is anything but. The owner has stated that it's "just a clever way for the 'd' and 'b' to go together", but customers have complained about its phallic aesthetics. 

Designer Mark James said: "We were given the name Dirty Bird as the brief, and started working on ideas. We looked at the initials, DB. Then worked with the lowercase 'db' linking them to form the shape of a rooster. It's graphic representation of a rooster incorporating the initials. It depends on how you look at it." 

The company has also produced posters asking customers to 'Touch My Thigh' and 'Touch My Breast', and recently 'Get some cock in', so we're guessing it's not entirely innocent. 

06. BP's greenwash

BP rebrand

The BP rebranding initially caused controversy but has become a familiar sight

British Petroleum’s $200m rebrand in 2000 was part of a concerted effort to bring 'green' credentials to the global oil giant. Thereafter known simply as 'BP', the company adopted the tagline ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and a green-tinged 'Helios' mark, but it was met with considerable public skepticism at the time, with many parodies springing up.

Greenpeace ran a competition to create parodies of the logo

London 2012

It seems like an age ago that this logo was causing heated debate

This one went through the mill for sure. Wolff Olins' £400k logo was unveiled in June 2007 to an almost unanimous global chorus of derision – with 80 per cent of people in a BBC poll giving it the lowest score.

Of course, WO stuck to its guns and in the patriotic haze of the British Olympic summer it all paid off. Learn about how the logo was originally put together here, and read a spirited defence of the much-maligned design here.

08. Yves St Laurent goes nude

Yves St Laurent Opium

Who knew a nude Sophie Dahl would cause controversy?

Sporting a provocative, completely nude portrait of fashion model Sophie Dahl, Yves St Laurent's 2000 ad campaign set switchboards alight at the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), with 948 complaints. The ASA ruled that it was "sexually suggestive" and "likely to cause serious or widespread offence".

Gap logo

Gap's attempt at a logo redesign was hastily withdrawn

Arguably one of the most famous design-based PR disasters in recent years, Gap's woeful attempt to rethink its iconic navy blue box in 2010 sent ripples around the world – with absolutely universal damnation of its suggested replacement, which combined vanilla Helvetica with a simple gradient. It was withdrawn after a week.

10. Ashley Madison's Superbowl ban

Designed to encourage and facilitate 'discreet' extra-marital affairs, AshleyMadison.com is a controversial proposition in its own right. So it's little surprise that its ads (including this one, in which a betrayed wife rips off her clothes and promptly joins the site to get her own back) have been banned from the coveted Superbowl slot several times.

11. Starbucks pares things back

Starbucks logo

Starbucks' rebrand was more successful than Gap's, but still drew complaints

January 2011 brought the coffee giant's decision to drop 'coffee' and even the word 'Starbucks' from its primary logo, bringing the iconic mermaid to the fore instead. Dubbed a "natural evolution", it also heralded the company’s move into different product ranges – but over 500 complaints were left on the company's blog.

12. Bad manners from KFC

Nudity and sexual provocation is one thing, but five years on this 2005 spot for Kentucky Fried Chicken attracted almost twice as many complaints – 1,671 in total. Why? Because the call-centre operatives in the ad were singing with mouths stuffed with chicken – which according to enraged parents, encouraged bad manners.

13. Animal cruelty from Paddy Power

This 2010 advert opens with a shot of a Blind Wanderers FC kit bag, and cuts to a blindfolded football match. A cat runs onto the pitch and gets booted – leading to 1,313 complaints about animal cruelty and offence to the blind. The ASA overruled on both counts, believing the ad to be surreal and light-hearted.

University of California logo

Another logo redesign that received universal condemnation and was withdrawn

Finally, the University of California's very own 'Gap' moment came in 2012, during which its modernised logo was dubbed a 'toilet bowl' and soundly panned. Created by an in-house design team, it was designed for communications materials and never intended to replace the official seal – but the damage was done, and it was withdrawn from use.

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