Metaphysical Qualities of a Visual Identity Marks

Metaphysical Qualities of a Visual Identity Marks

Metaphysical Qualities of a Visual Identity Marks
Jacqueline Hill MDes | The Glue Sessions | Designasaw

Utilised by both ancient and contemporary power brokers, graphic symbols have played a pivotal role in the practice of communication and the manipulation of
human groups for millennia.  What key ingredient makes a graphic symbol have a certain resonance with its intended audience, to engender a sense of trust, and ultimately to become a part of an individual’s identity or personal philosophy?

The statement that: “... symbols are concerned with the interrelationship of mind and matter” could explain why there exists a deeply ingrained, unconscious connection between human society and graphic symbols. This article aims to ask
a meaningful question, and to explore the metaphysical quality of well-established graphic symbols and visual identity marks (VIM) through the application of a quite different and potentially noteworthy perspective.

Partly based on Carl Jung’s clarification of the metaphysical quality he referred to as numinosity, this perspective attempts to define the intangible trigger that gives visual identity marks their persuasive effect within the global marketplace, and may tell us different things about the way visual identity marks could be effective in terms of communication.

Without a sense of the numinous, Jung claimed, the observer experiences no emotional connection to the observed. For him, numinosity was an alteration of consciousness involving an experience of spiritual power, and takes on a mysterious esoteric quality. Hence the influence of the metaphysical quality of

the numinous becomes apparent when its intangible effects are physically manifested through the viewer’s/user’s responses to elemental symbols in the ancient world, and subsequently Visual Identity Marks (brand marks) in the contemporary world.

What compels the individual to be a part of a group? What drives the need for group-identity,…the interconnections between individuals,…and the equally important drive to find a connection with the ‘divine’ that exists within and outside the individual? A deep-seated need to be a part of a collective empowers the individual through a sense of purpose, belonging and need for survival. And the creation and continuation of ‘the group’ is driven by a human need to define themselves as distinct from ‘the other’.

The collective identity of the group focuses on members’ similarities rather than their differences, “suggesting a unified, singular social experience, a single canvas against which social actors constructed a sense of self.” Described as inevitable and ubiquitous by behavourist Robert de Board, groups were, and are reflective of their societal structure.

Usually based on some form of hierarchy, they are fluid and flexible and are driven by a need to adapt to ensure survival for their members. Additionally, it is feasible that qualities described by Wally Olins, in relation to an individual’s use of a brand, could be seen in the needs or desires of a group member looking for reassurance in an uncertain world. “…brand”, he contents “represent clarity, consistency, status and membership, everything that enables human beings to help define themselves. Brand represents identity.”

 Archeological and anthropological evidence supports the contention that the longevity and purpose of these archetypal symbolic marks, and their connection to these primary belief systems and ideologies, evolved out of a ritualized need of group identity.

Groups of individuals in the ancient world understood the concept of adapt or die, acquiring new cultural behavior when necessary, by absorbing the cultural customs, languages, symbols and the gods of their conquerors or new region. Archaeology tells us that early societies engaged elemental symbols, which were understood to possess spiritual and mystical import, to forge a sense of both individual and group identity and definition, as well as create allegiances within the society.

The expression ‘spellbinding powers’ engaged by Jung in relation to the intangible qualities of a group’s symbols of identity, are equally present and utilised in contemporary visual culture. To demonstrate this thesis I needed a contemporary case study which engaged group identity and a visual identity mark.

BP’s revolutionary VIM, ‘the Helios’, launched in 2000, allows such a discussion, by reflecting on the development of a successful contemporary brand mark through two differing but equally relevant lenses. Firstly from the perspective

that asks the question: “What might be revealed by analysing BP’s Helios brand mark in relation to its similarities to an archetypal elemental symbol?”, and secondly, from a pragmatic perspective, including the brand aims and creative strategy, of both the client (BP UK and Amoco US) and the design agency (Landor Assoc).

Until 1999 “BP” had been an acronym for British Petroleum. BP’s chairman, Lord John Browne was concerned that the corporation would always be seen as a British rather than a global brand because of its name, and existing visual identity mark, ‘the Shield’, which had been the primary identifier for more than eighty years. A comprehensive brand audit of the Shield mark deemed it held negative equity, as it was generally perceived as visually static and imperialistic in its symbolism.

BP’s Lee Edwards, and Landor’s Courtney Reeser, were given the task to create a brand mark for the newly amalgamated BP and Amoco corporation and as Reeser stated, “Landor convinced them to only use ‘BP’ as the brand, as it was a more believable global brand.” At the same time, the new name “beyond petroleum” devised by David Fowler, from Ogilvy and Mather, re-affirmed the more accessible sense of the new philosophy in the marketplace.

More than simply a ubiquitous presence, the new visual identity mark needed to be universally understood and be able to cut through cultures and geographies. Reeser noted, “there was an opportunity to have a symbol dominant program because of the immense scale of global exposure that the BP brand has”.

Therefore, the typography within the new brand mark became secondary by utilising a lower case sans serif reaffirming the encoded message of informality and a ‘one to one’ connection, to be easily decoded by the viewer/user.

The strategic consideration and design brief for the Helios had a simple undertone to promote BP as ‘Green’. It was Brown’s priority to generate a notion of an environmental consciousness while engendering the sense of a global brand, and as Reeser reflected: “’Green’ was seen as the most differentiated idea and allowed us to create a more powerful and meaningful symbol.” (2010). This significant shift had to be handled with the utmost understanding of maintaining relevance to its established viewer/users while encouraging and engaging new viewer/users.

The Helios VIM, based in archetypal elemental symbolism of the Solar Cross, the sunflower, and ultimately, the sun was a stylised vector graphic. It exhibited radiant energy generated by centripetal and centrifugal forces, and these energies echoed the archetypal elemental symbol of the Solar Cross. When launched, assisted by a comprehensive rollout strategy, including 1400 brand champions, the Helios VIM sat immediately and comfortably within the psyche of both the internal and external audiences of BP. After the first year of the launch of the Helios the downstream revenues generated at BP ‘CONNECT’ retail stores, located within the petrol stations, increased by 23% worldwide.

BP’s ‘brand strength’ in the oil and petroleum category grew in measurable equity, which is defined by the market’s perception of differentiation and uniqueness, from appropriately 30% in 2001 to 50 – 60% in 2004 (Landor, 2009). The upward movement in brand equity added to the corporation’s intangible brand value. And during the same period BP experienced a move in ‘brand statue’ from 48% to 55% by 2004.

As Jung suggested, “Just as symbols are concerned with mind and matter and not with one or other on its own, so they are concerned with the relationship between the individual and the whole.” The practice of using archetypal elemental symbols, originally was an attempt to express or, to be more exact, to communicate a ‘thought’ or a personal response to an experience within the natural world, and were used to bring a sense of the sacred or ‘other-worldiness’ to inanimate objects, both mundane and ceremonial.

Jung considered primitive humanity’s response to their external surroundings not to be objective, but more subjective and internalised, driven from deep within their unconscious psyche. Natural phenomena such as the sun, moon, stars, storms, lightening and thunder were given anthropomorphic identities, and were therefore
the bases for the concept of the ‘gods’.
In this way the sound of thunder was the voice of an angry god, and a bolt of lightening his missile; rivers contained spirits, as did forests and meadows.

They synthesised nature and natural occurrence, into ‘symbolic expressions’,
which were eventually, projected in physical manifestations such as archetypal elemental symbols, for example, the circle and the cross.

Over time archetypal elemental symbols were utilised with skillful and sophisticated management to manipulate the societies in which they were used, as the desire to establish an organized society, and the need to rationalize and connect with the capricious forces and elements of nature, led to the creation of a belief system, which involved a dialogue with nature deities. This practice was as much to do with the political manipulation of the group as it was to do with an individual’s spiritual experience.

It was about negotiation with the deities, due to humanity’s need to communicate with forces larger and mightier than themselves. British antiquarian and academic Ellis Davidson observed, “It is not surprising that the forces of nature were  symbolized as a manifestation of divine power in the ancient world. Whose powers included the rule of storm, the Sun’s warmth, as well as the gifts of law and order to mankind to combat the forces of chaos.”

 After the agrarian stage of humanity’s development had been reached, the sun deity, in particular, rose to prominence, as humanity attempted to establish a dialogue with this essential element. The desire to establish a dialogue with what was considered the life giver, the Sun, was good politics and probably profound for those who held power, or who wished to be perceived as a person of influence and consequence. From his work entitled The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung reflected, “The sun in its course must represent the fate of a god or a hero who, in the last analysis, dwells nowhere except in the soul of man…”

These symbolic archetypal marks eventually became accepted as the brand marks for a deity and also supplied the opportunity for the group to show immediately its alignment to that deity. The graphic marks of these ancient religions, such as the archetypal symbols of the circle, the cross and the solar cross, were the stylized, static, symbolic equivalent to the physical ritual actions of worship that honored the nature deities.

These creative forms of expression bound its society, and created an institutional framework upon which it based its identity and, ultimately, its laws. Jung’s observations of the result from the creation and psyche of the archetypal symbols, informs the thrust of my work. “They are, at the same time, both images and emotions. One can speak of an archetype only when these two aspects are simultaneous. When there is merely an image, there is simply a word-picture of little consequence. But by being charged with emotion, the image gains numinosity (or psychic energy); it becomes dynamic, and consequences of some must flow from it…”


Rudolph Otto addressed the reactions and effects of the natural world upon the human psyche in, ‘The Idea of the Holy’ (1917). It was within this work the existence of a metaphysical quality referred to as the ‘numinous’ was first discussed. Otto’s theory proposed that a layering of phenomena, which was more visceral than rational, occurred within inanimate marks, objects, spaces and places. Agreeing with Otto, Jung believed the numinous was non-physical and celestial in nature…a fundamentally religious experience, and addressed this in his theory of the ‘archetype’.

Archetypal symbols are the embodiment of mankind’s ‘natural religious function’, an aspect of the inner self that must be developed to ensure psychic health and stability. Furthermore, archetypal symbolism was seen as innate human imagery, and thus involved the presence of the numinous within archetypes. Emile Durkheim suggested the way archetypal symbols were used repetitively equated to a sense of continuity, thus reflecting the behavior of the natural elements, the very thing the archetypal symbols were representing, and also acknowledged through Durkheim’s writing, the existence of the sacred and the profane within symbolism and archetypal elemental marks: “Thus...the sacred and the profane is parallel to the social dichotomy between the common life of the community and the private life of the individual”.

To humanity, the Sun embodied the powers of creation, therefore a constant thread of sun worship and solar deities ran through most religions and cults of the ancient world. The worship of the Sun dominated the great civilizations of antiquity with its representation through the gigantic figures of gods and heroes – Atum, Osiris (Egypt); Baal, Mithras (Mesopotamia); and Helios, Apollo (Greece and Rome). It was Jung who reflected on the need to find a visual articulation of the intangible and the subconscious of ‘the group’, in his 1912 study ‘The Psychology of the Unconscious’. “External truth needs a human language that alters with the spirit of the times. The primordial image undergoes ceaseless transformation and yet remains ever the same, but only in a new form can they be understood anew.

Always they require a new interpretation if, as each formulation becomes obsolete, they are not to lose their spellbinding power.”


The Helios capitalised on a viewer’s/user’s unconscious recognition due to its resemblance to the archetypal elemental symbol, the Solar Cross. The Helios had, and has its own value in terms of pre-established equity. This value was generated from an amalgam of the unique long-standing colour combination of green and yellow, and the shape of the Helios, which is based on the Solar Cross and its variations. Thus the Helios, from its inception, was invested with the notion of trust and reassurance for the viewer/user.

The Helios straddles the boundary between Jung’s definitions of symbols, which are ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’. The ‘natural’ (archetypal) symbol is the response of the psyche reflecting the ‘internal truth’. The ‘cultural’ symbol is a representation of
the ‘external truth’ and is actively created by an organisation or corporation for its own specific purposes: “Such cultural symbols nevertheless retain much of their original numinosity or ‘spell’. One is aware that they can evoke a deep emotional response in some individuals, and this psychic charge makes them function in much the same way as prejudices…”

The BP Helios is informed by a ‘natural’ symbol, the Solar Cross, which represents the radiance of the sun and the cosmology of the heavens. The BP Helios became a ‘cultural’ symbol through its role as BP’s VIM, relating the corporation to environmental consciousness. In both respects the Helios conveys a deep spiritual quality tapping into a deeper symbolic language in the human species relating back to nature. To conclude, consider this:  A visual identity mark consists of layers of meaning, both natural and cultural.

The first layer is that of the numinous; where in lies the sacred and the abstract;
the celestial, which equates to the aspect of the natural; and the concept of the institution and subsequently, a sense of trust.  This layer encourages the viewer /user to feel validated, and secure in their chosen group identity.
It is within this layer that both image and emotion coexist. The second layer is that of the representational; which brings to the brand mark a sense of the realised, where an idea takes a physical form. Within the representational layer, a concept of the profane, the commercial or the worldly lies; and the tangible demands to be acknowledged.

Numinosity is the metaphysical quality in a VIM that enables the VIM to exercise influence over the viewer/user and acts as ‘a bridge between spirit and society.’

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