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2.2 How do you bring an industry back from the dead?

The shift from conservative to contemporary.

Death by design

The aesthetic of death — it’s one of art’s most prominent, and powerful, motifs. Associated with some of the world’s most influential movements from early Paleochristian depictions of Jesus on the cross to the melancholy iconography of Baroque paintings to Klimt’s Successive ‘Death and Life’, you’d be hard pressed to enter a classic gallery without encountering at least one musing on mortality. 

Depictions defined by anything from obvious symbols like skulls and skeletons to more subtle references in colour palettes and tones — it’s clear that much like the act of dying itself, death’s existence within art and design is seemingly ever present. 

What is it about the themes, symbols and visuals of death that simultaneously draw us in and repel us outwards? Can they be commercialised and if so, should they?

In this installation of The Business of Death we’re exploring death by design; diagnosing how modern brands are both embracing — and subverting — their industries through deathly identities.

A new life for the death market

Whilst death has been a motif in art for millenia — art is rarely seen within the industry of death.

Funeral businesses have traditionally been confined to conservative shades of black and grey — operating within social customs that trace back as far as the Roman Empire.

But we’re starting to sense a shift.

Funeral directors Fairwill are an example of a brand looking to open the conversation around death — collaborating with London-based artist John Booth to create a series of vibrant urns that align with their positive mission to celebrate life within their ceremonies.

Image source.

Ethical funeral practitioners Poppy’s recent rebrand is also emblematic of the societal shift towards ‘approachable’ design in death — trading the industry’s traditional colour palette for warm hues and hyper-realistic graphics for ‘gentle’ typographics and thoughtful illustration.

Where even brands as mainstream as Co-Op Funeral Care actively advertise custom coffins within their service — promoting ‘boat, guitar and ballet shoe’ shaped coffins alongside colourful ‘glitter’ alternatives.

Resurrecting stagnant industries

Death, taxes and established markets stagnating — it’s a simple fact of product life cycling.

Saturated industries dominated by big-business players often become bland; defined by predictable and sometimes identical visuals.

Need proof? Picture a bottled water brand.

Is the bottle transparent? Does it have a blue graphic device, with a feature colour of red, purple or green? Does it possibly include visuals of natural flora or mountain ranges? We thought so. Because some variations of Evian, Buxton, Fuji, Highland Spring, Aquafina, Smart Water (and more) seemingly fit the bill.

But not Liquid Death.

Determined to flip corporate marketing on its head, Liquid Death is the antithesis of traditional single-use water branding. A water that claims to ‘murder your thirst’, the visual identity embraces deathly symbolism, gothic fonts and dark visuals in an illustrative tattoo style. Their final subversion? A canned dispenser. It’s the rebirth of an industry in real time, and it’s working.

The final nail in the coffin for vodka drinkers? Alcoholic Vodka’s disruptive brand premise — that the substance is deadly and shouldn’t be ordered. Paired with visuals of skeletons, toxic symbols and a ‘do not drink’ sticker sealing the lid, this identity uses the reality of death as a side effect to deter its audience. Clear bottles aside, Alcoholic Vodka believe they’re the first to bring true ‘transparency’ to the spirits market, breaking the silence on the dangers of excessive drinking. ‘We’re not trying to make death or the risk of “death” cool’ claims the brand, simply ‘we’re Alcoholic Vodka, and we’re bad for you’. Dead honest. We like it.

And while the travel industry had a near-death experience of its own throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, agency Plum Guide is taking it more literally than most. Launching their new ‘no time for average stays’ identity and campaign throughout the streets of London this year, the brand plastered the city in OOH advertising with one message in mind — you’re going to die soon, so why settle for below-par holidays. Let’s hope their Grim Reapers are contracted for 28 days plus bank holiday weekends, too.

Until death do us part

An eternal theme in the brand sphere, it’s clear that death within design will continue to engage and excite for the long run. Whether gorey, clean-cut, clever or grim, one thing is certain when it comes to this motif — its use may not always break new ground, but it’ll still stop you dead in your tracks each and every time.