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Nov./Dec. 2006 (p. 83)

What’s So Funny?
Graphic wit used to be design’s most powerful heat-seeking missile. So where are today’s weapons of laugh destruction?

By Alissa Walker

Design has had one heck of a year and I’m exhausted just thinking about it. I’ve calculated and recalculated design’s value to business. I’ve recycled my thoughts on design and sustainability. I learned the difference between ethical design, citizen designers, and socially responsible design thinkers. I even figured out what design thinking means. And keeping up with that do-gooder design process—aiding hurricane victims, saving K-12 education, and ending poverty in third-world countries—well, it’s been simply overwhelming. Designers have proven themselves to me again and again as a veritable force, poised to conquer the world’s most formidable challenges. But they rarely make me laugh. It didn’t always used to be this way. I often reminisce about the good times I’ve spent with Milton Glaser and Paula Scher. Tibor Kalman and I always shared some great inside jokes. Charles S. Anderson’s zingers had me clinging to nostalgia throughout the ’90s. And when Sagmeister bled, I was moved to tears. Man, those guys are still hilarious. I don’t doubt there’s a rich legacy of design humor stuffed into books and archives, but the new design I look at all day mostly makes me feel, well, miserable. Is it just me, or is design so busy taking itself seriously that it doesn’t have time for a laugh?

“Maybe,” says Steven Heller, who literally wrote the book on this, Design Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit (Allworth Press). “Designers are serious now. But I think part of that is because illustration is verboten. It was easier to be funny when working with images. Now there is more use of type, texture, ornament.” So in their quest for legibility, relevancy, complexity, designers have become so obsessed with anything ending in y that they’ve forgotten to have fun? “I think there is a time and place for humor,” says Heller. “The old design puns are not as prevalent now, but maybe because again these designers are not illustrators. They’ve been raised on the computer and so the hip stuff is more tectonic than funny.” Design tectonics? That sounds as unfunny as design thinking. As guarded as design has become, I simply won’t deny its importance in making people laugh. I set off on a quest for the ultimate graphic guffaw. Or at the very least, a giggle.

Take My Design. Please.
When we talk about funny design (and we’re assuming that it’s being funny on purpose) we’re probably talking about graphic wit—the process of bringing together images and concepts and words in a way that surprises, or shocks, or delights. There’s a very good reason for using this technique, say Carolyn Knight and Jessica Glaser, authors of Sticky Graphics (RotoVision). “Humor has long been accepted by graphic designers as being helpful in communicating with audiences, as it wraps up information in a relaxed, pleasant, and entertaining manner,” says Knight. “There is no doubt that it also can be extremely constructive in enabling the retention of messages.”

A handful of designers preach this like the gospel. Alexander Isley, for example, thinks wit is intrinsic to good work. “I believe that in order to be effective, a piece of communication design must have a memorable idea that captures the viewer’s imagination and enables him or her to make a new association or see something in a new way,” he says. “Wit, to me, is smart and subtle and memorable. By that definition, I hope that everything we do has wit.”

“Good design for signage at an airport probably shouldn’t have that many jokes and hidden puns: If I lost my suitcase or am desperately looking for the bathroom I couldn’t care less about graphic wit,” says Christoph Niemann. “But for the kind of design that is supposed to intrigue the reader to buy a product, read a story, or change his or her thinking, humor is a good tool.”

“Without wit, it’s like you’re not doing your job,” says Sean Adams of AdamsMorioka. “We automatically inject a playful sense of humor into our work. It’s part of our philosophy. Design should seduce people, not repulse them, and humor makes them feel good.” But if it feels so good, why the lapse in graphic belly laughs of the past? Don’t look to political correctness, or a dumbing-down of the cultural climate. It makes sense to place the blame squarely on designers themselves. “Not enough designers seem to be enjoying the process,” says James Victore. “I see lots of ‘work,’ but not much inspiring stuff. Most jobs employ an ‘acceptable’ level of humor, or such trite, cliché jokes that we can’t even mention them in this context.”



Caption (sidewalk photo): The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum's Packaging the New exhibition featured 50 years of American industrial and packaging design. Alexander Isley Inc. added a welcome burst of retro joy to the signage, publications, and posters, including the Palmolive-soft hands that proudly presented iconic products outside the museum.


Much of this may have to do with a sense of responsibility that designers have been assigned in their new roles as decision makers in big business. They aren’t the guys with the zany T-shirts in the creative department anymore. “I think that most designers I know are a bit defensive when it comes to wanting the respect of the corporate smart-money boys who sit at the big tables,” says Isley, who says even he faces dilemmas when bringing his most hilarious work to light. The pressure to demonstrate to their clients that they’re serious visual communicators and problem solvers often clouds their ability to present a no-humor-barred approach.

Victore also blames the rise of design criticism, namely the proliferation of fast-acting blogs. “If one were to take a chance and make an attempt at something witty on a large project, and fail,” he says, “we then run the risk of having our efforts endlessly keelhauled at 2 a.m. on designer blogs.”

When Humor Attacks
Besides the possibility of a serious blog-skewering, indulging a sense of wit means taking a huge risk, both with clients and design firms themselves. An especially good attempt at humor can end up offending the intended audience or—even worse—they won’t get the joke. “The thing is, there’s no timing in design,” says Sam Potts. “There’s no way to control that pause before a punchline, or to modulate the delivery to change the meaning of something. So a lot of graphic wit is manipulating symbols in various ways, which can be clever and all, but it’s not the same as being funny.”

The guys at karlssonwilker, on the other hand, spend most of their time coming up with concepts that amuse themselves, and have to risk the fact that even their clients might not know what they’re talking about. “We end up with these insider jokes that are just too cryptic to be understood by anyone except ourselves,” says Hjalti Karlsson. “People who liked our work and therefore hired us end up not liking what we do for them. It is obviously harder to laugh about yourself than to laugh about others.”

Or there’s the other great deterrent—getting so good at graphic wit that you become labeled as one-dimensional “funny guys,” meaning you may not ever get the true respect your work deserves. “It’s like the Academy Awards,” Adams laments. “Comedy never wins best picture.” But, come on. Are those who design funny really worried about getting a goofy reputation?

“When I started my firm in 1988, the answer was ‘yes,’” says Isley. “In fact, we did not even show examples of Spy, which I’d art directed previous to that, in our portfolio. Now I’m older and I feel empowered to embrace my inner goofy essence, and I think at this point clients know that—when it’s appropriate—they’ll get something smart and fun from us.” But not too fun, maybe—the worst-case scenario is that funny designers may attempt total seriousness, but people still think it’s funny.

“This is always a bad situation, since it denies any chance of getting your point across,” says Karlsson. However, like all designers with a sense of humor, it’s not preventing them from keeping things in perspective. “Overall we try to have as many good days as we can here in our studio, and laughing is a good way to achieve that. After all, this is our life.”

© 2006 Jupitermedia Corporation

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