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Is it worth wit?

Posted on November 29th 2011

The following article was written for Eight:48’s sixth issue, which focuses on the theme of humour in design. The issue also features articles and interviews with Andrew Byrom, James Joyce, NB: Studio, Airside, Dowling Duncan and many others and is available here.


Is it worth wit?

Thoughts on graphic humour and invention.

In a visual landscape of ever increasing media channels where messages fight for attention, an image or piece of graphic design that can connect with its audience has more chance of being noticed, consumed and shared. Using graphic wit and humour is one technique that can create this connection. But how does this work?

When I began to think about this question I realised that writing about the use of wit and humour in graphic design and illustration is not as straightforward as it may at first seem. What exactly do we mean by wit in this context? Is wit always connected to humour and should witty design make you laugh? Official definitions of wit include “the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding”, “the ability to perceive unexpected connections or contrasts and express them cleverly”, and “a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humour”. Witty, meanwhile, is explained as “cleverly amusing” and “quick and inventive humour”. If we think about these concepts as applied to design, perhaps we can say that there is a spectrum of design using wit, incorporating, at one end, design that raises a smile or even a laugh, and at the other, design making clever and innovative contrasts or connections.

Of course this is not a new subject of enquiry. The three ‘bibles’ of graphic wit, Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart’s A Smile in the Mind, Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways and Steven Heller’s Design Humour: The Art of Graphic Wit, were all published between 1998 and 2002, and in different ways, explore and expand thinking on this subject. McAlhone and Stuart begin with a helpful explanation. “If you want to recognise wit in graphics,” they say, “look for ‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’”. The familiar, which can be “a standard visual cliché, a graphic icon, a genre, a well-known phrase or proverb”, combines with the play, “an agile or acrobatic type of thinking — a leap, a somersault, a reversal, a sideways jump — where the outcome is unexpected”. Making this combination ensures that audiences ‘get’ the idea, with just the right amount of the two key elements needed to create success: recognition and surprise.

Taking this approach helps to answer my initial questions; wit in design is not necessarily designed to make you laugh. Unlike verbal wit, static design can’t tap into comedic timing so it needs to use other methods. It may be humorous, but it may also be surprising, clever and thought provoking. As Heller points out, while verbal wit and graphic wit are similar in some ways, in others they are quite different, with graphic wit “often subtle or sardonic, not side-splittingly funny.”

However, as McAlhone and Stuart note, “wit is not to be treated with a heavy hand”. So now that I understood more about the broad spectrum on which graphic wit exists, I decided I would take a look at developments since the publication of the big three, and pick out some of my favourite examples of recent design and illustration that combine the familiar and the play in different ways. In doing so, I might also learn more about my own work and approach to wit.

1. Which came first — Kyle Bean

Designer Kyle Bean recently created this hand crafted model playing on the eternal chicken and egg question. He uses wit to translate the question into a visual form, perhaps in doing so making the question even more difficult to answer. The ‘witty thinking’ behind this piece is obvious, and it evokes a smile or at least a feeling of pleasure in the viewer when he or she ‘gets’ the joke, at the same time as admiration for the skill involved.

2. Panasonic Note packaging — Scholz & Friends

The packaging for the Panasonic Note headphones has all the simplicity and beauty of Apple product packaging. But where this item, designed by Scholz & Friends in Berlin, comes into its own, is the positioning of the earphones to make a ♫ symbol. This simple design intervention illustrates the combination of the familiar and the play perfectly; in making this acrobatic move it elevates the packaging from being merely beautiful, to being clever and memorable. All the elements of recognition and surprise are there. The packaging showcases the product perfectly, and the idea excludes the need for anything other than the line ‘made for music’ and the logo.

3. Flower Chucker — Banksy

Banksy’s work presents us with an obvious form of graphic wit, exemplifying the combination of the the familiar and the play, as he takes an image or situation and subverts it to create a completely different meaning. Here he takes an image of aggression and rebellion, and introduces the play through reversal; bringing beauty, love and kindness into the equation. Taking one powerful image and combining it with a contradictory one in this way, Banksy subverts the original meaning for a strong and immediate impact. However, the graphic wit at work here is not as obvious as we might at first think; any humour involved is dark, and powerful messages are transmitted about power, subversion and injustice. Here is sardonic and provoking wit at its best; the right combination of surprise and recognition give us food for thought.

4. V&A logo Palindrome — Troika

The original Victoria & Albert museum logo was designed by Alan Fletcher in the late 80‘s. A designers’ favourite which has stood the test of time, the logo employs subtle wit and classic innovation. Here is a key example of the broader definition of wit as well as the differences between verbal and graphic wit; the agile thinking of ‘the play’ is illustrated in the merging of the A and the ampersand – it is typographically inventive, it is recognisable and surprising, but it is not witty as in humorous or funny. Recently the logo was taken a step further by Troika with their Palindrome signage. Being asked to rework a classic piece of design is, I’m sure, a daunting task, but Troika tackled this job in a playful and inspired way. They noticed the logo had a symmetry and exploited this in the signage, which splits the logo into three rotating elements, turning so that the logo is alternatively viewable from both sides. All the workings are on show – which adds to the delight.

5. Child Soldier — Adam Ellison

This illustration by Adam Ellison brings together different levels of wit. At face level, the viewer observes the clever contrast between the black and grey gun and the colourful crayons, opposing symbols of war and childhood. Bringing them together in this way is graphically witty; the gun is ‘the familiar’ and the crayons are literally ‘the play’. At the same time the piece draws on visual similarities between bullets and crayons. Then when the illustration is considered alongside its title, a further level of meaning is added to complete the effect, evoking images of children in a context that they should never be in. The loose, freehand quality of the piece brings a childlike feel, which adds more complexity and ambiguity to the contrast between adult and childhood concerns.

In identifying these examples I realised that recognising graphic wit is, in some ways, an individualised effort, with everyone having their own opinions on what is witty, clever and innovative. No doubt others would chose different examples, but hopefully most can recognise the wit in each of my choices, whether it appeals to them or not. The Banksy and Ellison pieces are particularly powerful as they employ strong contrasts and provoke reaction. The Panasonic and V&A examples use different techniques; inventive thought and agile thinking are still at work, but the outcome is more subtle and less provocative. As McAlhone and Stuart point out, wit can arouse negative feelings as well as positive. When you ‘get’ an idea you may show it in a very different way to your neighbour. Designers don’t always get it right, and the equilibrium between recognition and surprise isn’t always maintained.

So what does this mean to those of us practising graphic design and illustration? Can everyone find and use wit in their work, and if we don’t, does it matter? Alina Wheeler once said that “design is intelligence made visible”. If that is the case, then just as people are intelligent in different ways, be that spatially, mathematically or musically, so a range of approaches can be applied to make a piece of design intelligent. Wit is one weapon in the arsenal of a designer trying to create compelling design. Alan Fletcher said that “work should express the kind of person you are”. Before writing this article I didn’t think wit was a major part of my work, as I don’t purposely set out to be humorous or subversive. I knew that I admire the designers and studios who strive to create witty work, but that I also admire several designers whose work is more about structure, form, colour and message. But perhaps this was a false division. I do aspire to be innovative, inventive and to create an impact, and I realised that I have used elements of wit in my work; elements that fall along the subtle end of the spectrum. I don’t set out explicitly looking for a witty approach, but if one should arrive along the way, then all the better.

It is clear that there have been some classic creators of graphic wit over the years: Alan Fletcher, Herb Lubalin, and studios like The Chase, The Partners and Johnson Banks, to name but a few. But there are also lots of new, lesser known faces experimenting with the familiar and the play to great effect. What’s more, an increasing amount of people are creating self initiated witty work for self promotion and circulation on blogs. If we all look at our work using the idea of a spectrum of wit, we could be surprised what we find.

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