It goes without saying that graphic design isn’t graphic design without an idea. Whether it’s ideas that simplify, sell or seduce, graphic design work has a purpose; and a new book by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson seeks to explain “some of the key elements of good design” in clear, accessible language with a wealth of visual examples.
The publisher of The Graphic Design Ideas Book Lawrence King has kindly let us republish the section about wit and humour below.
Tickle the Funny Bone
As a selling tool, humour in graphic design acts as a hook to grab attention and entice the viewer into the message. Humour used in this way cannot be too outrageous, lest the purpose be defeated. Entire books have been written about design and humour because it has been proven that wit engages all the cognitive and physical senses of the viewer. The designer can therefore tap into all kinds of humour, whether instinctive or deliberate, to communicate, inform, entertain and manipulate.
While humour can be a lure, it is best when it is offered as an extra dollop of enjoyment for the viewer. It can also be a “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down” for the designer in an otherwise sleep-inducing assignment – and is this really so bad? No precise formula exists for how or when to be funny, so you could argue that almost any project can be considered fair game for the designer (though of course they don’t all invite humour). Using humour in design is an art, not a set of rules.
Some designers are just naturally witty, like Berlin-based Christoph Niemann, whose 2004 work The Real Empires of Evil provides a hilariously thought-provoking satirical survey of the flags of mythical regimes. This is a stand-alone piece commissioned by Nozone magazine, rather than a response to a design brief, so the humour is not self-conscious but instead has a quirky uninhibitedness, which enables a personal viewpoint to emerge. The clever match-ups – like “Noway,” with a flag resembling a Japanese rising sun as a Dead End sign, and “Can-ada,” with a can in place of a maple leaf – force a double take. The colourful grid of geometric and abstract rectangles brings a smile to the eye and pleasure to the brain.
Too much forethought can kill a visual joke, but refinement is essential. When making an intentionally witty piece of work, make sure it is really funny: put it aside for an hour and then look again with fresh eyes.