Funny Design Theory: What Makes an Image Funny?
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Design Funny by Heather Bradley. With this entertaining instructional and inspirational design book, get an introduction to incorporating humor into your design work.
Before Photoshop was introduced in 1988, graphic designers spent most billable hours coaxing kittens to sit still long enough to model military uniforms. Now, we can quickly mock up images like this in a fraction of the time. (Photo from: “War On String May Be Unwinnable, Says Cat General” by The Onion.)
Some clients might tell you that orange is funny. Or a headline diagonally placed is funny. Or the CEO’s nephew’s Garfield rip-offs are hilarious so please incorporate them into that 50-page annual report you just finished laying out. And of course, most professional designers will swear on their MacBook Pros that Comic Sans is NEVER EVER funny… So, is it possible that some colors, shapes, styles or subjects are, in fact, inherently funny?
Humor is subjective and depends on who’s looking at it. While it’s true some visual elements might a higher chance of being perceived as funny for cultural and psychological reasons (we’ll cover these later), a funny image relies on its context. In his comedy guide, The Comic Toolbox, John Vorhaus explains that “a joke always takes place in the context of an audience’s expectations.” Just as you can’t write great comedy by simply following a set of rules or using a specific grouping of words, neither can you design a funny composition by simply using the right visual elements.
Besides, people can’t even always predict what’ll make them laugh. Apple marketing guru Steve Jobs once said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s the same for funny images. The best we can do is be aware of cultural trends. What’s popular this decade, heck even this week, might be stale or hackneyed the next. Both comedy and design keep us on our toes…
Think like a comedian; solve like a designer
According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry of 523 comedians from the UK, USA and Australia, “The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis—both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” The research suggests comedy is easier for impulsive, irrational minds that can “connect random thoughts.”
A SPLIT PERSONALITY
Graphic design is an exceptionally challenging creative act. Unlike the fine arts, where oil paintings of sunsets and blow-up dolls cast in JELL-O are both valid forms of self-exploration and totally open to interpretation, graphic designers must communicate a clear predetermined message to a targeted audience. We must incorporate the input and direction of others, thereby making our work more a collaboration than an individual act of self-expression.
Graphic designers must also combine irrational inputs (emotions, aesthetics and trends) with rational ones (mathematical proportion, audience testing and other sciencey stuff). And finally, to design well, we must unite many unrelated disciplines in our work. Not only do we incorporate the role of a fine artist, but we must also be a part-time salesperson, detective, engineer, psychologist and—when designing funny—comedian.
There are many parallels between comedians and designers. Both must understand the demographics (age, socioeconomic status, location) as well as the psychographics (culture, personality, aversions) of their target audience.
Both must use creative brainstorming to come up with strong creative concepts to drive their work. Both seek to influence people to react in a specific way. And both produce results that are inherently subjective.
For a joke to be considered a success, it must evoke feelings of mirth. For a design, it must achieve the goals of the design brief and communicate clearly with the target audience. Both types of success are hard to measure. This is why in both the comedy and graphic design worlds experience is often so important. It can take years to develop an intuitive sense for either discipline.
But here is where the similarity ends. Just as a graphic designer is not a fine artist, a graphic designer is also not a comedian. Comedy is a form of entertainment, it’s not a service industry like graphic design. Unlike the comedian, the funny designer is paid to use humor as a communication tool to achieve a very specific communication goal —typically a business one, though sometimes it’s political, cultural or social. The comedian simply needs to entertain. So, why learn how to think like a comedian at all? Because comedians base their entire careers on making people laugh. They know a lot of tricks of the trade that designers don’t. If we want to meet our design project goals via humor, we need to weasel our way into the head of a comedian.
Forget everything you know about being a designer. Forget logic. Forget rules. Forget making sense. Heed the words of comedian John Cleese who said, “High creativity is responding to situations without critical thought,” and rid your mind of all rational thought. Do it now.
Done? Wow, that was fast. You’ll have to share your secret with me. (It was recently made legal in Denver, wasn’t it?) It doesn’t matter how you relax the analytical side of your mind, as long as you still maintain focus. Now that you’ve let down your guard and entered the irrational zone, let’s talk about why it feels so weird. Thinking uncritically is counter to everything we’re taught in design school. Design school is wonderful, but it can sure suck the funny out of you. Most graphic design programs focus entirely on the rational side of design —emphasizing form following function and direct clear communication.
Comedy is none of these. By shrugging off the yoke of design theory, the comedian in us can take over. Here’s what that comedian knows:
Humor is inherently playful and naturally disrespectful. It doesn’t serve a direct purpose. It’s not businessy or strict. It’s selfish, indulgent—often purposefully obscuring its true meaning. It says one thing when it means another. At times that’s challenging, and therein lies its power.
Humor uses logical confusion to delight audiences, unlike design that seeks to communicate as clearly as possible. A comedian leads your mind around an idea, like a designer leads your eye around a composition, but a comedian leads us down the wrong conceptual path first before bringing the true point into focus. Humor researcher John Morreall explains the process like this, “If the audience is to experience a mental shift, they must be caught off guard with something that they cannot smoothly assimilate.”
Having a good sense of humor is more than just coming up with jokes. A comedian has the ability to observe and reframe the world through a humorous lens.
The comedy world isn’t as rigid as the design world. While there are rules to comedy, there aren’t many universities with bachelor degrees in stand-up. Though the comedy biz is certainly tough and competitive, there simply isn’t the same pressure to fit into a specific mold to be a success.
Comedy may be an act of twisting up logic, but design is more about straightening it out. It’s visual thinking that’s solution-focused. It organizes and sensibly formats information to reach a specific communication goal. Laughter doesn’t matter if a message isn’t conveyed with it. In his article “Is There Anything Funny About Graphic Design?” design writer Steven Heller explains, “As a selling tool, graphic design humor might be described as a loss leader—a means to grab attention and lure the customer or client into the store. Humor, then, cannot be too outrageous, lest the purpose be defeated.” Here’s what the designer in you knows:
Humor is a design tool, not a solution. Funny for funny’s sake alone won’t cut it in the design world.
A designer’s jokes must produce measurable results. Comedy wins when it entertains, design wins when it can be measured by tangible results, either qualitative, such as brand awareness surveys, or quantitative, such as a statistical increase in the number of purchases.
Not all visual comedy is graphic design. Some forms of visual comedy, such as personalized graffiti, comics and physical slapstick, are art forms open to interpretation. Funny graphic design is a communication device with a specific message.
One sense of humor isn’t enough. Comedians often become known for a unique sense of humor or schtick. For better or for worse, cultivating just one sense of humor is not as beneficial to a designer. We need to be more flexible and allow our audience to help us tailor our style for them.