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  • Is There Anything Funny about Graphic Design?

    True wit depends on the mastery of various languages. The witty writer is a verbal acrobat who relies on precision timing and acute understanding. The great humorous writers are known for crafting figures of speech into vivid mental pictures. As a classic example, let's take the phrase dog bites man, which is neither funny nor news. Conversely, man bites dog is both news and somewhat funny because it twists the ordinary. But, more to the point, man bites man is not only a surprising concept but a vividly absurd picture revealing two simultaneous concepts. At the risk of committing humorcide through over-analysis, I submit that in this phrase one man is not only physically assaulting the other in a rather unconventional manner, but that since the word “bite” also suggests ridicule or criticism, it gives the phrase an additional level of meaning, causing it to be more ironic than its literal content suggests. Another example of such skillful verbiage comes from the mid-20th century critic Max Eastman, who quotes a young WW I soldier after the latter's first visit to Paris's legendary Folies Bergere: “I never saw such sad faces or such gay behinds.” This is a sage observation conjuring a real-life portrait of the vivacious but overworked sex objects who danced the famous can-can night after endless night in the Parisian nightclub. What these examples suggest is that the most skillful wit must appear effortless while being loaded with meaning.

    Graphic wit is no exception. The best design solutions must be effortless and free from the self-conscious and tired conceits of all belabored humor. Yet if this is true, then why is it that the pun is one of the most significant components of graphic wit and design humor? As the oldest form of humor, the pun is also considered in the world of letters—as in the world—to be the lowest form. There is no kind of false wit that has been ridiculed as much as the pun. Yet a pun, the dictionary tells us, is “the humorous use of a word or words which are formed or sound alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a pun is a play on words.” Edgar Allan Poe complained, “The goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability.” An old English proverb goes, “Who makes a pun will pick a pocket.” And who can forget that old grade-school put-down, “P.U. (you stink),” which is two-thirds of a pun. Indeed, throughout the ages this venerable form has been so abused that The New York Times forbids puns in its headlines unless the word substitution is so inextricably linked to the meaning of the story that the pun is incidental.

    Why are puns necessary in graphic wit and humor? The rules that govern verbal language do not translate precisely into visual language. Thus, The New York Times has no rules governing visual puns. Graphic designers' canon of usage is different because our means of communication—our language, syntax and grammar—are different. A picture is worth a thousand words because so much more information can be evoked through one image than in a sentence or paragraph. In visual language, it often is necessary to substitute one image for another, or one symbol for another—not just for purposes of jest, but to enhance meaning. Therefore, the pun—at best a kind of shorthand, at worst a strained contortion—describes graphic symbols used to simplify complex concepts into accessible, often memorable images.

    Paul Rand, in A Designer's Art (Yale University Press, 1985), says visual puns are the keys to some of his most successful designs, since “they amuse as they inform.” The elevation of the pun from jest to graphic communications tool must also be credited to one of Rand's former Yale University students, Eli Kince, whose Visual Puns in Design (Watson-Guptill, 1982), argues that a pun is the conveyor of credible visual messages. If the pun is the lowest form of verbal humor, Kince reasons, this may beg question, “Is graphic humor at the low end of the evolutionary scale?” Charles Lamb wrote that puns are “a pistol let off at the ear, not a feather to tickle the intellect.” Remember too that the best verbal puns are not simple-minded rhymes but truly surprising (even shocking), yet decidedly logical, manipulations of language.

    Families logo by Herb Lubalin.

    The best visual puns have a similar effect on perception as, say, a right cross to the chin. Ouch! With the logo for Families magazine, the late typemaster Herb Lubalin created a rather literal symbol for family out of the letter ili resulting in a memorable icon. For the reader or viewer, it was also a rebus, which, when recognized, added another level of appreciation. When a visual pun works-specifically, when two distinct entities merge to form one idea-the effect stimulates thought and sensation.

    Groucho Marx's description of diversity in verbal humor applies as well to graphic wit and humor, but one difference between verbal and design humor is apparent: the latter cannot always be measured by laughter alone. 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. Even as a political weapon, humor similarly functions to sell a message, sometimes by ridicule, but is often subtle or sardonic, not side-splittingly funny. At best, humorous design will force a laugh, bring a smile or cause a double-take, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, like hypnotic suggestions, the goal of graphic wit and design humor is to subvert the subconscious and thereby earn a market share of memory.

    A.M. Cassandre's 1932 Dubonnet ad.

    Humor is a mnemonic—something that helps (or forces) us to recollect. This can be manifest in wordplay, like a slogan or jingle, or picture play, such as a logo or trademark. An historical example of picture play is a three-panel Dubonnet poster designed by A. M. Cassandre in 1932, which even today is memorable for its playful wit. In his marriage of word and image, Cassandre's comic trade character the “Dubonnet Man” sits drinking the wine at a café table. In panel one, he is rendered mostly in outline, his partially painted arm outstretched with glass in hand; underneath, the word DUBONNET is rendered half in bold, the rest in outline, focusing the viewer's eye on DUBO. In the second panel, the character is drinking as his outlined body begins to fill with color and detail, and another letter, the N, is now bold, revealing DUBON. And in the last panel, a completely rendered character is pouring from a bottle to refill his glass, and the DUBONNET is completely bold. This brilliant visual “jingle” has multiple levels of meaning: in French, dubo means “something liquid,” dubon means “something good,” and Dubonnet is indeed a wonderful wine. The fast cadence of DUBO, DUBON, DUBONNET is appealing for its almost rhythmic syncopation, but there is something else going on here—in addition to the sophisticated verbal and graphic tricks, Cassandre used a more fundamental aspect of humor to achieve the final result, an activity called the “play principle.”

    Play is a kind of abandon, yet, as we know from small children, play is their work. In the initial stages of a project (and possibly throughout), the designer ostensibly becomes an adult child, allowing attachments to shift capriciously from one plaything to another. In design, however, playthings are type and image, which are really puzzle pieces to be more or less instinctively moved, juxtaposed, and even mangled and distorted until a serendipitous relationship between formal and contextual problems is achieved. Even the most rigidly systematic design solutions are born of play.

    Many otherwise very talented designers are unable to translate a good verbal sense of humor into visuals—some have the knack, others do not. The exemplars are those who invent new forms rather than conforming to tried and true formulae. They might take chances with subjects and themes that have traditionally defied humorous treatment, like annual reports, and they realize that the easy solution is not necessarily the best, and that effective humor is not always an easy solution. While certain formal characteristics are common to all humor in design, like exaggerated scale, odd juxtapositions, and ironic relationships, these same traits also apply to “straight” design. To be certain, a big head placed atop a little body does not ensure hilarity, and a piece of nostalgic clip art used in a work does not a priori make it funny. Humor in design is an art, not a set of unfunny rules.

    This article is adapted from a chapter in Steven Heller's Design Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit(2002).

    Thumbail image: Poster Boy and Aakash Nihalani subway collaboration (photo: Poster Boy NYC).

    About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com
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