Smiles better

Design seems to have lost its ability to make us smile, still more its ability to make us laugh. Beverley Cohen was sent out to try to raise a giggle

SBHD: Design seems to have lost its ability to make us smile, still more its ability to make us laugh. Beverley Cohen was sent out to try to raise a giggle

Driving down the Holloway Road in North London the other day, I was jerked out of the blues by the shopfront of a bicycle shop.

Despite being designed 12 years ago by Ari Petrou, the current owner’s father, the name and logo continue to attract attention. Called Cycle Logical, the shop’s identity features a series of black figures. A fish-like creature turns alligator, stands up, grows a briefcase and a suit – then triumphantly takes off on wheels. The shop is one of four, and the device is based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. “It’s better than calling your place Bod’s Bikes or Penny Farthing – we wanted to put humour into the graphics – there’s not enough around,” says Yan Petrou, the owner.

This example causes David Stuart, a partner at The Partners, to splutter with joy. He’s designing a book called A Smile In The Mind by design writer Beryl McAlhone, and says this is “exactly what we’re getting at”. Stuart sees humour as “communication straight from designer to viewer – if they get the joke then a delicious collusion is created. It’s a bond, an in-joke.” John McConnell, a partner at Pentagram, feels that humour in British design is “about acknowledging that Britain is a family – jokes and snide references are used more in the UK than anywhere else. Mockery is part of our culture.”

McAlhone’s aim with the book is to capture whatever it is in graphic design that stops people in their tracks. “Designers want people to linger over whatever the message is. This can be simply achieved by gorgeous photography, but also with the marriage of ideas, the way they play off each other and trigger a smile,” she says. Humour, then, could be the key to top-quality graphics. The book will include interviews with Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Abram Games, and will be published by Phaidon next spring.

But is humour really a major factor in the everyday life of the mid-Nineties designer? Is everyone running scared, chasing each other’s tails to compete with John Major in a competition for Ultimate Greyness? Or – as Major’s one-time suitor Jean Kierans confirms about her John – are there hints of fish and chips, giggles and cuddles peeping out under the bleak Nineties uniform?

Conversations with members of the design industry prove that wit will erupt where it can. “We haven’t lost our sense of humour. That’s like saying designers don’t sneeze nowadays,” says David Stuart. “There’s certainly less of it around now compared to five or ten years ago, when graphics were so confident and exuberant. But humour is either with you or not. Great performers go on performing, whatever the market is like.” The Partners seems to practice what it preaches: it has set up the Nick Wurr Bursary of ú1000 for a Royal College of Art student who produces the wittiest piece of work at next year’s final degree show. Wurr, who died last year, believed humour had an important place in communication.

But WH Smith group design consultant Michael Wolff sees little to titter at. “Designers are too busy being busy, looking over their shoulders for approval. Corporate identity people are in the repeat business, and put out pretty conventional stuff with great skill but not much originality. Businesses keep saying they want to be different from the competition and end up being exactly the same.” Wolff believes that marketing is responsible for the situation. “Design concepts are being tested into oblivion, clients are trying to second-guess what customers want and aren’t daring to take a chance.”

A dreary picture of the Greyish Nineties. Mike Horseman, managing director at Horseman Cooke, can usually be relied upon for a laugh, but even he is negative initially: “There’s been a terrible seriousness and lack of charm coming out of design groups over the past few years,” he says. He blames this on post-Eighties caution. “Designers got prostituted. By the end of the Eighties it was just self-conscious typography. You used split-up type and people said `oh, how cool’, but no-one laughed and said `now that’s a bloody good idea’. Design should be about making people take notice.”

Horseman would like to see the return of lateral thinking, restarting the process of turning an idea on its head and making it humourous. He is echoed by Harry Pearce, creative director of Lippa Pearce, who expresses sadness that so much packaging is “style-led rather than ideas-led, lacking in clever twists”.

So is the increasing reliance on the superbly user-friendly Apple Mac responsible for a dearth of originality? “Part of the creative process is to crank out wit, and it’s hard to be sufficiently fluid on a Mac. Often there are no real ideas involved, just a few visual tricks,” says WPP Group UK design co-ordinator Sam Sampson, who fondly remembers the days when obscene doodles sparked witty design. John McConnell agrees: “Designers nowadays are all po-faced and serious. They think that’s what you’re supposed to be. It’s to do with this falling in love with Macs, people are relying on visual style instead of ideas, and I think this is how the industry is feeling about itself. There are more insecure people around, and you have to be self-confident to make jokes.”

David Stuart defends the Apple Macintosh – “a more humourous interface you can’t get” – but is against the idea of working straight on to computer. “Witty associations usually come from the imagination to the hand, not to the mouse,” he maintains.

Trickett & Webb director Brian Webb agrees: “Words on screen can be so seductive that you get wrapped up in manipulating them, you can get lost and forget there is such a thing as witty, communicative design.”

What of clients? Do they roll in the aisles at the suggestion of a mirthful logo? Absolutely not, according to Mike Horseman. “The problem is that clients think they can design better than you and they can’t. You design something funny and it goes completely over their heads,” he finds. There are exceptions to the rule – Horseman describes Makro as “the perfect client, they love slightly quirky ideas for anything from tuna-tin labels to mint mouthwash”. But he concedes this is unusual and blames the recession, labelling it “the biggest cancer that caused a downward trend of good ideas. I’ve heard clients say they don’t care what it looks like, they want the cheapest you can do.”

Television graphics man Martin Lambie-Nairn says his clients are “keen for us to be witty, but not hysterical – a wry, knowing smile is more lasting”. He often pushes his clients to go that extra bit. One example is his 1991 identity for BBC2, which features the number two getting up to all sorts of different stunts – in one clip it grows wheels like a little car, in another it becomes a fluffy dog which, according to Lambie-Nairn, is “just like those ones in Carnaby Street that go eek eek eek”. These downright silly ideas were extremely well received, which Lambie-Nairn sees as something of a victory. “It’s amazing when you think of the BBC with its reputation for being stuffy and worthy. The client didn’t automatically think it was a good idea, but took a risk.”

Lippa Pearce’s Wart Remover pack for Boots made judges smile at the 1992 Design Week Awards, taking top prize in the Own-Brand Packaging section. Harry Pearce considered a medical diagram for the pack, but the image of broom, cap and general witchery blasting off the affliction “captured the essence of the product, and the client was prepared to trust us”. John McConnell is Boots’ creative director for packaging and he commissioned the consultancy. “Boots is open to funny packaging for serious products, and the designers feel safe enough to add a bit of light-heartedness,” he says.

Niceday, Newell and Sorrell’s own-label stationery for WH Smith’s Office Supplies Division (and another Design Week Award winner), features cartoons by Charles Barsotti – a friendly little dog scampering over pens and notebooks. “WH Smith was receptive to the suggestion of removing the institutional feel, but that is unusual for a client,” says Michael Wolff.

Brian Webb’s vehicle graphics for screenprinter Augustus Martin is another all-too-rare example of an open-minded client. “The company is Europe’s largest screenprinter, so we thought it would be a good idea to make the name too large for the van – it has to tuck around the side and top. It’s a subtle joke.” Webb generally finds that clients are “always prepared to listen to a humourous suggestion, though they never ask for one”.

Quentin Newark, partner at Atelier, tries “not to give the client back what they gave to us. We think about it a little and pit our wits together.” A recent brochure for the National Film and Television School is a good example. “They offered us stills which were uninspiring, so we made little motifs for different films which you’d only understand if you know the film,” says Newark. “We communicated by humour.” Echoes of David Stuart’s in-joke theory for humour’s success?

Finally, Diana Ingleton, director of Design Motive, tries to use humour where appropriate, though “there isn’t always a call for it. We used it effectively on our Wine Guides, which can be perceived as stuffy.” She sees children’s food products as an arena where humour can work well, such as an aeroplane flying in the sky in a Design Motive label for Swirl chocolate spread, which emphasises the two-tone spread “in a light-hearted way”.

Despite the recession, client timidity, lack of self-confidence and Mac-addiction, the industry’s sense of humour will out. Consultancies themselves generate material to lighten up their lives. Two designers at Sampson Tyrrell once stayed up all night creating semi-ridiculous personalised wine labels for everyone in the company. These eventually emerged as a booklet so that other members of staff could fully enjoy the joke.

Horseman Cooke team members cheer themselves up by sending out the sort of direct mail which elicits a snort. Even the new-look Design Council, that bastion of respectability, has been using tongue-in-cheek calling cards designed by The Partners. “People kept trying to swap the straight ones for the one reading `widgets aren’t born, they’re designed’,” says Stuart.

So amusement is obviously a crucial factor in quality design. All designers interviewed see it as a serious business, a way of reinforcing the British sense of humour, a technique to attract attention to a product and leave a wry smile. The well-being of designers depends on expressing humour, and it is certainly a useful tool for clients to wield in the competition for graphic communication. The client who spontaneously suggests the use of wit is seemingly non-existent, but it is possible for the designer to proffer a quirky concept – nothing ventured, nothing gained – and have it accepted. For the clients who have been brave, the results are unanimous: wit works.

And surely designers have a duty to society to try to entertain, to pierce through this back-stabbing, redundancy-splattered decade with bright shafts of merriment or sarky visual quips? If we live in a society which plays so safe that our Prime Minister feels the need to keep his suit on under his Y-fronts, then a bit of tomfoolery is more than necessary.

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