Do designers have a sense of humour? Or are we a bunch of humourless aesthetes and hard-nosed pragmatists too professionally self-absorbed to notice anything beyond our world?
The recent appearance on YouTube of a quirky, animated clip called Original Design Gangsta by US designer/ illustrator Kyle T Webster has created a bit of a fuss in the design blogosphere, and it has caused US designers to examine the notion of humour in design – predictably, this is being done in a rather po-faced, stubble-stroking kind of way.
Webster’s clip is amusing. He depicts himself, incongruously and self-deprecatingly, as a rapper. But this geeky-looking white guy, a Moby look-a-like with black-rimmed glasses and a shaved head, is no more a hardcore South Central rapper than Ann Widdicombe is. Over cutesy, low-octane ‘Garageband’ beats, he raps, ‘PMS 187 runs deep in my veins/Mettalic 8643 in my gold chains/Got the Ram for the ladies in my G5 tower/when it comes to logos, homies call me Jack Bauer.’
Is it funny? Yes. Does it bear repeated playing? Not really. But in the US, numerous blogs have devoted space to analysing it.
A lengthy post about the clip, by Armin Vit, founder of hot design blog Speak Up, generated mounds of comments from US designers. Vit declared his dislike for the clip, but design writer Steven Heller called it ‘a pretty funny riff on rap’. Some detected racist overtones, while others found it wildly funny.
The most interesting thing about the ODG clip is Webster’s willingness to use humour not just to raise a dry ironic grin, but to get a belly laugh. There’s no question that designers know how to do ‘dry and ironic’, but what about other forms of humour? On the surface, there’s not much humour in design, either in the big, serious brand-based stuff, or in the more style-conscious fashionable stuff. For laughs and witty ideas within visual communication, we tend to look to advertising rather than graphic design.
Of course, there are designers who employ humour. The late Alan Fletcher’s work was full of wit. Stefan Sagmeister and Michael Johnston both use humour in their work; Sagmeister’s wit comes in a slightly darker hue than Johnson’s, but both are capable of producing work that makes us laugh. Humour in design even has its own bible: the book Smile in the Mind [by Edward de Bono, Beryl McAlthorne and David Stuart], a perennial bestseller, has become a sort of textbook for ‘ideas-based’ design. For many people, ideas design, with its use of witty puns and visual gags, is seen as graphic design at its best. But the problem with visual gags is that they delight the first time round, yet begin to pall after repeated viewings. Prolonged exposure to visual gags is a bit like being locked in a room with an inveterate joke-teller: fun for a while, but eventually you start to feel your face hurting.
My view is that designers are usually extremely witty people in private; some of the funniest people I know are designers. But you wouldn’t necessarily discover this from their work. Designers share an important characteristic with comedians: the best comedy is based on the subtle observation of the everyday; the sharpest comedians are the ones who are able to look at the mundane and unlock an inner truth about what they see. And when you think about it, that’s exactly what you have to do to be a sharp, relevant and effective graphic designer.