Notes on Design and Comedy

What follows is the beginning of a longer work on the uses of comedy in design. Readers, if you’re out there, please feel free to send me examples.

Handrail, Dubrovnik. Author’s photograph.
This overtly literal handrail wittily calls attention to an everyday object we normally take for granted.  The hand that secures the railing to the wall apes the security it affords our own hands. This pun made of stone not only gently spoofs that dependency, it also makes a sly joke about architecture itself. A hand reaching out from wall is an uncanny reminder of architecture’s primary obligation. Namely, to protect us.

Explaining a joke is a sure way to kill it.  Sharing a joke is another matter.  Told well, it comes to life. Told by design, it becomes incarnate. When punch lines are performed instead of being spoken or written, a jibe at table manners can be cast in clay, a jaundiced view of doctrine forged in metal, a poke at social mores projected from a fountain, and a witty reminder of human frailty set in stone. Mistakenly underrated, as comedy always is, the work of design’s tricksters runs the gamut from calculated schadenfreude to critical antidotes to pieties to pleasure-giving surprises. 

Perhaps the reason that no one talks about it very much is because humor is a violation of design itself, if you believe that design should be unobtrusive.1 Design that operates by its wit is deliberately, if not immediately, conspicuous. It can work as a sudden shock or a slow burn that tells the brain and body that something’s amiss. Either way, design that is comically unpredictable is an affront to rationalist sensibilities, especially those that hold to the position that the design ought to recede in the process of being used. Some would go further and claim that objects and places are incidental, even extraneous, to the purposes they serve.  But that idea is fundamentally flawed. It doesn’t matter if the design intent is sober or subversive, every act of design must have a catalytic agent—an object, a plan, a building—and it must have an effect. Though one might value an outcome (like sociability) more than the object (a park bench) that stimulates it, the designed thing and its consequences are inextricably bound. 

Design that operates on humor almost always raises the question: what made me laugh, smile, jump, or howl? That’s because, unlike much of design, its effects are unexpected and the source of it all isn’t obvious. Where comedy is sly, design is supposed to be transparent. We want to be able to count on it to do its job, and when it deliberately doesn’t, we need to have a sense of humor.  The object’s ‘function’ then is to help us develop one, and in the process, a healthy brake on our efforts at control. 

The notion that design might be funny has also been eclipsed by its dedication to pursuits that are increasingly serious. I don’t mean serious business, though that has happened too. I mean serious as in responsible. In recent years, the scope of design practice has widened to take up the twin challenges of extracting design from systems of inequality and deploying design to frame alternative responses. However, within the virtuous ‘responsible’ is the broader idea of responding. Humor qualifies, and not just as a way to sweeten the pill of critique but also as a way of checking design hubris.

What is often overlooked is that humor operates in ways that are parallel to design itself.  In On Humor, philosopher Simon Critchley describes humor as a combination of therapy and critique that bring human beings back from what they have become to what they might be.2 His view echoes Herbert Simon’s oft-quoted maxim that design is a matter of “changing existing situations into preferred ones.”3 The validity of both claims—that humor shows us what we are and what we might be, and that design proposes how we might be otherwise, is contingent on what is “preferred.” The immediate humor of a classic gag like a pie in the face comes from the body’s surprise at the sweet assault—not quite a “preferred situation” for most people. It is the ego-deflating effect that qualifies it as ‘preferable.’ Humor levels as it critiques, bringing us ‘back from what we have become to what we might be.’ In other words, less full of ourselves. 

Problems arise, however, when that whipped cream is soured by intentional humiliation. Divisive humor is only funny to the joker who delights in belittling his target. With the rise of egalitarianism, or at least professed egalitarianism, things like vinegar Valentines, popular in the 19th century, are now considered more offensive than funny. They may appear amusing at a distance of over a century, but only in the sense that all caricatures do. The exaggeration of a personality trait is one thing if you encounter it in an archive; it was another for the recipients of this kind of pictorial abuse. (They were, indeed, sent.) Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for righteous satire, only that this kind of exercise of power is best done by the Davids of the world and not the Goliaths.4

19th-century “Vinegar Valentines”

Whether subtle or bald-faced, satire, pranks, and quips interrupt our complacency and disrupt our tacit acquiescence to the way things are. ‘Things,’ for my purposes here, include tangible and intangible, formal and informal instances of design, e.g., rituals, places, objects, and images. Physical comedy, where the relationships between bodies and things contradict our expectations, sets the stage for insurrection, even if that insurrection is only a smile that breaks the heedless momentum of our days and a brief release from our usual inhibitions.5

  1. There is always a place for an economy of means in design. A stop sign, for example, must be succinctly serious. That said, in realms less urgent than health and safety, the modernist belief that ‘less is more, which may account for the fact that very little design has a sense of humor about itself.
  2. Simon Critchley. On Humour. (London/New York: Routledge, 2002), 15.
  3. Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.
  4. Given the surfeit of attention to witty graphic posters, political cartoons, and mocking illustrations, few will be considered here.
  5. Ibid., 108.

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