Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Design Funny by Heather Bradley.
Why incorporate humor into your design?
Humor has some major advantages for your clients, but let’s be honest—graphic design may be good for society, but it’s hardly a high-stakes field with lives in the daily balance, like emergency medicine or parachute-packing. No one dies from botched kerning. Okay, some designs, like stop signs and the Mr. Yuck logo—do save lives, but the worst outcome most of our projects will ever face is unsold Slap Chops or ignored banner ads. So, why not encourage more clients to give humor a shot? The potential benefits far outweigh the potential downsides.
1. Funny is persuasive
JOKES TRIGGER A GUT REACTION
Humorous messages provoke emotions that influence consumers to take action. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings who carefully examine the pros and cons of our options before we make a decision. In reality, research shows we’re just emotional basket cases flailing around throwing our money at whatever makes us feel good that moment. Knowing this, designers can use humor to influence attitudes and change or reinforce a positive perception of a message on a subconscious level. Sometimes it’s just not worth making a carefully researched case for why Toothpaste A prevents 99 percent more cavities than Toothpaste B when a wacky bucktoothed beaver on the label will sell more.
LEARNING IS EASIER WHEN WE’RE EDU-TAINED
Have you ever noticed how a little playful teasing can get a grown man to try just about anything once? Humor is basically a gateway drug to skydiving or choosing the live squid entrée. It opens our minds by lowering our defenses, mentally preparing us for new ideas and helping us to positively deal with the unknown. According to a study by the University of London of Neurology, “Good jokes can activate the part of the brain that is important for learning and comprehending.” Not only are we more curious about the world, we’re simultaneously better able to deal with the uncertainty that often accompanies trying something new. Maybe that’s because we can simply laugh off anything that doesn’t make sense. In her 2008 book Using Humor to Maximize Learning, Mary Kay Morrison explains, “The surprise elements of humor alert the attentional center of the brain,” and “Humor has the potential to hook the students that are easily bored and inattentive.”
Studies also show that it’s easier to process emotionally charged information such as funny situations because it arouses our brain and helps us empathize with the subject. What would make you more likely to buy new winter boots—a graph indicating that better treads prevent more accidents or someone comically falling on their butt in an ad?
WE CRAVE EUREKA MOMENTS
Getting a joke gives us a massive dose of positive reinforcement. Clients should know that consumers love to feel in on a joke. In the book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind researchers say, “There is an undeniable similarity between the joy of humor and the joy of problem solving. When we ‘get’ a joke we feel a sense of discovery rather like the sense of triumph when we solve a problem.” Psychologists such as Barbara Fredrickson and Thomas Joiner believe that positive emotions “broaden people’s thought-action repertoires, encouraging them to discover novel lines of thought or action. Joy, for instance, creates the urge to play, interest creates the urge to explore, and so on.”
LAUGHTER IS SOMA FOR THE MASSES
When we laugh, pleasurable chemicals called endorphins wash over us and relax our muscles, relieving stress. It feels awesome—so good it can distract us from what ails us. In fact, researchers at Oxford University studying the effects of laughter found that more laughter correlates with less perceived pain. Less pain means an audience more receptive to your message.
2. Funny is social
“HA-HA” IS BASICALLY A HIGH-FIVE
Laughter is a form of social communication. This is probably why comedy watching is often enjoyed as a group activity. Research shows that laughing with other people releases oxytocin, a hormone that is associated with a sense of belonging, trust and connectedness. In his book, Humor Works, John Morreall explains, “Because humor helps people develop rapport with each other, it serves as a social lubricant. Companies which promote humor have a higher morale, more loyalty to the company, and closer bonds among employees.” Neuroscientist Robert Provine in a 2000 article in Psychology Today claims that “laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctual behavior programmed by our genes. Laughter bonds us through humor and play.”
SOME OF OUR BEST FRIENDS ARE BRANDS
Humor not only strengthens interpersonal relationships, but brand relationships as well. Through humor, an inanimate product or service can develop a social relationship with its audience. We identify with brands that share our sense of humor. According to a study mentioned in Trevor van Gorp and Edie Adam’s book Design for Emotion, we unconsciously interpret corporations and their brands/products as having unique individual personalities capable of expressing emotion. Have you ever nicknamed a car, laptop or bike? Chances are you have. According to the book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, studies show that we often give names to the things that we enjoy, but not the ones we don’t. I get it. Once a car rental company gave me a candy red compact so teeny tiny adorable I named it “Spunky Gum Bubble.”
INSIDE JOKES BRING US TOGETHER
Sharing a sense of humor with others makes us feel more connected to them. In particular, inside jokes—comic references only shared between members of a specific group—strengthen those communities and convey social rules and acceptable practices. I remember an inside joke my friends and I used to have. One summer we decided to start our own holiday. For almost two months, Thanksgibbing came every Sunday afternoon and was held on the same Brooklyn apartment porch. We celebrated with agreed upon traditions—white undershirts, bad movies, great pizza and several beers before 5 p.m. Though it was just a big inside joke, it really did feel like we shared a special holiday…
DON’T I KNOW YOU FROM SOMEWHERE?
Playfulness helps a message appear distinctive and become more recognizable. Brands that display a consistent sense of humor often bring with them a clearer point of view and a stronger brand voice—enabling them to stand out from the crowd. Audiences appreciate companies that have made an effort to entertain them and are often more forgiving towards them. This means that a brand with a good personality and a good sense of humor can reduce negative associations and be more likable. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, humor achieves this effect due to its “distractive properties, and engenders positive brand associations because of its positive emotional outcomes.”
3. Funny is hardwired
I don’t think there are any episodes of Intervention that deal with laughter addiction, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. When you really think about it, having a sense of humor is a lot like having a chemical dependency. When we see something funny our bodies respond involuntarily—we’re flooded with pleasure hormones known as endorphins; our brains experience an increase in neurotransmitters; blood fl ow is increased to our heart; and levels of stress-related hormones—cortisol, epinephrine and dopamine —drop. What’s more we crave this experience. Experiments have scientifi cally verifi ed that we have a powerful reward system built in for pleasure. In the 1950s, brain researchers investigated what happens when you zap parts of a rat’s brain with electricity.
It sounds cruel until you find out that the rats loved it. So much so that when the researchers rigged up a self-controlled button that allowed the little guys to zap their pleasure center—aka the nucleus accumbens—as many times as they wanted, they pressed that button as many as 700 times an hour! Here comes the sad part though. If left to their own devices, rats and presumably we humans will keep pressing that button, foregoing eating and sleeping until we drop from exhaustion. Sort of reminds you of spring break, doesn’t it?
IT’S IN OUR PROGRAMMING
Seeing something funny is a like a blip in our cognitive system; we take notice because it challenges our sense of how the world is supposed to work. A humorous design triggers our natural proclivity to analyze patterns. We seek order in chaos, looking for consistency or familiarity. To process all the information from our senses, we establish heuristics, or mental shortcuts, for how we expect to perceive the world. When something challenges those heuristics, such as a surprising punchline, we can’t help but find it intriguing.
Remember your preschool “How to Laugh” class? Of course you don’t. Nobody taught you to laugh. Our ability to be amused comes from nature, though nurture certainly plays a large role in shaping what we find funny. Neuroscientist Robert Provine studied when and why we laugh, and his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation supports the theory that laughter is not only instinctual, but serves as an primal form of communication. Laughter appears in babies ontogentically—a purely biological result of our genes—and people around the world will begin laughing as early as four months old regardless of their cultural upbringing.
That’s not to say that social conditioning doesn’t influence why and when we laugh. For one thing, people are thirty times more likely to laugh in public than in private—which might explain why stand-up comedians don’t often perform one-on-one.
YOU CAN’T FAKE IT
A sense of humor is a mechanism that often forces us to reveal our true values, not only to others, but even to ourselves. In the book Inside Jokes, Daniel Dennett and his colleagues explain why this quality is actually quite valuable:
Since humor is hard to fake, both in the creating and in [the suppression of] appreciation, it is particularly valuable as a litmus test not only for intelligence but for enduring personality traits, hidden loyalties, and socially crucial attitudes and beliefs.
It’s difficult to laugh on command or to fake a natural smile. Laughing out loud at something inappropriate is sometimes an embarrassing unconscious behavior, like absentmindedly picking your nose in public.
“So, here’s the thing, I know a lot of you reading this book are probably already pretty damn funny. But if a client or colleague asks why they should follow your lead and go for the creative solution that uses humor, are you able to justify your decision and convince them of your strategy?” —Heather Bradley