Reviewed by Tim Rich
"A thing well said will be wit in all languages," said the 17th-century English poet John Dryden. Of course, he is completely wrong. Wit depends on a shared verbal or visual language. A Smile in the Mind, the ambitious attempt by Beryl McAlhone (a British design journalist) and David Stuart (a partner at a leading London design consultancy, The Partners) to define and exemplify witty thinking in graphic design, sticks for the most part to work created for English speakers. There are one or two exceptions, with some particularly enjoyable Swiss, Japanese, and German (yes, German) work, but for the most part this book keeps its focus on graphics from the established Western centers of design - the U.S. and U.K. - with a few Canadians and Australians thrown in for good measure. It's a wise move: Who wants to spend five minutes reading a footnote explaining why the placing of two Greek letters on top of each other creates a hilarious visual pun for plumbers in Athens?
Brevity is the soul of wit, according to the noted copywriter William Shakespeare, and this book keeps the fun coming. There are so many wonderful (and superbly reproduced) examples of sharp, deftly done pieces that the reader becomes greedy, devouring hit after hit. There are classics - Paul Rand's "Eye-Bee-M" poster and Wolff Olins's Boris hummingbird, for example - but there are hundreds of obscure or forgotten gems, too. One of the best is a simple invitation for a student degree show at Kingston Polytechnic; set in simple, elegant type, it reads, "I've seen a few bits of work lying around and it looks like it could be quite a good show this year," signed "Keith Wood, Cleaner."
However, it would be wrong to see this as a lighthearted picture book with a few extended captions. Indeed, it begins with a foreword by that great thinker about thinking, Edward de Bono, which leads into part one - a wordy explanation of what wit is, what it can do, why it is useful, and how designers use it. Examples of work are frugally placed on these pages, but the balance is right because the writing is clear and precise and the typography is considered and elegant. Mercifully, the text doesn't attempt to mirror its subject matter by attempting to be constantly funny.
In this first section, the authors grapple with the challenge of describing the moment wit strikes in the viewer's mind, incorporating a neatly interactive "experiment" to help illuminate their points. Then they roll up their sleeves and get on with defining the dangers facing designers who want to use wit. From over-coding to evaluating the processes of association, the component parts of visual wit are neatly dissected and explained. This is the moment of greatest danger for any book about wit, where explanation can lapse into psychobabble and technical pretension (and the reader decides to flip to the funny pictures up ahead). Stuart and McAlhone sail through, bringing in solid examples just as you are about to tire of analysis, then switching into the client view to add a commercial edge.
Part two examines different types of wit in detail. Each consecutive spread focuses on one technique and shows work that illustrates it: pairs, ambiguity, substitution, addition, modification, puns . . . it continues on. While this laying bare of the device can sometimes ruin a reader's enjoyment of a subject, in this case it serves to heighten it. What seemed a huge, sprawling, intangible subject begins to take shape as its constituent parts are explained.
Part three is called "Items That Use Wit," an odd title, in that graphic wit can be applied to just about every surface imaginable, but it serves to isolate and illuminate the practices behind witty invitations, direct mail, packaging, posters, and a host of other media. The text remains clear and the standard of work chosen high, although it almost falls at the last with the spread on technical literature. In The Red-land Roofing manual, tiles are drawn in section in black-and-white, with their roof position depicted in color. It's a neat combination of a diagram with an illustration, but it's not so much about wit as clarity. In this and one or two other examples the authors step over the thin division between good, clear design thinking and actual graphic wit. For the most part, however, they manage to keep the focus on the subject at hand. Part four examines businesses that use wit, and again this feels like an unnecessary simplification; but is also useful as an at-a-glance source of great witty work for specific client sectors, from health to the law.
Part five asks designers with a penchant for wit to explain "How I got the idea." The likes of Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Ivan Chermayeff, Alan Fletcher, and Seymour Chwast are given a spread each to reveal just how they get their witty concepts. This section is entertaining and balances the analysis covered earlier with warm personal insights. Again, the difficulty of separating purely witty design from good design arises. Paul Rand's opening paragraph illustrates that, for many designers, wit resides at the base of all their work: "I have two goals. The first is that everything I do as a designer must have an idea: it cannot just look nice. The second is, it has to look nice. Without visual beauty, even a good idea will not pass. Graphic design requires both ingredients, but the first priority is the idea - and my train of thought happens to be funny."
Of course, good designers know that the secret behind the successful use of wit is appropriateness. Fortunately, with an increasing number of businesses realizing that a well-judged lightness of touch conveys confidence and progressive thinking rather than flippancy, designers are finding even more opportunities to employ their natural humor. In fact, the basic processes of constructing humor neatly mirror the design process: Take an in-depth look at the subject, select the key elements, focus on these and present them in a way that engages the audience. Of course, with commercial design there is also the requirement of adding the spin. Or, to invoke another 17th-century poet, Alexander Pope: "True wit is nature to advantage dressed,/What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."
As A Smile in the Mind shows, using wit to dress clients to their advantage is one of the main activities of graphic designers. It's to the credit of the authors that the magnitude of their subject matter doesn't frighten them into oversimplification or tempt them into complication. The book that results is not only entertaining, it's also a valuable instruction manual for one of the most useful but difficult-to-judge aspects of contemporary graphics.
Tim Rich is editor of the British magazine Graphics International. and a contributing editor to PRINT.