You might have seen this Corona billboard this week. It drew a crowd in Manhattan and is a good example of visual wit. (If you can’t see it, the lime is made from the real moon, aligned with the position of the billboard.) I’m working on a brand right now who want to be seen as ‘witty’. As someone who has been trying to produce witty work off and on across a career, I subscribe to the adage; ‘don’t tell me you’re funny, tell me a joke.’ However, I thought it might be worth figuring out what the mechanics of wit are. For me, the standard text is A Smile in the Mind. It’s a great book and here I break down what its brilliant introduction tells us. I found it really useful, perhaps you will too…
The piece begins with a couple of great Dorothy Parker lines: ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie’ and ‘One more drink and I’d have been under the host’. What Parker is doing here is taking a familiar phrase and playing with it to offer a surprising new slant. That’s wit. And essentially it is the same methodology that creates visual puns. They take something we know, give it a playful twist and let us see something familiar through fresh eyes. It’s that simple (like all the best design principles).
Having absorbed this ‘nuts and bolts of wit’ definition yesterday, I then saw the above – one of a new set of posters going up on Buenos Aires street corners from the Argentine Prostitutes’ Association. They highlight the reality that 87% of the countries sex workers are single mothers. The aim is to raise awareness of marginalised people and work towards getting them better rights and conditions. They get their message across with wit – we are familiar with the cliché of women on street corners and here it is being playfully subverted. Just as we are familiar with the concept of a slice of lime in a Corona, which again has been playfully subverted. It’s a great rule of thumb, but of course it has some intricate mechanisms: it’s about finding the right balance of the familiar and the unexpected – the relationship between recognition and surprise. It’s about not telegraphing the answer, but leaving something to be discovered. This can sometimes be a challenge with clients who want it ‘all spelt out’ with no risk of ambiguity.
Whimsy aside, what are the commercial benefits of using visual wit? Well, in a busy world it can make us pause for a moment, intriguing us as we figure out the gag. Time we typically don’t give messaging. It invites participation, beginning a dialogue the audience completes. Which can make the otherwise forgettable memorable. It gives pleasure in the decoding and can make the otherwise functional into something charming. All hard nosed reasons why sometimes design playfulness can be very good for business. That’s why a bunch of people gathered around the Corona poster and it’s gone viral. That’s why I won’t forget the statistic about single mothers working a harsh job in Argentina.