‘This thesis is not a joke’ thesis by Ester Mejibovski  
BA (Hons) Graphic and Media Design
London College of Communication
Year of Graduation: 2020 Route A

How did humour find its way into graphic design and what is its significance in visual communication?


04 Abstract 04 Design Rationale 05 Introduction 06 Chapter One: Humour in philosophy 11 Chapter Two: History of humour in art 23 Chapter Three: Humour in graphic design 33 Conclusion 35 Bibliography 40 Image List


The content of this thesis explores the subject of humour starting with its philosophical interpretation and the three humour theories: The Superiority Theory, The Relief Theory and The Incongruity Theory. The comparison of the theories determines that the Incongruity Theory can be applied best to the visual context. Secondly, the research focuses on the evolution of humour in the context of art history and its expression through the visual pun. Consequently, the visual pun becomes a communication tool in graphic design. The third chapter of the thesis investigates the use of humour and the visual pun in connection to political commentary and its use in contemporary graphic design.

'Humor does more than tweak the funny bone and tickle the intellect; with it, we are liberated from the restraints of convention and the weariness and pain of reality. Humour has the power to restore and sustain psychological and physical health.' Nicholas Roukes, 1997, p.5


Visual communication dates back to the discovery of the first European cave paintings in the Cave of Altamira around 36,000 years ago. Since then, the history of visual communication has evolved drastically, and through it, graphic design was born. It became a visual tool for communicating a message to an audience, often intending to spread information, whether that is for promotional, educational or branded purposes. As our everyday world becomes more and more saturated with imagery, capturing people’s attention becomes more difficult. However, amid all the visual noise, we long for something of intellectual value. I was concerned with what makes graphic design 'good', besides the apparent markers such as layout and type. I encounter a significant amount of shallow graphic design every day. What justifies it being there? Graphic design is often a service for the consumer culture of today, and so its original purpose becomes of secondary importance. However, this thesis is not about critiquing today’s design culture; on the contrary, it is about investigating what makes a lot of graphic design work great: humour. As John Berger says in Ways of Seeing: 'One may remember or forget these messages, but briefly one takes them in, and for a moment, they stimulate the imagination by way of either memory or expectation.' (1972) I have felt great joy seeing work that uses wit to convey a message, work that is memorable and exciting, work that makes one think and maybe even question authority. Humour makes life more enjoyable, so why should it not be a central tool for graphic design? Besides, being entertaining humour creates a space in visual communication for social criticism, such as satire, which in today’s political climate is more important than ever. The driving mechanism of this thesis is to investigate and understand humour. Firstly I will examine how it has been defined in philosophy. I will start with the philosophical definition because it helps us understand the human experience at its core. Consequently, it is essential to discuss what it is that makes us laugh. Although a crucial element of humour is the element of surprise which cannot
always be precisely identified. It is fundamental to understand the foundation of a subject to be able to investigate the possibility and practicality of its use. While conducting my research, I came to realize that even though humour has become a valuable aspect of graphic design, there hasn’t been much academic writing on the topic. Besides design writer Steven Heller and Eli Kince, there is not much academic writing specifically on humour in graphic design. However, wit, humour and laughter are part of our interpersonal communication and influence how we communicate with each other. Humour can make a new personal introduction feel less intimidating, and its reaction can be expressed through laughter which '...bridges the realms of the mental and the physical' as observed by Max Beerbohm in his 1920 essay Laughter. It makes people feel more connected through the experience of mutual amusement. In the first chapter, I will look into the context of humour in philosophy. How have philosophers, such as Henri Bergson previously defined it and what role did they assign it in society? Furthermore, in Chapter 2, I will discuss the history of humour in visual communication in the form of the visual pun while investigating the importance of satire and parody which are crucial for social or political criticism. Lastly, I will argue the point for humour in today’s graphic design investigating some contemporary work. Finally, I will briefly look into humour in graphic design used in the context of politics and satire.

Chapter 1: Humour in philosophy

1.0 What is humour?

The word 'humour' as we know it today has been established only since the 16th century. Previously it came from the Latin word 'humor' which translated to fluids. (Morreal, 2016) There are many similar definitions of humour. For instance, Mark Twain said 'The secret source of humour is not joy, but sorrow.' (quoted by Heller ,1991, p.5) Another definition by Kenneth Bird, a journalist, is that 'Humor is falling downstairs if you do it while in the act of warning your wife not to.' So in essence, humour is a composition of action and reaction that excites laughter or altogether amusement. A frequent component of humour is the element of surprise and the unexpected (Heller S. and Anderson G. 1991). How has humour been defined in the past, specifically in philosophy? What is its role of humour and consequently laughter in interhuman communication and how has it been approached previously? There have been predominantly three popular theories on humour in the philosophical interpretation. They are not entirely conflicting and can 

be applied all together: The Superiority Theory, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory. In this chapter, I will also look at the physical reaction: laughter.

1.1 Physical expression of humour: The importance of laughter

Humour provokes laughter which helps us feel good and relieves stress. The artist and a humourist Max Beerbohm, who was making caricatures in the 1890s, explains: 'Laughter is but a joyous surrender, smiles give token of mature criticism.' (2015) The fact that he mentions the idea of criticism linked to laughing conforms to the concepts of the Superiority theory, which will be investigated further in the next section of this chapter. Not every humorous event has to be laughed at, but it can be an accompanying side effect. Arthur Koestler analyses the physical expression stating that it '...is produced by the coordinated contraction of fifteen facial muscles in a stereotyped pattern and accompanied by altered breathing.' (1964, p.29). Furthermore, he goes into placing laughter into the category of '(...) a reflex, but unique in that it serves no apparent biological purpose, one might call it a luxury reflex.' (1964, p.28) which is an interesting observation. Laughter being a luxury reflex can also be interpreted as humour in itself being a luxury as it is not necessary for human survival. Consequently, both do not serve any higher purpose for survival but rather the one of entertainment and one might say social criticism. Koestler goes on to say that 'It's only utilitarian function, as far as one can see, is to provide temporary relief from utilitarian pressures'' (Koestler, 1964, p.31) which is essential for later section of this dissertation relating to social commentary. Humour is a way to divert from the serious and often ridicule the societal or political circumstances.

1.2 Humour in the historical context

John Morreal, has investigated humour in his article 'Philosophy of Humour' published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in 2012 and revised in 2016. His research shows that historically humour has had a somewhat bad reputation. Great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Kant, have according to Morreal, commented on the issue of humour or laughter no more than a few paragraphs and what they have said was not particularly of positive nature. Furthermore what was said, was instead focused on derisive mocking laughter, or on laughter that is overpowering, rather than on comedy, wit, or joking. (2016) According to Eli Kince, Aristotle briefly mentioned in Chapter 23 of Book II puns, calling them 'paragrams' meaning a play of words in Chapter 23 of Book II (Kince, 1982). However, Aristotle did not explore the subject any further. Equally, Plato has not mentioned the topic besides speaking of the concept with caution, and slight fear regarding laughter: 'Nor should our citizens be given to excess 
of laughter—'Such violent delights' are followed by a violent re-action.' (Morreall, 2016) This seems like a warning of a loss of control that can occur from an excess of laughing and a loss of one’s authority. In addition to that Plato says: 'Then persons of worth, even if only mortal men, must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less must such a representation of the gods be allowed.' (Morreall, 2016) The first philosopher to write specifically about humour as we understand it today was Henri Bergson’s who wrote Laughter in 1900. Bergson was born in 1859 and was one of the most influential French philosophers of the late 19th and 20th century. His essay 'On the meaning of the comic' is a general analysis of the comedic act and its direct relation society. He discusses the subject of humour and the outside circumstances that are required for a joke to work. Bergson’s discusses the relation of humour in human life because 'the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN' (Bergson, 2003, p.11). He goes further and explains that comedy mostly exists in the realm of a closed group whose members have to be holding similar norms and values that unite them in the understanding of the comedic subject matter. Furthermore, Bergson says 'Laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers.' (Bergson, 2003, p.10) which means that laughter and subsequently humour can not only unite but also alienate the subject that is being ridiculed. That is an interesting point to consider, humour is not universal in its raw form. It only fulfils its purpose when it exists in a particular set of context that conforms with its surrounding values and culture. 'Many comic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group!' (Bergson, 2003, p.14). Besides that, another essential part is a common language and 'many comedic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group!' (Bergson, 2003, p. 14). So it's established that humour is a social activity tight to the values of its surrounding society.

1.3 The Superiority Theory

The essence of the Superiority Theory is that when we laugh at someone or something, we feel a sense of superiority towards the person that we are laughing about. John Morreall defined it merely by saying that 'laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves' (2016).

So when we laugh at someone slipping on a banana, we define them as clumsy and in that way more clumsy than ourselves (who did not make the same mistake). Clearly, we are superior. That clumsiness of the person slipping on the banana amuses us and makes us laugh. The theory puts the 'feelings of superiority at the centre of humour and comic amusement'. (Lintott, S., 2016) Plato (428-348 B.C) assumes that we laugh at people who in our definition are less worthy than ourselves, which makes our behaviour and the activity of laughter immoral and brutal. Therefore laughter is an emotion that provokes us to lose rational control. Aristotel (348-322 B.C) suggests that laughing at someone’s flaws supposes that we are not affected by equal faults. (1982) Hobbes was the first philosopher to define the Superiority theory by stating: 'Sudden glory, is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favor by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds, one of the proper works is, to help and free others from scorn; and compare themselves only with the most able.' (1996, p.38) This was the main comment Hobbes made on laughter in his work Leviathan which was written in 1651 and later on in the 20th century was to be the defining factor of the Superiority Theory. Hobbes’ short definition has concretely negative connotations saying that laughing at others is a sign of a lack of courage or determination and is not something a dignified person should be engaging in. If laughing about others makes the subject less worthy than oneself, laughing is a rather crude activity that does not reflect well on oneself. So the person in question that finds something or preferably someone amusing feels superior to the object mentioned previously. However, the superiority theory cannot always be applied to all humourous scenarios. People might find something funny that in their mind is not necessarily any less than oneself. Not always is laughter associated with superiority and inferiority and can be explained with the incongruity theory.

1.4 The Relief Theory

The Relief Theory came to be in the 18th century, starting with Lord Shaftesbury’s piece of work An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor written in 1709. Shaftesbury uses the term 'humour' for the first time in the same way that we understand it today. Shaftesbury defines it vaguely as the spirits that are being constrained in the body and will find their way out through physical expressions. (Morreall, 2016)

Previously, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), tried to make philosophy more responsive to scientific discoveries and facts was influenced by the 'hydraulic' theory that claims that nervous energy that builds up in our bodies needs to be physically released through our muscles and laughter can provide such release. The nervous system became part of the discussion regarding laughing as it was explored further, and scientific progress was made in the scientific field. (Morreall, 1987, p.99) In his work The Physiology of Laughter (from Essays on Education, Etc. (London: Dent, 1911) which is published in The Philosophy of humour and laughter Herbert Spencer suggests different examples of muscular movements which happen independently of the will, such as the patellar tap, the 'knee tap', which makes the lower leg perform a kicking action – a reflex action similar to sneezing. These reflexes are involuntary physical responses, according to Spencer, who continues by stating that build up emotions find their release in laughter. Laughter does not have a tangible purpose on its own besides the release of energy. Moreover, this is a fact for other emotional expressions such as crying, for example. Furthermore, Spencer argues against the Superiority Theory saying that even if it can be applied in some situations, there are various other possibilities of the humiliation of others that we do not find amusing. So the theory can only be used in specific circumstances when someone’s dignity is actually in question. (Morreall, 1987) Siegmund Freud (1856-1939) was the one to explicitly define the idea of the Relief Theory in his work Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious which was first published in 1905 saying that we build up energy for a psychological task but once it becomes superfluous energy is released through laughter. The psychic energy that was created for a particular execution but was not used after all is discharged through muscular movements (Morreall, 2016). He goes further and refers to joking repressing forbidden feelings which find their release in laughter.

1.5 The Incongruity Theory

The final theory on the idea of humour also questioning the relevance of the Superiority theory in the 18th century is the incongruity theory which is also the most accepted one today. (Morreall, 2016) It is based on the idea that something appears to be comedic when something does not fit into the context of the subject matter. Something that doesn’t make sense that is not what we expected, until we make the connection and that exact moment of our brain understanding what the joke is, is what makes us laugh. (Roukes, 1997) Taking a joke, for example: 'At first, the joke perplexes with incongruity and demands an 

intellectual effort to decode the presented anomaly. When the brain finally 'gets' the joke, that is, by perceiving an analogy of recognizing the absurdity, it resolves the discrepancy between the incongruent elements – and, at last, closes with laughter.' (Roukes, 1997, p. 4) Herbert Spencer defined it by saying that '... laughter results from a perception of incongruity.' (1911) meaning that something that is unsuitable or unexpected in its presented context can have a comedic effect. Many philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer have also supported this theory. In Critique of Judgement, (translated by J.H. Bernand (London: Macmillan), Part 1, Div. 1, 54) Kant explains that when a joke is being told we have an expectation of its storyline and when it ends unexpectedly we are amused by the unforeseen. 'In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for the moment.' (1892) Kant says that let down of our expectations is not 'enjoyable by reason, for our desire to understand is frustrated' (1987, Morreall). However, the unexpected result animates us and is expressed through the physical reaction of laughter. In conclusion, in this chapter, I have established that historically humour has had negative connotations, hence why it was not mentioned exceptionally before the 18th century. That could explain why design writing has also slightly neglected the importance of humour in visual communication. Humour has historically not been taken seriously which might have defused its significance. The three theories of humour can coincide and are certainly not wholly conflicting. The incongruity theory is the most accepted one today and in the context of visual communication is the most relevant one for the purpose of this thesis. Visual inconsistency has always provoked discussion and has been used for social or political commentary. Communicating something unexpected to our general conceptions is what can provoke laughter and makes us think. That can be a great asset as long as the use of humour makes sense for the particular information being communicated.

Chapter 2: History of humour in art

In this chapter, I want to investigate how humour was used in the western art world and visual communication and how social-economical events influenced their development of the visual pun. Furthermore, I will explore the use of satire and parody, which are frequently used to express humourous concepts and both need to be addressed when discussing humour. I will examine both aspects in the followin 
section. Furthermore, I will explore how humour is expressed through the medium of the visual pun.

2.1 Satire & Parody

Satire and parody are two valuable tools for the execution of humour. If used in a clever way, both have the potential to critique and reveal social or political issues. Before diving into their use in visual communication, it is essential to establish a definition of the terms. The American playwright, writer and theatre historian, Jeffrey Sweet, states in his article Parody that 'satire' and 'parody' as such are not synonyms. He defines satire as 'the comedy of attack, using humour as a weapon against that which offends the author's moral sensibilities.' (2002) Additionally satire can only operate within a moral framework which differentiates between 'right' and 'wrong'. Parody is a category of satire and mimics the subject matter in question to ridicule it. (2002) Furthermore, he specifies that: 'Satire is a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit. As such, there is some similarity between satire and parody. Parody is more concerned with creating parallel structures (to the original work) and places more emphasis on mimicking the style of the original.' (Sweet, 2002) The overarching aim of satire is to critique and 'lay bare the shortcomings, stupidities and sins of society and to skewer wrongdoers.' (Roukes 1997, p.141) R.E. Allen states, 'The arts, after all, exist not to explain, but to question; to unearth not the answers, but the possibilities, to remind us of what we can be.' (quoted by Roukes 1997, p.141) All things considered, satire and parody are both humorous ways not just for criticism but for social commentary. Consequently, graphic design is as well in a position to question and with that possibility, a designer is obliged to use learned skills to comment on current affairs with the option of using satire or parody.

2.1 How is parody applied in art?

According to Heller and Anderson, art is a process of making icons which capture the time and space into a permanent form which is then the basis for the icon’s definition. So if art is the creation of icons, then parody in art is the imitation of a serious subject in a nonsensical or ridiculous way. (1991) Widely known artworks such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Magritte’s Ce n’est pas un Pipe, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic have become cultural icons through constant referencing and society’s acceptance of the artworks being iconic. Because of their cultural popularity, these artworks have become the subject of visual parodies in editorial, advertising and  
graphic design. (1991) An essential condition for parody as much as for satire is that the subject matter has to be widely known; otherwise, the reference does not work and the audience can not relate.

2.3 The history of the visual pun

A Visual pun is not really different from verbal puns which according to the dictionary of Daniel Webster, Dartmouth College, A.B. 1801, is 'The humorous use of a word, or of words which are formed or sounded alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a play on words' (quoted by Kince, 1953) Essentially a pun is a form of humour. That could be wordplay, comic ambiguity or double meaning. (Roukes 1997, p.138) Not all design humour is expressed in the form of the visual pun. However, according to Heller, the majority is. He defines the visual pun as a single message that consists of two or more simultaneous meanings forcing the viewer to discern the idea on more than one conceptual level. A pun cannot exist without an idea. (Heller, Anderson, 1991) The combination of cleverness and surprise is what makes one smile and appreciate the message. However, puns can also be serious, satirical or ironic. (Kince, 1982) Kince, suggests two definitions of the verbal and visual pun, proposing that the only difference is substituting a symbol for word. '(1) The use of a symbol in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different association or (2) the use of two or more symbols of the same or nearly the same appearance or sound with different meanings.' (1982, p.11)

2.4 How did the pun find its way into art?

This section will look at the development of the visual pun. Artefacts showing the first uses of parody were found dating back to Sumerians (c. 2000 BC) and the Egyptians (c. 1360 BC). (Roukes, 1997) More artifacts such as pottery and ornamental works were discovered from Ancient Greece picturing parodies of the human society through humourous drawings. (Roukes, 1997) The Greek vases reveal puns 'based on mythical or allegorical subjects' ' (Kince, 1982, p.13) Being imaginative and inventive is what allowed the Greeks to express themselves through puns in their analytical treatises. Following that era, Christianity became the primary subject of visual communication which sidelined the visual pun prioritizing religious subject matter. (Kince, 1982, p.13) However, the Renaissance, revived the visual pun, encouraging the exploration of languages, literature, history and philosophy without the religious framework. (Kince, 1982, p.15)

 Artists were starting to experiment with a painting depicting various subjects outside of the previously accepted norm. However, Ernst Gombrich argues that Renaissance artists did not purposefully create visual puns but were instead experimenting with their way of seeing and subsequently depicted satirical scenarios that can fall under the category of a visual pun (1985). An interesting example from the 15th century is Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) who painted dark and satirical paintings depicting grotesque and demonic figures such as The Garden of Earthly Delights (Figure 1) representing hell and its tortures. (Kince, 1982). The image is surreal in its purest form showing unrelated subjects that combined create a new meaning and association, which is a visual pun by its definition.
Fig. 1 Hieronymus Bosch, 1503–1515, The Garden of Earthly Delights

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century brought many changes, including the emergence of graphic art. (Kince, 1982, p.15) The printing press democratized the market and made reproduction more accessible, and in doing so, it allowed for the visual pun to flourish in the art form of satire. (Roukes, 1997) According to Roger Malbert it was the era of mass production that allowed pictorial social commentary to become rather widespread. (quoted by Roukes, 1997) This century allowed 'the anarchic spirit of humour and satire enter the mainstream of high art.' (Roukes, 1997, p.28) Fundamentally 'The printed image gave birth to graphic design.' (Kince, 1982, p.15) Heller and Anderson argue that particularly the 1830s and specifically the invention of commercial printing techniques such as lithography made a difference. Printed materials could be circulated to a broader audience, and the cost of production decreased. As the process became more and more accessible and its use more widespread. As time progressed and newspapers gradually started to feature political and social commentary and finally, the political cartoon. (Roukes, 1997) 'Graphic communications became more important and widely accessible during this period of incessant. As with other commodities, technology lowered unit costs and increased the production of printed materials. In turn, the greater availability created an insatiable demand, and the era of mass communications dawned.' (Meggs, p.151) Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) was a pioneer of the visual pun in the art world. He was one of the first artists in the Renaissance to completely divert his subject of interest from the real world. (Kince,1953) He painted grotesque figures consisting of fruits, vegetables and miscellaneous objects. Depicting human figures without using realistic features. Interestingly it was Arcimboldo who served as inspiration for the Surrealist movement in the early 1900s. (Roukes, 1997) Kince makes the comparison to Shakespeare, saying that 'Arcimboldo brought to visual communication what Shakespeare brought to literature – timeless puns.' (1982, p.16) The painting Four Seasons in One Hand (Figure 2) shows a grotesque figure made out of a tree, flowers, fruits and harvest.

Fig. 2 Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1590, National Gallery of Art, USA

The 20th century brought the Industrial Revolution, which led to overarching social and economic changes forcing artists to reevaluate their work while adapting to the constant development of technology. (Kince, 1982) Expressionism and cubism explored the possibilities abstract form. The Futurism movement started to demand modernism. Artists such as Mondrian and Malevich completely abandoned what was previously understood as the traditional, which in retrospect created more art movements. This development of individual artistic freedom provided the foundation for personal expression, and ultimately, for visual puns.' (Kince, 1982, p.22) It is not to be forgotten that the wordplay was becoming more accepted. Edgar Allen Poe notes 'Of puns it has been said that most dislike, who are the least able to utter them' (quoted by Kince, 1982, p.19) However, it was Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) whos use of abstractionism and not sense that made wordplay to be considered a serious form of literature. Stein was an art collector hosting a Paris Salon which included frequent attendees such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henri Matisse, would meet. The wide acceptance of the wordplay gave pathway for the verbal and visual pun to be combined in the new arising application of graphic form: advertising. (Kince, 1982) In the beginning of the First World War visual play became a great tool for criticism. The art movement 'Dada' was born, a form of non-art in response to the horrors of the war. Reason and logic were rejected giving space for irrationality and intuitive expression. Marcel Duchamp was one of the artists to really embrace the idea of social critique. One of his criticism works was the drawing of a moustache on the Mona Lisa (Figure 3) critiquing the ideals of the Renaissance. (Kince, 1982)

Fig. 3 Marcel, Duchamp, 1919, L.H.O.O.Q

Rene Magritte played a lot with the idea of visual metaphors requiring a second look. The example of Le viol, translated meaning The Rape (Figure 4), depicts a naked woman as the figures face, which leaves many possible interpretations.

Fig. 4 Magritte, R., 1934, Le viol

Magritte was a genius creating visual metaphors that are fascinating today and are a social commentary on the human condition.

Another example of a visual pun is Man Ray’s Violon d’Ingres (1924, Figure 5) depicting a female body reminiscent of the shape of a violin. Two different elements are once more combined to create a separate meaning.

Fig. 5 Man Ray, Violon d’Ingres, 1924

Later on, artists such as El Lissitzky, Piet Zwarf, Herbert Matter, Armin Hoffman explore visual possibilities of the poster whose purpose was reinvented. El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (Figure 6) is a direct visual translation of the words into a visual poster.

Fig. 6 El Lissitzky, 1919, Litho poster

The 20th century gives birth to graphic design as we know it emerging in its full modern understanding. Designers such as Paul Rand make use of the visual pun: 'Where a double meaning is projected graphically, may be informative and entertaining as well.' Paul Rand (Kince, 1982) One of his witty works was the design of the poster for the Aspen Design Conference. Using a comparative pun, Rand shows two shooting targets. One is full of shots missing the bullseye, the other shows one clean shot into it. The conference’s overarching theme is 'The Prepared Professional' (Figure 7), and the poster illustrates well that preparation is essential for the achievement of the goal.

Fig. 7 Paul Rand, 1982, Poster for Aspen Design Conference

Another excellent example of the visual pun used for political protest is Dan Reisinger’s poster 'Let my people go' (Figure 8) in response to the strict policies on Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union. The poster combines the word 'Go' with the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle. Additionally, the use of colours is identical to the ones of the Soviet flag. The illustration is cleverly executed by combining two elements to communicate a clear message.

 Fig. 8, Dan Reisinger, 1969, Let My People Go

This chapter focused on the development of the visual pun in art history and finally its arrival in graphic design. An important thing that I have established in this chapter is that for the condition for the realization of humour is the freedom of thought and expression. It is not surprising that humour did not thrive under strict ruling, such as the era of Christianity. Restrictions that forbid free thought limit the capabilities of personal expression radically, which is essential for critical thinking and social commentary. Humour can undoubtedly be an act of resistance which is shown by the boycott of artists during the First World War with the non-art movement.
Chapter 3: Humour in graphic design

3.1 Humour in graphic design

In chapter 1 I have explored the concept of humour and its various interpretations. In chapter 2, I have looked more precisely into the formation of the visual pun, which is the practical expression of humour in visual form. In this chapter, I want to explore the role of humour specifically in the realms of graphic design. What are the benefits of using humour and additionally how can it benefit not only the graphic design ideal but expand onto the domain of the political? As discussed before, humour can be an excellent tool for criticism. I will consider a couple of examples and analyze what makes them work. According to Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart, the value and benefits of using humour in graphic design are straightforward. First of all, humour makes a message more engaging by inviting participation. The observer becomes actively engaged as soon as the brain makes the connection between the joke and its meaning. Making the connection from A to B requires mental work which in return releases endorphins. (2015) Humour has to be decoded by an audience and thereby encourages the recipient to be active. Surely the decoding process must not be too complicated; the joke has to be easily understood. As the academic and management expert Jean-Louis Barsoux explains 'Humour puts the audience in a relaxed and warm frame of mind, in which it is more attentive to what is being said.' (quoted by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart, 2015, p.21) This way the message becomes more memorable because the recipient comes up with the connection and in doing so becomes part of the process. Humour encourages active engagement. Besides helping to communicate information to the audience, humour also encourages a physical response which is expressed in a smile or laughter. According to Ronald E Riggio 'smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.' (2012) The dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are released when we smile and not only help with relieving stress, but overall help relax the body.

3.2 Designers and politics

According to Ruben Pater, the design industry is doubtlessly a service industry that is reliant on the economic situation. How can design culture be of any benefit for a more sustainable future? 'Currently the design profession, in all its diversity, is unambiguously a service industry bonded to the economic status quo. But for it to become an affirmative force of redirection towards Sustainment (and in doing, contribute to remaking a politics beyond democracy) it has to become truly futural and political – which implies design   
becoming more dynamic, more powerful and more able to communicate the significance of designers to society in general.' (2016, p. 76) That implies that for design to become more effective in helping the political climate, it has to become more progressive. Parody and satire can help awaken 'an apathetic society to its faults and foibles, or is aimed at providing momentary diversion from the world’s absurdities, it serves an essential service on both counts.' (1997 Roukes, p.1) 'So, how might graphic designers contribute? The failure of corrupted political entities to properly represent anyone who mandated them to assume governing power is somewhat analogous to the crisis confronted by graphic designers in their eroding role as mediators and representatives of institutions.' (Metahaven, 2013, p.17) Under these circumstances considering that designers are mediators and consequently representatives of institutions, it could be argued that their role regarding political influence is limited. However, designers have done work outside of the industry spectrum dependent on clients. There are great political graphics that were not made for a client and were a form of protest from the designers. A great example is the 'Burnt' postcard (Figure 9) by Lisa Gibson, which addresses the USA’s occupation in Iraq. The design project was a personal one, but the message is clear, no 'Peace on earth', an ironic statement to condemn the situation.

Fig. 9 Lisa Gibson, 2003, Postcard: Burnt, USA
3.3 Humour in editorial design

An exciting area of graphic design where the use of humour has had great exposure is editorial design. Widely known magazines such as Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Zeit Magazine or The New Yorker have exhibited great satirical covers poking fun at current political affairs. Bloomberg Businessweek’s covers were especially fascinating in the time between 2013 and 2016; the reason being is a structural one. Businessweek was shortly before bought by Bloomberg whose intention was to promote the Bloomberg brand. So BBW was allowed to be as experimental and risky as possible. This is very important to mention once again – great work with humour requires the freedom of expression in its purest form. However, besides that, BBW had the benefit of an extraordinary creative team consisting of a variety of talented designers from different areas of interest who partly have never worked on magazines before. Some were fresh from art school others have had years of experience. The mix of the team allowed for a new perspective to thrive. Additionally, the whole team was ready to experiment without boundaries which proved to be essential for the production of great work. One example is the cover (Figure 10) commenting on the wake of Obama’s troubled healthcare.gov launch. The message is obvious: the start of Obama's healthcare endeavour stands in direct comparison to a very slow loading image getting stuck. The cover is a political commentary in the form of satire. This is also a great example of a visual pun being a single message consisting of two or more simultaneous meanings forcing the viewer to dissect the idea on more than one conceptual level. (Kince, 1982) Besides that this example also fits into the theory of the Incongruity Theory. Something being humourous when it is placed outside of our commonly understood environments. We do not expect an image of Obama in the context of a slow internet connection or a crashing website. However, in this example, it makes complete sense together and creates a combined meaning. 25

Fig. 10 Bloomberg Businessweek, 2013, cover

Considering all the questionable things that the Trump presidency has brought with it, one of its only functional consequences might be the intriguing imagery created to mock the president that has flooded the internet. A great example is the cover fig. 2 of the small magazine C41 Magazine on their issue 3 on 'change' after the presidency of Obama (Figure 11). The visual is an interpretation of simultaneously all the different layers of change and of the new president himself.

Fig. 11 C41 Magazine, cover, Issue 3

Two more great examples are by TIME magazine. One before the election (Figure 12) depicting a screaming abstract illustration of Trump before the election, which is also a great example of parody in a visual pun. The image is a parody of Munch's painting 'The Scream'. Following that came the second cover portraying the 'Total Meltdown' (Figure 13) after the election being felt by the media from making wrong predictions which is also a very visual depiction of the political climate at the time.

Fig. 12 August 2016 TIME Magazine, cover

Fig. 13 October 2016 TIME Magazine, cover

Another interesting editorial example aimed not directly at politics but depicting the issue of the climate crisis was the June 2018 National Geographic's cover it. At first
sight, it looks like an image of an iceberg. However, the intelligent execution of the illustration makes it clear that the part of the ice that is below the water’s surface is a plastic bag. The image illustrates the issue of the climate crises cleverly and through the use of the Incongruity Theory, combining two relatively unrelated objects to send a clear message of emergency.

Fig. 14 National Geographic, cover, June 2018

3.5 Parody in graphic design

Parody is often a comic reference to human behaviour, customs, conventions, beliefs, or creations. (Roukes, 1997) Parody as a form of visual satire is oftentimes used for political graphics. It comes in different formats such as posters, billboards, advertisements and other media forms. Its purpose is to provoke, ridicule or to instigate an activity regarding an issue or cause. (Heller, 2016) Its sole function exceeds the sole purpose of entertainment. What makes parody function? According to G. M. Zinkhan and M. Johnson (1994), what parody needs to be successful is: '... the audience must readily recognize the original work which is being mocked. Thus, the original work must itself be deeply ingrained in the culture. In some instances, the parody may make the original work even more famous. As popular wisdom puts it, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' A famous example of parody in design has been the poster designed by artist collective Copper Greene showing a dark silhouette against a pink background (Figure 15). The poster was a response to the shocking revelations of torture at the US military 
prison in Abu Ghair, Iraq in 2004. The poster was a parody of the iPod posters that were circulating at the time and was plastered next to the originals (Heller, 2016) The poster in itself was an act of resistance and political protest against the US occupation of Iraq. As well as being cleverly executed the poster also imitates the original ideally.

Fig. 15 Copper Greene, 2003, poster

Another very clever executed example that has not gotten as much recognition is the work by Vladan Srdic in 2003 for Mlandia magazine (Figure 16) on the subject of brainwashing. Using the concept of a washing machine dial, the meaning is altered from the objects original purpose to a double meaning concerning the brainwashing of the American public to support the war through mass media television – a visual pun.

It is remarkable how something quite simple can contain a great deal of information and meaning.

Fig. 16 Brainwashing, Vladan Srdic, Magazine ad, Slovenia

3.6 Case study: Slavs & Tatars

A fascinating recent exhibition is the Crack up – Crack Down at the 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts in 2019. It was curated by the artist collective Slavs and Tatars, based in Berlin, who has been focused on exploring 'an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China, through publishing, exhibitions, lectures, and performances since 2006.' (Miller, 2019) Their intention was to assess '...the graphic as an agency, a means of communication capable of dictating propaganda or catalyzing revolution, a democratizing potential shared—albeit subversively—with that of the satirical.' (Bushman, H., 2019) The collective has created satirical imagery such as 'Figa', in 2016 (Figure 17). The word 'Figa' describes the hand gesture that is shown on the poster, which is an equivalent to the middle finger in the eastern world.

Fig. 17 Slavs and Tatars, Figa, 2016

Payam Sharifi, a member of Slavs and Tatars, describes the importance of the exhibition saying that 'Satire has long been used in art, design, and literature as a method of speaking truth to power—of pricking people’s consciousness, particularly in times of political strife or authoritarian rule.' (Aiga, 2019) The exhibition included 20th-century examples of satire in print such as the satirical magazine Simplicissimus (1896-1967) from Germany. The content of the magazine included political critique combined with contemporary graphics. The magazine was commissioning some of the most striking images to appear in Germany.' (Eskilson, S., 2012) and some frequent contributors were Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. Helmut Kramer (1979) writes about Simplicissimus 'The magazine Simplicissimus set the standard for political caricature and graphic social satire for several generations of European and American artists.' Besides a couple of references from the last century, the exhibition featured new works from contemporary artists such as Amanda Ross-Ho (Figure 18) project depicting a smiley face crying and being overwhelmed by its surroundings. The art piece could be interpreted as showing the current personal state being affected by the socio-political situation and environmental-climate crisis.

Fig. 18 Amanda Ross-Ho. Untitled Crisis Actor (This Pain is UNBEARABLE overwhelming We will not want to move. We will be in tears this is our breaking point), 2018; photo Jack Wrigley; courtesy: the artist and Mary Mary, Glasgow

3.7 The Incongruity Theory in graphic design

After discussing the three humour theories, and establishing that the incongruity theory is the most used one today, it is interesting to look at a graphic design project that incorporated the theory combining two conflicting elements into one image and making one question one’s preconceptions. A great example is the WWF’s Give a Hand to Wildlife campaign (Figure 19) that was designed by Saatchi & Saatchi Simko, to encourage donations for wildlife. A hand is painted depicting an animal changed the context of a hand as we understand it. The hand is transformed into the animal and coincides with the saying 'Giving a Hand' meaning providing help.

Fig. 19 WWF campaign 2008, Give a hand to wildlife, Bodypainter Guido Daniele

To summarize this chapter, I have looked into different executions of humour in graphic design. Firstly, defining what makes humour a valuable asset in graphic design. After that, I went over the role of the graphic designer and its connection to the political. Furthermore, I have looked into examples of editorial design using wit to poke fun at the current political climate. Moreover, I examined a couple of design projects that were not made for a client but were individual signs of protest against current affairs such as the Iraq poster. Besides that, I looked at a case study of an artist collective exploring the limits of satire today. Lastly, I explored an advertisement project of WWF, which used a visual pun for its benefits. These are a couple of examples from different areas of the graphic design field. However, the examples show that the use of humour can benefit the cause as long as the topic allows it.


The overarching reason for this thesis was my frustration with graphic design. What aspect of graphic design can benefit society? I decided to investigate the possible use of humour, its interpretation and its history. Besides that, I analyzed graphic design projects that have explored its potential.

How did humour find its way into graphic design, and what is its significance in visual communication? Historically humour was for a long time not recognized and it's potential not fully explored. However, during the art movements of the Industrial Revolution humour has become a rather valuable tool of expression in the visual arts and at last, it has found its way into graphic design. I examined the benefits of humour in visual communication being: provoking engagement, creating a feeling of mutual amusement and understanding and the benefits of laughter. Lastly, I looked into a few examples of humour used in graphic design which prove the point of its potential and benefits. It is important to remark that a well-executed design project using humour requires a well-thought-out concept that makes sense with the topic.

Another significant value of humour that has become apparent is its potential to be used for criticism. Satire and parody can be tools for political or social commentary which can benefit society by making people question the structures they are living in. How can designers make use of it? Designers have a responsibility that comes with their ability of visual expression. Authority has to be questioned for it to be a progressive society, and the government has to be held accountable for its actions. Humour can only thrive in a free society. To make fun of something means to question its relevance or position.

To sum it all up, humour is a resource that can improve our understanding of certain subjects or issues, whether that is verbally or visually. In conclusion, we should not take ourselves too seriously.