Visual and Verbal Wit

15 01 2012

Recently, I’ve been reading, and viewing, a terrific book: A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart.  It’s a beautiful book, filled with hundreds of eye-catching, brain-pleasing examples.

The book also has a really good introduction to wit, in general.  The authors state: “Graphic wit is not really very different from verbal wit.  The medium changes, but the underlying technique is the same.”  I’m sure they’re right.  And, of course, as I read, I couldn’t help but think about the role of the turn in making wit.

According to the authors, “Wit is…[a] frisky tendency, in that it makes its impact through sudden jumps, skips, somersaults and reversals in the mind.”  And, they add: “Witty thinking is always structural….If you want to recognize wit in graphics, look for ‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’….’The play involves an agile or acrobatic type of thinking–a leap, a somersault, a reversal, a sideways jump–where the outcome is unexpected….The two elements–‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’–are responsible for the two main emotions experienced by someone ‘getting’ a witty idea–recognition and surprise.”

Turns aren’t always a part of visual wit–some visual wit occurs immediately.  However, if you’re looking for examples of visual wit created with turns, I can think of few better places to, well, turn than The Perry Bible Fellowship.  Of course, you can just keep hitting the “Random” link and enjoy yourself immensely, but check out specific cartoons (cartoons with very few words in them), such as “Peak Performance,” “b,” and “Today’s My Birthday,” and you can get a very clear sense of the role of the turn in creating visual wit.

Then, check out the thinking on verbal wit here, and see if it applies to visual wit–I think it does.

McAlhone and Stuart explain why wit is so powerful in graphic design.  They note that wit “wins time,” “invites participation,” “gives the pleasure of decoding,” “gives a reward,” “amuses,” “gets under the guard,” “forms a bond,” “goes deeper,” and “is memorable.”  These are, as well, the benefits of wit in writing.  Turn, turn, turn.



2 responses

13 02 2012
Phoebe Baker

Thank-you for this post. Before reading it I would have been hard put to define “wit” in actual words, or images. I like that you mention that it is structural, build-able, because the joy we get from decoding wit or creating wit can seem like a magical, unexplainable thing. It’s nice that it’s something that can be taught, rather than just intuited.

13 02 2012
Mike Theune

Yes, Phoebe, I completely agree: it is nice to know that seeming mysteries such as wit can be unpacked, and then taught… Thank you for your comment!

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