Fun vs Function: The quest for good design
I’ve read a lot of articles about the functionality of design — how its purpose is to solve problems as well as to serve as an aesthetic. I resonate with them because at the core of me I believe that good design should always be useful. Despite those that dismiss design as something of a luxury, design is doing a lot of good around us and has a huge impact on the world around us. Good visual communication is essential in order to convey important information effectively, life changing in fact.
Amongst the Graphic Design projects that solve problems are those that have caught eyes simply because they’re funny or sad — designs that leave people with nothing other than a smile on their face (or perhaps a gimmace). Go to any art gallery and amongst those with a good knowledge of art history are those trying to gain understanding, looking at odd shapes and splodges of paint with puzzled looks on their faces. Whether you think a piece of art is meaningless or useless, it still challenges us. What seems nonsensical can raise questions about what we think something is, and even if it seemingly has no meaning we still look for it. We look for meaning in everything — we look for stories.
The fact is, we buy into emotion all the time. When I pay money to see a comedienne I don’t think “well what use is it for her to make me laugh?” I gladly pay for things I find funny: I buy into films that make me cry and I go to exhibitions that leave me thinking: “What the bloody hell is that all about?” But never do I feel short changed.
The problem, though, is that we have learnt to put creativity into two camps: functional design and fun design. We leave the functional stuff for healthcare and science and then the fun stuff for the wacky artists who have probably smoked too much pot. But design that is purely functional often lacks effectiveness — if design is engaging it doubles its usefulness.
This is particularly true in education. As soon as my son hit five my enthusiasm for reading with him waned purely for the fact that his reading books became, well, a little bit boring. They were educational — functional reading books that included all the key-stage buzz words and ticked all the boxes. They became a chore to read.
There are many studies that show humour can aid better understanding and retain more information. Emotion has strong ties to the physical — we are doing ourselves a disservice to separate them. As designers, do we need to be combining functionality and fun more effectively? Perhaps this notion is most obvious in the ad world — the best adverts use emotion in order to sell products and services. But what about ‘every day’ design? Would fun help us to better understand politics and religion. Would emotional context give us more empathy towards those with disabilities or in other minority groups? I often find myself bored by statistics — they can merge into a sea of unclear information. How can facts and figures be presented in ways that are engaging and clear? How can we bring more emotion into our designs in order to connect with one another and bring function to life?
Perhaps the word fun has too many childish connotations and I should use the word ‘playfulness’. In my own work I find a constant tension between making my work useful and fun, yet I realise I have been viewing the two as opposites instead of things that can work together to make something more effective.
A recent project, for example, combined both fun and function, both education and nonsensibility. Sometimes the best way to learn is through humour, and the best way to get attention is to make something deliberately different. But the way to understand your audience is also to, well, take lead from your audience. We, as designers, are there to facilitate communication in the best way possible for our audience.
One day my five year old observed me illustrating cocktails for a drinks menu and he found it funny that I drew limes and lemons in the drinks. So I asked him what he would put into a drink. The following hour was filled with no holds barred ideas: snails, piranhas, orangutan poo and other hilariously disgusting ingredients. We used lots of descriptive words, alliteration and onomatopoeia as we wrote down our silly recipes. By having fun learning became a happy by-product.
I turned our ideas into an educational book containing nonsensical recipes, fun activity pages and real recipes that children can make using edible ingredients, encouraging children to develop creativity, literacy skills and imagination in the process. Of course, there is always a certain amount of risk involved with designing for other people, not least children. What do the people you are designing for really want? I considered playing it a bit safer with the project, but children do not play it safe – they do not want to be patronised or to have watered down concepts. Although they may lack knowledge they most certainly do not lack intelligence and they can spot an ingenuine concept a mile off.
For me, one of the best things about creating this book is my own Dad learning what alliteration means for the first time, and another that my 98 year old Grandma has started drawing again, inventing her own crazy cocktail illustrations. This book serves as not only an educational resource but a possible alzeimers prevention too. Humour has no age limit, does not discriminate and opens up learning for everyone.
Of course we can’t always involve laugh-out-loud concepts to the designs we create, but I want to suggest that humour’s usefulness is underrated. It is not there purely for the purpose of advertising or the feel-good factor, it is there to challenge, educate and deepen our emotional connection.
If you would like to see my Curious Cocktail book come to life please back it here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lisamaltby/the-glorious-book-of-curious-cocktails