When Calori & Vanden-Eynden was asked to create graphics for Cornell University’s newest campus facility—a dairy plant added to an existing academic research lab—they decided to have some fun with it. The CVE team covered blank walls with cow spots, creating what one observer calls a “Rorschach meets rawhide” aesthetic that manages to be both witty and sophisticated. CVE identified the building itself with a giant sculptural milk bottle.
Those might not seem like the most obvious choices for a serious research university, but even the most boring brands—computers and car insurance, anyone??—have shown that using humor and a sense of play can be a very good thing. In the case of Cornell’s Stocking Hall, the whimsical solution has won awards and big fans on and off campus.
Humor is one thing for advertising and social media—after all, ads can be pulled quickly and social media is blissfully ephemeral. But physical spaces are a bit more risky when it comes to using humor. It can be done, though, and done well—with a few guidelines in mind.
1. Oh, lighten up.
While it’s a bit tougher in built spaces that will be around for a while, humor is still a great connector, and a great brand-builder. “When we see the opportunity to humanize an environment with a sense of play, we go for it,” says David Vanden-Eynden.“Life is tough enough. We all love to laugh, and humor is a great tool for connecting people with each other and with the brand.”
In the case of Cornell’s Stocking Hall, “The university’s brand guardians could have wrinkled their noses, but they didn’t. That just goes to show that everyone can see the beauty of having a little fun.”
2. But make sure your client is in on the joke.
It’s never a good idea to invest a lot of time in what you think may be a fun and funny solution, only to find your client is not amused. “In the very initial conversations, get the buy-in; make sure your client is okay with pursuing a playful solution,” says Michael Courtney,Michael Courtney Design (Seattle).
MCD has worked for “a Fortune 100 company in the Internet commerce business” for more than eight years, initially creating a wayfinding master plan and later, environmental graphics for most of the buildings in its downtown neighborhood. One of the client’s ongoing goals is to create a sense of delight in the workplace, and they expressly ask MCD to create “Easter eggs”—little moments of discovery and surprise that put a smile on employees’ and visitors’ faces as they make their way through the environment. "I think wit is an easier concept to introduce to clients than 'ha-ha' humor," notes Courtney. "Something that's witty has more staying power."
3. Make sure it supports the brand (and doesn’t distract from it).
When Virgin Airlines asked Holmes Wood (London) to design the all-new customer experience in its Heathrow Terminal, the Holmes Wood team knew that Virgin’s cheeky brand humor should be a big part of the mix. But they also found that in some cases, Virgin’s irreverance could actually get in the way.
In the wayfinding system, for example, “There were signs everywhere in the terminal using this trendy brand-speak, like ‘Whiz through.,’” says Lucy Holmes,creative director. Holmes Wood advised Virgin to tone it down a bit in favor of more subtle humor that wouldn’t distract from wayfinding communication. In the end, Virgin’s voice still shines through in graphics that lighten up some typically mundane airport experiences. A baggage graphic that explains size limits asks, “Who says size doesn’t matter?” and where travelers can grab luggage carts, a helpful graphic notes, “Hope you didn’t get the one with the wobbly wheel.”
Courtney agrees that brand resonance is the key. “It has to fit in with that big thing we call brand. It might be clever, but if it’s not in sync with your client’s brand values and mission or its particular tone of voice, don’t go there.”
4. Connect “play” with the place and the culture.
A sense of play works best when it connects with brand, place, and cultural context. Without that, it’s just generic humor that can easily fall flat. In the case of MCD’s Fortune 100 client, for example, that means telling stories about the history of the company, the place, and the product. “We do a lot of murals that remind people about the company’s origins and also about what the place was like before it was a company neighborhood,” notes Courtney. “People love that, whether it’s an ‘in joke’ about the first book the company sold, or dogs, which is a huge cultural thing there.”
Brands like Google and LinkedIn have also become masterful at corporate environments that celebrate the uniqueness of the brand as well as the places where its employees live and work. They have fun with it, too. In LinkedIn’s numerous offices worldwide, interiors and graphics never look the same twice, says Julie Maggos,associate at IA Interior Architects. “It’s really about sharing a sense of joy and fun with the people who work there,” she notes. “Graphics is a great tool for doing that.”
5. Use wit to signal “something is new.”
In Birmingham, UK, Holmes Wood’s brief was to design information graphics to direct customers to the new entrance of luxury retail destination The Mailbox during a huge renovation project. That could have meant arrows or boring text panels, but the Holmes Wood team decided to have some fun with it. They created a series of striking, super-scaled installations—including a giant red front door and sculptural lamp—to guide shoppers to the new entrance. The result was unexpected, playful, and memorable.
"Our challenge was designing a concept which not only helped manage the practical issues during the transition, but also made a strong consumer statement that The Mailbox is still open, and still luxurious,” notes Holmes.
6. Revive the “dead” spots.
Spaces like garages, long corridors, and elevator halls are excellent canvases for brand humor and can be a welcome relief from blank walls and corporate sameness. These less public spaces also offer a certain relaxation of corporate visual protocol.
At the new Motorola headquarters in Chicago, Gensler’s team placed cheeky life-size pictograms irreverently—half on walls, half on doors—at restrooms, elevators, and stairwells. One depicts a couple holding hands in an elevator, while another shows a man with legs crossed waiting to use the restroom. “We wanted to capture the spirit of the company and encourage people to have fun at work,” says Michael Shaub,Gensler senior associate.
7. Use a light touch.
The best uses of humor are subtle references that make you look (and think) twice rather than knocking you over the head. And with humor, a little goes a long way.
A great example of the Easter egg approach is a small, fun touch at LinkedIn’s new Chicago offices. At first glance, custom wallpaper designed by the IA team looks like the traditional damask pattern typical to many historic Chicago buildings. Closer inspection, though, reveals the pattern is made up of beloved Chicago icons, including the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the Chicago Blackhawks logo, and of course, a gangster.