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18.11.07 + Perspectives

Designing With Humor: Five Ways Brands Can Be Funny Without Falling Flat

by Erin Kilkenny, Associate Creative Director

Humor: It’s integral and inherent in essentially every human relationship — from the friends we choose to the coworkers we spend our creative time with, to the brands we interact and identify with on a daily basis.

As any savvy designer, writer, brand manager or strategist knows, being funny can be a magic factor that takes a company from boring and irrelevant, to exciting, memorable, and remarkably human. But balancing the art of graphic wit with the cultural and comedic knowledge to back it up can also be a daunting task.

As with anything in this industry, there’s no set formula for introducing humor into your brand identity. But there are a few tips and tricks we’ve learned through the past 20 years that can help brand managers make things funny without falling flat.

Let’s explore:

Open for HBO Last Week Tonight With John Oliver from Trollbäck+Company on Vimeo.

1. Get Witty
One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to humor is assuming that it takes the form of literal jokes or laugh-out-loud moments. But some of the best brand humor is a lot more subtle than that, taking on the form of comedic devices like visual puns, satire, and smart, creative references that feel more a lot more like an inside joke than a straight-up stand-up routine.

As an example, consider our show package for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which uses an eccentric design concept inspired by old encyclopedia and curiosity cabinets to appeal to the show's informed, somewhat snarky audience. The design serves as a complement to the iconic host’s unique sense of humor without trying too hard for a laugh.

The Late Late Show with James Corden Open from Trollbäck+Company on Vimeo.

2. Bring The Energy

Not feeling smart or snarky? It’s also crucial to remember that humor comes from a place of experimentation, creativity, and risk-taking. All of those things require energy and excitement — something creatives should be keen to keep in mind when designing for comedy.

Take this show package for The Late Late Show with James Corden, which distills the frenetic, infectious energy of late-night comedy into a custom neon typeface and an eclectic show package. The design does the talking in this direction, which literally buzzes with vibrancy and the comedian’s playful personality.

BBC BRIT Brand Montage from Trollbäck+Company on Vimeo.

3. Pick an Audience

Another critical thing to keep in mind with comedy: everyone has a different sense of humor. Trying to appeal to everyone with a joke, or clever design package is almost a surefire way to make any joke fall flat. Instead, pick a target audience, do some online research into what they think is funny, and run with it — no matter how weird it may seem to you personally.

We took this approach in our design system BBC Brit, a network tailored to British men. The result, inspired by the attitude and tone of voice of “Top Gear” established a witty, self-aware brand voice and bold Bro Code glyph system that made the entire network sound look, and feel like a ridiculous mancave.

Nickelodeon Image Campaign from Trollbäck+Company on Vimeo.

4. Just Move It

No room for copy, voiceover, or narrative structure? Don’t let that limit your sense of humor. Playing around with physical comedy is also a super-simple, visual way to imbue a brand with laughter.

For inspiration, check out this image campaign we did for Nickelodeon way back in the day, which combines live action with animated characters in super-quick spots designed to capture the network’s unique sense of humor. We dreamed up an abstract environment using rear and front projection, which allowed for a subtle, silly and playful vibe that turned out to be perfectly unexpected for the client.

TV3 Feet from Trollbäck+Company on Vimeo.

5. Make it unexpected

Speaking of unexpected, there’s one last adage that designers, animators, and copywriters should experiment with when creating for comedy — timing is everything. Some of the best humor we get to experience in the world around us comes at us in an instant with a surprise, twist or visual punchline that both delights and surprises its audience.

Watch what we did for TV3, a Swedish TV channel that asked us for a bold and simple branding package that was potentially a little bit funny. In a series of live-action spots, we built in a visual punchline that revolved around the number three — a humorous nod back to the network’s name. The joke comes as a surprise, without a single word or title card to drive it.

No matter what you approach, the key to designing with humor is to incorporate it in ways that feel natural to your brand. Nothing’s worse than telling a joke that falls flat with your audience. So start experimenting. See what works, and test some jokes and visual surprises with a few trusted people at your company. Trust us: the world will be laughing with you, not at you in no time.

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