Wit on the web

I recently found out that there is an updated second edition of A Smile in the Mind, my art school bible. I had been thinking just the other day about the book, how it influenced several generations of young graphic designers, and how a 20 year old book could relate to today’s digital design and online experiences.

I didn’t attend the type of course that had set reading lists (we were much more informal than that) but I seem to remember that every student on BA Graphic Design in 2002 had a copy. We were taught that for effective graphic communication, wit and humour was key.

On pulling the book off the shelf to inspect it earlier today, mine is well-worn. There’s a rip on the dust jacket where it fell off and tore on the cheap, industrial shelving from my first year room, which really, really annoyed me at the time. There are also some 13 year old page markers from when I had to do a presentation with slides. (Actual glass slides, with a projector and everything! Although I think this was outdated for the early 2000s.) I’d highlighted classic designs including work by Bob Gill and Milton Glaser’s iconic I heart New York campaign.

The synopsis of the book says: “The best graphic design does more than capture attention and make the audience linger. It prolongs the encounter, compelling the reader not only to notice, but to remember. This book is about making graphics memorable by using witty thinking.” Sounds fun doesn’t it?

Creative Bloq recently ran a print design feature of 100 brilliant print ads and these are perfect examples of the type of witty thinking outlined in A Smile in the Mind. In the introduction, there is a long list of the benefits of using wit in design, including: inviting participation; getting people to engage with the design for longer; amusing people; building a brand; and being memorable. This is what I was taught as a graphic design student, and this is still relevant to today’s advertising and print designers. But how can we use it to better effect our online interactions?

In comparison to clever, award-winning ad campaigns, I sometimes feel that online interactions are a little dry in comparison. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because we know that users are trying to accomplish tasks on a website, whether it’s a purchase, signing up to a service or posting something on social media. We want to help our users achieve their goal as efficiently as possible so adding a bit of humour along the way can not only seem frivolous, but actively distracting to our users accomplishing their given task.

But is this really the case? Where do we find engaging and humorous online interactions? Out of all the services I use, MailChimp is one of the few that has embraced the Smile in the Mind way of thinking. MailChimp successfully use fun in their interface, without distracting from the task in hand. Alas, one of my favourite interactions disappeared when they brought in responsive previews. Before this, Freddie Chimpenheimer’s arm hovered over the preview window and if you pulled it really wide, his arm popped out of his socket.

Ouch! Image from http://littlebigdetails.com/post/4983862770/mailchimp-as-you-stretch-the-browser-window-the

Another little interaction that I love are the animations you see when sending an email. I regularly send emails to lists with hundreds of subscribers but that doesn’t stop me freaking out when I have to hit send. Even though the email has been checked multiple times, I worry I may have written something stupid, spelled the company name wrong or generally done something that hundreds of people will see and think I’m a idiot. When you are ready to send your campaign, you get an animation of Freddie’s hand hovering above a red button, after a couple of seconds, it starts sweating and shakes a bit.

Designed by Brent Clouse: https://dribbble.com/shots/1552347-MailChimp-Button

This is a great example of emotional design, MailChimp are empathising with you, they know that sending emails can be a bit scary but make you feel better about it. After you press the big red button and send your email (how much better it this than just a basic web button) you get another animation of Freddie high-fiving you. Awesome.

https://dribbble.com/shots/1548634-MailChimp-High-Five

This fun approach to sending email will ultimately divide opinion, but with over 600 million emails being sent a day, they’re striking the right chord with enough people. A quote from Fast Company says “MailChimp has added a splash of mischief to a product category not known for…well, much of anything.”

I’m not sure if Aarron Walter, former General Manager of New Products at MailChimp ever read a Smile in the Mind, but he certainly subscribes to the ethos. In his book, Designing for Emotion, he asks:

What if an interface could help you complete a critical task and put a smile on your face? Well, that would be powerful indeed! That would be an experience you’d recommend to a friend; that would be an idea worth spreading.”

Looking at digital design today, there are lots of different principles. We’ve got emotional design, design thinking, Human Centred Design, UX design and more. What they come down to though is great communication, designed for real people, with an outcome of greater engagement and enjoyment. Let’s put a smile in the mind of our customers and users in their online experiences and see if our work could make the third edition.

Update: This blog post was expanded into a talk at DxN (Design Exchange Nottingham). Slides of the talk can be found at Speaker Deck.