Incongruity Theory, The Power of the Unexpected, and Why We Love Alyssa Milano

Paul and I try to be funny much more than we actually succeed at it. Since this blog is moderately connected to our professional lives we take caution in some of the jokes we make. You have to be careful when trying to be funny. It is a fine line between keeping someone from asking “What’s the point?” and saying “I’m offended.” (Both are common responses to this blog.) (Okay, maybe some of you didn’t find that funny, though it is not offensive, except to Paul.)

Many comedians follow the incongruity theory. Here at IBD, we write what comes to mind and deal with consequences for several months by seeking apologies delivered in public venues, through various forms of media.

To use incongruity correctly, you must take the reader down a logical path of thinking and then shock them with the unexpected by suddenly taking them a different direction. This is usually done by including something that doesn’t normally go with the logical path, which in turn forms a punch line. The more convincing the lead in, building the anticipation, and how diametrically opposed the punch line is to the build-up, the better the chance you have of getting a laugh. That is without offending or leaving those asking what or why.

Here’s an example of something you wouldn’t expect: Alyssa Milano Tweeted a link to IBD’s new (“awesome”) NFL flowchart yesterday. Turns out she is well-known for her love of sports, writes a blog about baseball, is a vegetarian and a philanthropist (we appreciated her generous donation to our cause), and played Samantha on the ’80s television series Who’s the Boss. She even wrote a book titled Safe at Home: Confessions of a Baseball Fanatic. (Now she has to admit to every celebrity’s most-feared confession: She has read Interpretation By Design.)

Why can’t the theory of incongruity be applied to design? I think this may be the case in the new logo of the Tate Museum in London. It’s not that the logo has a punch line, but the design isn’t what you wouldn’t necessarily expect for a museum or for a professionally designed logo.

According to the Wolff Olins design firm, the concept behind the design was charged with connecting four museum sites through a visual identity “into something new: not traditional institutions, but exciting destinations.”

The website goes on to say:

Wolff Olins created the Tate brand, under the idea “look again, think again”: both an invitation and a challenge to visitors. We designed a range of logos that move in and out of focus, suggesting the dynamic nature of Tate – always changing but always recognizable.

I find the logo interesting and unique. Though it doesn’t conform to the rules that apply to the production of most logos, it does maintain simplicity and versatility, and reflects the modern nature of the collection. I would say that this incongruious approach is effective. Not to mention that since the new identity was implemented, it has since become the most popular modern art gallery in the world.

This can’t all be credited to the logo. The only thing that I can think that could help improve their visitation now is a Tweet by Alyssa Milano.

A Work in Progress: The 2012 NAI International Conference Identity

People who communicate for a living have to be ready for a variety of reactions when they put something out there for public consumption. As a visual communicator, I have created things that people hate (see my first attempt at a logo for last year’s NAI National Workshop in Las Vegas) and some things that have been more well-received (see the identity for last month’s NAI International Conference in Panama). The one reaction I do not know what to do with is silence.

When NAI announced the location and dates of the upcoming NAI Pacific Islands International Conference (Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i, May 8-12, 2012), I posted a link to the conference website on the IBD Facebook page and asked for feedback. Perhaps I posted it at a moment when there were not a lot of people online, or perhaps Facebook’s popularity is fading and people just aren’t using it as much as they used to, but when I checked back later in anticipation of a handful of comments, there was very little—a couple of likes and one, “Looks good. Sign me up!”

We know from our surveys that one of the reasons people attend the NAI International Conference is its location, so each year, I focus my design decisions on the site of the event. In the identity for the Pacific Islands International Conference, I used an iconic Hawai’i photo by Gregory Runyan (which I found on stock.xchng, my favorite source for free, high-quality photography) in part because it establishes a sense of place and in part because it fits with the color palette that I wanted to use. (I’m calling the color palette “pastel primary”—a sort of tropical, relaxed blue, yellow, and red.)

One problem with the photo is that it raises questions of whether the palm tree is native to Hawai’i. (The answer is not simple: Palms are not technically native to Hawai’i, but some of them have been there for a really long time, since the days of the early Polynesian settlers.) Another problem is that one person’s “iconic” is another person’s “boring” or “predictable.” That second person is my wife.

The words “Pacific Islands” are set in a distressed script typeface called Marcelle Script, which I found on DaFont, another great resource. I’m using Marcelle Script because I feel it reflects the relaxed, comfortable environs of the event. If you visit the link to that typeface, you’ll notice that it’s “free for personal use.” If I stick with Marcelle Script in the final version of this identity, I’ll be sure to make a donation to the designer.

And on a technical typographic note, because we’re honoring the indigenous spelling of the name Hawai’i, you’ll see it spelled with that diacritical mark before the last I, which it turns out is not just an apostrophe. Because I have Adobe InDesign set to use smart (curly) quotes and apostrophes (as you should, too), I have to jump through some hoops to get the appropriate, straight-up-and-down mark. In InDesign, I select Type > Insert Special Character > Quotation Marks > Straight Single Quotation Mark. (Unfortunately, there is no way to do this online that I know of, so I’m using an apostrophe here.)

So that’s the thinking that has gone into this website so far. And while the reaction has been generally positive, it has also been luke warm, which fills me with angst. So I set about looking for some other options.

This image by Margan Zajdowicz shows the distinctive lava rock of the Hawaiian beach, but with this cropping, as my co-worker Jamie points out, it looks like it’s promoting a conference about oil spills. (Also, if you visit the link to the image, you’ll see that this cropping eliminates the endearing word “Aloha” written in the sand.)

I like the color palette and general feeling of this image by NAI Executive Director Tim Merriman, but I hesitate to use it because most of the conference will be held above the surface of the water.

The same goes for this photo, also by Tim Merriman.

So that’s where I am now. They say that a graphic designer never finishes a project, but is sometimes forced to stop working on it (like when it goes to press). With this event nearly a year away, I could spend 11 months tweaking the identity and never be completely happy with it.

And as you may have guessed, I welcome your feedback.

Book Review: Presentation Zen

418aloaltyl__ss500_1We live in a world of PowerPoint. Even phrases such as “death by PowerPoint” are commonplace and are used as much as the templates provided by Microsoft. I love to see a data projector firing up and a presenter start up PowerPoint. It excites me to see what people think is okay to use in presentations—the colors they choose, how they lay out their slides, and overall how they use presentation software. The anticipation from slide to slide is better than a Coen Brother’s film.

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds provides a refreshing look at making PowerPoint tolerable. Fundamentally, the book provides a different approach to the use of presentation software from what you normally see. The easy-to-read book takes a look a preparation, design, and delivery.

I have enjoyed reading the book through the eyes of a designer and an interpreter. Garr makes interesting comments and suggestions that designers and interpreters can learn from. Many of the techniques and suggestions are similar to those found in IBD but there are other original approaches as well. I found the section on preparation to be the most interesting. When planning a presentation I often find myself challenged with too much information, wanting to do too much, and finding creativity. Reynolds offers realistic suggestions through the “planning analog” chapter.

Sage interpreters aren’t going to get as much from the sections on delivery or presentation style as non-interpreters. Experienced designers aren’t going to get as much from the sections that deal specifically with design as much as non-designers. Does that mean you shouldn’t read it? No way. The book is full of resources compiled in a well-designed format that is easy to use and that works well as a reference-type book. The sample slides section is a great resource of good and bad presentations. Is “death by PowerPoint” such a bad thing? I can think of many other bad ways to die.

For instance a slow agonizing death as a fan of the Phillies is far worse.

If you have read Presentation Zen, please share your comments with the herd.

Product Testing on Children

I have always been interested in emotional and intellectual responses to color. Being an untrained scientist and designer, I decided to conduct a peer-reviewed scientific study on which colors work well together well and why. Since my wife says that I’m childish and immature, my peers for the purpose of this study will be my 4- and 5-year-old daughters Anna and Gracie. The control will be my 19-month-old son William.

The concept of using my children for product testing is not a new one. They have excelled explored the thresholds of the interaction between skin and sharpies (a successful attempt at having as much ink on them as an unnamed uncle), as well as locating the specific level of toxicity in finger paint as it pertains to vomiting. Now, before you think I’m running some sort of design sweat shop, remember that no children were harmed during this study or any previous study. (This is not entirely true. Our physician states that some long-term effects may not surface for 10-12 years, when it may be revealed that they are as dorky as their father.)

The first step in this process was to locate a brand new box of 96 Crayola crayons. Nothing gets children excited like a brand new box of crayons. For my children, the smell of the fresh wax and the anticipation of breaking new crayons in half is intoxicating. (Again, no children were harmed during this study.) The next step was having them choose two colors that they thought matched well or, as Gracie paraphrased, “were beautiful together.” I had one rule: once a color was selected it could not be paired with another color. Here are the results:

Round 1

Gracie – Carnation Pink and Red


Anna – Mahogany and Gray


William – Macaroni and Cheese and Purple


Round 2

Gracie – Granny Smith Apple and Sky Blue


Anna – Red Orange and Blue Green


William – Macaroni and Cheese and Purple (yes, that’s the same choice as round 1, he’s persistent and didn’t understand the rules)


I hope, at the least, that this study helped me develop a new way of looking at colors together and that I may be inspired to use combinations that not only function within the design but “were beautiful together.”

You can check out color swatches, histories, and names of all of your favorite Crayolas at You can also learn more about how colors interact in chapter 4 of Interpretation by Design.