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.

Forever Stamps

The most difficult part about moving (besides carefully packing your wife’s collection of vintage Fiesta ware) is having to establish a relationship with a new postmaster. When you live and work in small towns, this relationship is important. Barbara has made this transition easy for me, and seems quite accepting, in public venues, of my inquiries into daily USPS operations, requests to browse through the stamp inventory, requests for various USPS products, and of course my bad jokes.

I was fairly new to the area when I came in with my first request for the Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamp series. In my defense details in the initial media release by the USPS said the stamps were “to be released in 2011.” Last time I checked January 2011 is in the year 2011. Much to my disappointment, Barbara was often quick to tell me that the stamps had not arrived yet. A couple weeks ago, the stamps had arrived. I bought all of the sheets that were available.

At that time I felt obligated to share with her the story about the Star Wars stamps. (Update: I only have three sheets remaining and they now are reserved for very special correspondence. They are not for mailing the water bill—a mistake my wife made that was twice as bad since they are only 41-cent stamps and two had to be used. Egads!) I told Barbara about those Star Wars stamps and my relationship with my former postmaster Robert (whom I have only spoken with only three times via phone in the year since we moved), which were featured in a blog post here on IBD. I couldn’t tell if Barbara was comforted or disturbed. Now that I put this all in writing, I’m a bit disturbed.

The new Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are awesome (not quite as awesome at the Star Wars stamps, but equally awesome to watching Paul eat hot wings). states:

The Pioneers of American Industrial Design (Forever®) stamp pane honors 12 of the nation’s most important and influential industrial designers. Encompassing everything from furniture and electric kitchen appliances to corporate office buildings and passenger trains, the work of these designers helped shape the look of everyday life in the 20th century.

Each stamp features the name of a designer and a photograph of an object created by the designer, as well as a description of the object and the year or years when the object was created. The selvage features a photograph of the “Airflow” fan designed by Robert Heller around 1937.

I know what you are thinking. “So what, right?” This is a blog about interpretive design (along with baseball, food, and working with people who have Cheeto dust in their goatees) not industrial design. Graphic design is a subset of the design profession, like industrial, fashion, or interior design. Each discipline has something that interpretive designers can learn from. (Insert your own joke here about what Paul and I could learn from fashion design. Keys to humor success include the use of red Crocs, bow ties, sweater vests, bowling shirts, and a very worn-out 2008 World Championship Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt.)

When looking at the objects featured on the stamps it is easy to see beauty in simplicity. The organization of hard materials to create something practical while ergonomic, original, and affordable is no easy challenge. It requires a person that is creative and analytical.

Rhead’s Fiesta ware Disc Picture, featured above, is a classic example of simple beauty. (A second example is my son and I’m not really sure what that means but I know it’s true.) It’s a practical item but the design adds to its usefulness while still be unique enough to stand out. There are plenty of pitchers out there today but this one stands out. It has also stood up to the test of time. Nonpersonal interpretive media can be the same way. Making an exhibit stand out by applying interpretive techniques, such as strong interpretive writing, makes that exhibit less like a piece of Tupperware serving up your message and more like a disc picture.

Since much of what we do in interpretive graphic design is related to a computer screen, we don’t spend enough time thinking about the tangible materials that will make up the product or be displayed within the end product. These materials can inspire you. Whether it is a color, texture, overall feeling or even a typeface, take time to look at the material objects that the exhibit will be constructed out of or even a part of the subject matter.

Much like interpretation being a combination of arts and sciences, interpretive and graphic design is as well. You have to draw from your creative side so that you are not creating the same product over and over while still applying that creativity in systematic way that improves the message being presented. Many shortcomings in interpretive projects lean too far in either direction. Balance is the key.

The stamps are also “Forever” stamps which will always be valued at the current first-class rate. That can keep foolish over-postage accidents of valuable (intrinsic value) space saga stamps from happening.

Defining the Strike Zone

Much to Paul’s chagrin, today’s post is dedicated to Jo Schaper, who challenged Paul’s take on starbursts (the explosive graphic design element, not the fruit-flavored candy packed with sweet goodness and that is more efficient than a dentist at removing a filling) in his post Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying on Monday. Her comment and Paul’s reply are presented here.

It is not uncommon for folks to challenge our opinions about elements of interpretive design (along with personal style choices – despite what you think we both still feel red Crocs are perfectly acceptable in public venues). In fact we welcome it. Through this blog we have learned that there is nothing more polarizing than discussions on Comic Sans, serial commas, and now starbursts.

This is where I have to applaud Jo (as well as Judy Sneed the official Pro Comic Sans Spokesperson of NAI Region VI) for speaking up for what they believe is an appropriate use of starbursts. Plus, I like anyone that is willing to give Paul a hard time about anything.

I think I can speak for Paul here. Facing this adversity he might say something like, “I disagree with Jo but at least I got her to think about the design decisions that she makes every time she starts a project. I bet the next time she goes to insert a starburst she thinks twice about how she uses it.” I like it best when Paul speaks without commas. The underlying goal behind IBD (the book not the blog) was to help interpretive designers make the best design decisions possible, which could be said in this instance as well.

Since I’m speaking for Paul, I think it also safe to say that he might also say something like this: “If I wasn’t a Philadelphia Phillies fan, I would pull for the New York Yankees because deep down inside I’m jealous and really think they are awesome, oh yeah and Arkansas I where I should live because if Shea lives there it must rock, oh yeah and Shea’s children are cuter than mine!” I would have to agree with both of Paul’s statements.

I see the opinions that we offer in/on IBD (the book and the blog) are equivalent to the role an umpire plays in a baseball game. When a pitcher stands on the mound and is looking at the batter, catcher, and umpire, he has many choices of what kind of pitch throw (cutter, fastball, curve, sinker, splitter, knuckleball, slider, change-up). It is the role of the umpire to confine the space where the pitch has to be thrown and up to the pitcher to be creative enough to put those pitches into that space. I also see us playing the umpire because our lack of baseball talent and the fact that Paul looks best in a mask.

A pitcher can throw pitches outside the strike zone and it’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they will be successful, it simply means they are pitching in the National League. Also the better you know the strike zone or the parameters and guidelines you will also know when to break the rules and throw outside the zone. The best pitchers throw a combination of strikes and balls in order to get that batter out. There is no guarantee that the batter is going to swing at the pitches outside the strike zone in order for the pitcher to get them out. Sometimes you end up with a walk (which has no design equivalent in this long drawn out analogy). The most important thing to remember is that you want to throw as many good strikes as possible, within the zone.

As interpreters and interpretive designers, I think we have to be careful about not only to be thinking about our clients or our visitors by simply giving them what they want. We need to place thought into what design decision help meet the goals of the project and the interpretive site. I have been guilty (and this blog has been guilty, and by this blog I mean Paul) of writing to our audience of interpreters and interpretive designers. We like talking and reading about topics that we are familiar with, comfortable with, and align well with what and how we think. We need to challenge and be challenged to grow. This can be said of personal interpretation as well. We all have had program participants that come to your program already knowing exactly or more about what you are presenting. That may be your objective but more than likely is not. It is my hope that Jo would comeback with an amazing design chock full of starbursts that makes Paul say, “Wow, that’s an effective use of the starburst.”

In the meantime I’ll leave you with this image of the 2010 NAI National Workshop logo, designed by Paul, complete with a starburst.