What does comedy share with good design?

[Note: This piece was published as part of a column series called Design Eats the World published in The Daily of the University of Washington HERE.]

We’ve all been there. A comedian caps a line or lands a devastating turn of phrase that leaves us in splits. They stop, take in the bewildered expressions of “that’s exactly like my life,” and move on to the next joke. Comedians often bank on shared assumptions about the world to connect with their audiences. These observations are sometimes remarkably designer-like.

Consider a classic Mitch Hedberg line: “I don’t have a microwave oven, but I do have a clock that occasionally cooks s — -.” This is not just an observation, it’s a design observation that points out the absurdity of spending hundreds of dollars on a device that is used to read time for most of its working life. The best design observations are qualitatively no different.

Designers from a company named Pure Digital noticed that most functions on camcorders weren’t actually used, and that most people only used the on/off, zoom, and USB adapter functions. The resulting product focused only on these functions and became the best selling camcorder on Amazon on the day of its debut in 2008. In both cases, the observer spotted an absurdity in the usage of an everyday object. The difference was that Hedberg moved on, while the designers set about resolving that absurdity.

Another aspect of design that comedians seem hardwired into is actually identifying how their audience feels. There is a split in the design community: Some designers are pushing to look past the objective facts of human users and looking at their “lived experience” — what an experience actually feels like — to inform more design decisions.

The feel of a designed system is important enough that Apple tried to sue Microsoft for copying its “look and feel” after Windows switched to an Apple-like design with a desktop, folders, pointers, etc. It was essentially trying to lay claim to the feeling its products gave to customers.

Researcher Jelle Stienstra captured the importance of a user’s feelings best when he wrote that he would rather design a calendar “to utilize the rise of the sun, one’s hunger, and the opportunities for people to meet — not the disembodied predefined hours and minutes fixed in timestamps.”

Illustration by Ben Celsi

An amazing example of this is shown in Louis C.K.’s TV series “Louie,” where Louie is shown asleep in his New York apartment. Some garbagemen pull up to his curb and begin to loudly dispose of trash into their truck. Then, in a moment of genius in which C.K. truly understands what his audience feels like, the shot switches to the garbagemen breaking through his window to randomly break things in his apartment and clap the trash cans together.

This is the kind of empathic reach that can open up all sorts of avenues for designers. Maybe trash cans can be made of a less noisy metal. Maybe garbage men can be trained to dispose of the trash quietly. Maybe a low-cost solution to insulate windows against high-frequency sound can be developed.

There are a million problems that could be better understood if designers knew what their users actually felt. Comedic insights provide subjective information that “disembodied predefined” numbers and techniques can’t, and studying how comedians reach their observations might be a great way of doing that.

Reach columnist Arunabh Satpathy at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sarunabh