Puns are said to be the lowest form of humor. I personally find that insulting and completely puntrue. A pun can make you roll your eyes like you just did or make you laugh. But if a picture is worth 1,000 words, then surely a visual pun is 1,000 times better (or worse?). You be the judge. Just don’t punish me.
Two meanings are better than one
A pun exposes the double meaning of a word in an attempt to be playful or humorous. Like a word pun, a visual pun is a play on images that can have multiple meanings.
An early example of this is the painting All is Vanity by Charles Allan Gilbert. It depicts a scene of a woman looking into a mirror and feelin’ herself. But what also can be seen is a human skull with the circular mirror as the cranium and the woman’s head and her reflection as the eyes. The skull is a memento mori, a reminder that death is eminent. Moral of the painting: don’t be vain, we’re all going to die anyway. Some painters never outgrow their goth phase.
There are three phases to appreciating visual puns: discovery of the double image, appreciating the cleverness, then gaining some meaning. When all of this comes together, it feels like magic.
A contemporary master of the visual pun is Noma Bar. His simple vector illustrations cleverly combine images to tell a story. In one illustration we see Trump’s hair made from a yellow Twitter logo. In another, Steven Spielberg’s glasses made from the wheels of Elliot’s bike as he carries E.T.
But don’t think his work is all play and no work, he’s done these types of illustrations for tech companies like Lyft and IBM. Below are examples of their campaigns.
Working our magic
While we’re talkin’ tech, one of my first projects at Zendesk was to create a set of ads to promote being in one of Gartner’s Magic Quadrants. Gartner ranks tech companies’ offerings on a quadrant to see how they compare to one another. Working with our copywriter Raven, she gave me the headline “We’re working our magic.” I created an illustration of a magic wand with lines radiating out in the shape of the quadrant grid.
Let’s get physical
Familiar with visual punnery, I do this in my personal work as well. But instead of vectors, my illustrations are created from physical objects. Technically they’re photographs of sculptures or assemblages, but we can call them illustrations. Below are some of my favorites.
Miracle of Light
Since joining Zendesk, I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring a bit of my personal work to work work. One of my favorite parts about the Zendesk brand is the tone of voice. It’s funny, relatable, but most importantly, unexpected, especially for a B2B company.
My first web project was to refresh our enterprise solution page. Our copywriter Lauren came up with the headline “Keep your eye on the enterprise.” At Zendesk, we’ve got puns for days. I created an image of a city with a prize crane hovering above.
When Zendesk expanded its customer experience product offerings into sales with Zendesk Sell, we wanted to make a big splash. Our writing teams’ Creative Director Ethan came up with the headline “Make a big deal of it.” It cleverly meant both making a big deal of our new product launch, and what sales people aspire to do, close big deals.
In an attempt to match the cleverness of the headline, I thought of making an opened briefcase look like a computer or laptop. A briefcase is such a stereotypical symbol of salespeople. Combining that imagery with a laptop would hopefully have the photo read as sales software, but in a fun and surprising way.
In an age of short attention spans and fast scrolls, a simple visual pun can be a great way to communicate something quickly and tell a story. To keep our brand from ever being bland we’ll continue to have fun and do the punexpected. 🙄
Check out design.zendesk.com for more thought leadership, design process, and other creative musings.