Smile after Smile in the Mind

The new edition of A Smile in the Mind sets out to show the full range and power of wit as a creative tool. Here, co-authors Greg Quinton and Nick Asbury pick out some contrasting examples which suggest that, today, witty thinking is more prevalent in design than ever.

First published by Phaidon in 1996, the original A Smile in the Mind by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart became an essential sourcebook for a generation of designers. The process of selecting work for the revised and updated edition was daunting, but the sheer range of possibilities left no doubt that wit is alive and well.

As the title ‘A Smile in the Mind’ suggests, wit is about more than laugh-out-loud humour – although the world needs plenty of that. It’s also about lateral leaps and playful interventions in everyday life. Wit can be a structural idea for a business or brand. It can shape not just the way a product is marketed, but the product itself. It can work its magic on a supermarket shelf or in a children’s cancer ward. It contains a quick hit, but leaves a lasting impression.

The central argument of the new book is that wit is working on a larger and more varied scale than ever before. Here are just a few examples of what it can do.

91 We Made This 3
91 We Made This 2
Hoxton Street Monster Supplies: London branch of the 826 Valencia network of inner-city literacy centres hidden behind fantastical shopfronts, originally an ingenious way round planning laws. We Made This, UK, 2010

Wit turns problems into opportunities
We Made This, UK, 2010

Author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari wanted to set up an inner city literacy centre in San Francisco. They found the perfect location, but planning laws meant it had to be used for retail. So they invented a shop and put the literacy centre in the back room. Stocked with weird and wonderful supplies, the Pirate Supply Store was a brilliant way of bringing story-telling to life. The network has spread across the world, including Hoxton Monster Supplies in London (above), created by We Made This.

157 Crosby Fletcher
This poster against museums charging eventually inspired a change in policy. Fittingly, it is now part of the V&A collection. Crosby Fletcher Forbes, UK, 1970

Wit changes policy
Crosby Fletcher Forbes, UK, 1970

Featured in the original A Smile in the Mind, this poster was designed in 1970 by Crosby Fletcher Forbes. A protest against the introduction of museums and galleries admissions charges, it looked like a standard list of signatories until you realised they were all the names of famous artists.

The poster didn’t stop the charges being introduced. At the time, people might have seen it as a nice idea that ultimately changed nothing. Except that, 30 years later, it changed everything. Labour Culture Minister Chris Smith abolished the charges and specifically cited the poster as an influence (in an interview in 2010). Design makes a difference. Sometimes it just takes a while.

142 Oily Bird
Perfect name and packaging – designer unknown. Ronson Consumer Products Corporation, USA, 1963

Wit is everyday magic
Ronson Consumer Products Corporation, USA, 1963

One of the oldest projects in the book (only added in this edition) is Oily Bird – the perfect piece of packaging design. Lovely name, beautiful graphics, and a neat non-drip spout that doubles as a beak for the bird. Fun and function combined. Wit is the alchemy that turns the most mundane household product into a piece of everyday art.


Stills taken from the Superformula para Combater o Câncer film on AC Camargo Cancer Center’s YouTube channel

Wit fights cancer
JWT Brazil / AC Camargo Cancer Center / Warner Bros, Brazil, 2013

You might not expect to find wit in a children’s cancer ward in Brazil, but it’s even more powerful because of the context. The idea was to take the intravenous drip bags above each bed and encase them in superhero-branded packaging, so it’s as though you are being directly fed superhero powers. It’s a simple way to brighten up a grey and scary environment, and the therapeutic effects are easy to imagine. Wit makes a dark world a little brighter.

65 4creative
Teaser for the final episode of ‘Friends’, airing Friday. 4Creative, UK, 2005

Wit never ends
4Creative, UK, 2005

The brief: a teaser to promote the last episode of Friends, airing this Friday. The answer: put the last half of the word at the front. Sometimes wit is like a wonder of nature. The trick is not so much thinking of the idea as spotting it. This ad is as clear and functional as you can get, while also being as lateral and clever as you can imagine. At the time, it was a quick, tactical answer to a brief. Now it survives as a piece of commercial art, capturing a cultural moment for ever. A highly condensed diamond of an idea. 

185 Tokujin Yoshioka 1
185 Tokujin Yoshioka 2-pt1
185 Tokujin Yoshioka 2-pt2
A projected image of a woman appears to blow the Hermès scarf. Serene wit for Maison Hermès Japan. Tokujin Yoshioka, Japan, 2009–10. Courtesy of Hermès Japon

Wit is elegant
Tokujin Yoshioka, Japan, 2009-10

Wit is often associated with puns and gags – like the name of your local barber or fish-and-chip shop (a fine folk tradition that is recognised in the book). But wit also works at a more refined level, as in this beautiful window display for Maison Hermès Japan. A digital screen combined with a hidden fan creates a magical interaction.

143 Naoto Fukasawa
Fruit juice packaging: ‘Juice Skin’. Naoto Fukasawa, Japan, 2004. Photo: Masayoshi Hichiwa

Wit is bananas
Naoto Fukasawa, Japan, 2004

Sometimes wit is just fun. A smile on the supermarket aisle. Which fruit juice is your child going to pick – the supermarket own-brand or this magical square banana? Put it in your trolley and pick up a Jif Lemon while you’re at it.

A beaker topples, setting off a chaotic series of events that dismantles the entire page – Hema, The Netherlands, 2007

Wit likes new toys
Hema, The Netherlands, 2007,

When new technologies come along, they create a bigger playground for ideas. Digital is one of several new areas covered in the book. This 2007 example looks the way a retail site should look, but then a beaker topples and triggers a series of events that destroys the entire site – at which point you realise the whole thing is a clever marketing ploy. Wit is the urge to play with new tools and turn them to an unexpected use – it’s one of the oldest human instincts.

Manchester Comedy Festival: cheer up. MARK Studio, UK, 2008. Credit: Agency Mark Studio; designer and art director Mark Lester; photographer Richard Moran

Wit is funny
MARK Studio, UK, 2008

Wit can be many things – a conveyer of social messages, a medium of protest, a builder of brands, a changer of minds. But it can also just be funny. These posters for the Manchester Comedy Festival are as good as anything that would have appeared in the festival itself. No headline, no pay-off, no smile on the face, just a big smile in the mind.

The new, revised edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty thinking in graphic design, by Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart, Greg Quinton and Nick Asbury, is published by Phaidon (£24.95) and available now. All images, except for the stills from the Superformula para Combater o Câncer film, taken from the new book.

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