These Projects Show the Power of Being Playful in Graphic Design

From Noma Bar's use of negative space to an ad campaign printed on a trillion dollars, these works show how unusual juxtapositions of text and images can create designs that are funny, witty or powerful.


Wit and graphic design is a winning combination. Whether it's branding, political, or social, wit displays a keen intelligence that catches people’s eye, if not their mind. 

Wit is a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humour. Whether that’s to provoke serious thought or just cause a light chuckle, designers in an upcoming exhibition for London Design Week have cleverly mixed image and text to create inventive thought, perception and insight.

The Partners have edited a book celebrating this powerful relationship and a free, interactive exhibition of the work included in the book will be held on Friday in the Gallery at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross, London.

The Phaidon book, A Smile in Mind, presents the intelligent playfulness of talent such as Noma Bar, Dominic Wilcox and Robert Brownjohn.

The exhibition of ‘wit and design’ will showcase 72 pieces of work from the 942 included in the book, which was first published in 1996 by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart. They book now reflects extensive revisions and updates by executive creative director at The Partners, Greg Quinton, and Nick Asbury from Asbury & Asbury

“Wit is playfulness with ideas. Through its employment, designers take the familiar and turn it into the surprising,” says Greg Quinton. 

“It is the lateral leap that persuades and delights, the magical element that builds brands, changes minds and engages people with messages that matter.” 

Take a look at some of the designs featuring at the exhibition on the next slides.


Coy! Communications: Youth Culture

This is a promotional poster for a 2011 exhibition on youth culture in the UK. It references 1960s modern culture and a lookalike of an older-looking Pete Townshend of The Who. Designed by Mark Denton.

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Dentsu & Kishokai: Mother Book

The Mother Book is a pregnancy diary mirroring the 40 weeks a mother typically spends pregnant. Each page has been hand crafted with topographical cutouts revealing the changing shape of a woman’s body as each day passes. Space is left on each page for the mother to make notes of the process.

Mother Book was originally available for mothers utilising the services of a birthing facility in Japan in 2014, before being made available for anyone to purchase online due to its popularity. 

The book was created by Japanese international ad agency and PR company Dentsu in partnership with Kishokai Medical Corp.


Dominic Wilcox: Sheep 

A chair and a camera case? No, it’s a sheep. This image is Dominic Wilcox's conception of 'seeing not looking'.

“I showed the picture to a friend who stared at it for a while and said, ‘yes a chair and a bag’. I said ‘no, it’s a sheep’. Now she and I can’t look at it without seeing the sheep,” Dominic wrote on his blog.

“There are things all around us that are waiting to be noticed we just need to see them and place a spotlight on them.”


NB Studio: London’s Kerning

The International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD) originally commissioned this poster by branding and communication studio NB. If you look carefully you can see every street name in London on the print, which is part of the permanent collection at both the V&A and Design Museum in London.

The typographic map was created for an exhibition ‘My London/My City’ as part of The London Design Festival. It celebrates the place of typography and graphic design in contemporary visual culture.

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Noma Bar: Night Train

Noma Bar is known to tell visual stories encapsulating political and social commentary with simple graphic forms of double-take images.

His bold use of colours, shapes and iconography can be seen in this Night Train to London design inspired by a sleeping passenger on the train. Do you see a face, or the moon?


Pentagram: Infantry

This 2001 poster was designed by Harry Pearce for human rights organisation Witness to highlight the issue of child soldiers internationally. Witness trains and supports activists to use video safely and ethically to expose human rights abuse. Harry has been a long-time supporter and designer for the organisation.

Harry is a graphic designer, photographer and one of the 21 partners at Pentagram. He’s produced work for big brands such as Shakespeare’s Globe, the Science Museum and the UN. 


TBWA Hunt Lascaris: The Zimbabwean

This poster is part of an outdoor advertising campaign by TBWA Hunt Lascaris in 2009 to promote publication The Zimbabwean in South Africa. The goal was to raise awareness of the newspaper, as well as the increasing problematic hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and restrictions on freedom of speech. 

The Trillion Dollar Campaign repurposed Zimbabwean banknotes as printing paper for handouts, billboards and poster advertisements.

It was widely successful and took home the Grand Prix in the Outdoor category of the 2009 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

TBWA’s work prides itself in "disrupting market conventions".

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