Crop from: Not Okay, Lily Kong

Harry Grundy is a London-based multidisciplinary designer whose work frequently deals in daftness to highly accomplished ends: he’s created a Fertility Vase from a condom, and cultivated Japanese-style zen gardens on the most stressful parts of a golf course, to name a couple. Here, he explores the power of silliness in design, and its capacity to create seriously good concepts and solutions. 

“Taking silliness seriously” was a paradox that fascinated me since I first heard it at design school. My Kingston University tutor Kieran O’Connor advised two students who dismissed their idea as “silly” that there’s no such thing, when that idea is being taken seriously.

An idea that’s “silly”—defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “absurd and foolish”—often lies at the heart of a great project. It’s the execution and rigor with which it’s crafted that makes all the difference: to take a supposedly irrational idea and mold it into something engaging requires conviction and skill.

Playfulness has been central visual communication for centuries. Take the obscene doodles in the margins of Medieval illuminated manuscripts, for instance, or the Victorian illustrator W. Heath Robinson’s convoluted machines completing simple objectives. Heath Robinson was one of my earliest influences on the way I thought about design. My dad had given me a book of his work when I was about 11. I would obsessively draw my own convoluted machines in biro on the back of scripts that my make-up artist mum would bring home.

More recently, I’ve taken the idea of invention and applied it to some silly ideas that complete their own “simple objectives.” For my Mortar from Pestle project I caricatured the basic role of the pestle—to crush herbs and spices—and pointed it at its own mortar, its form being dictated by the familiar process for which it is used. I like to think of this work as an irreverent invention that marries personality to functionality.

The 1918 Dada Manifesto, which lays out the Dadaists’ intentions as the “abolition of logic,”can be seen as a keystone text for those working in serious irreverence. Even the origin of the name is in play: many art historians believe that the German artist Richard Huelsenbeck picked the word at random from a dictionary, and “dada” is a colloquial French term for a hobby horse. Others note that it resembles the first murmurings of a baby, portraying an experimental childishness that was core to the group’s approach. But for all that, Dada’s aims were entirely serious—as is its impact on the art world since. Marcel Duchamp, one of the group’s foremost members, is credited with the birth of conceptual art through his use of readymades, most famously his 1917 Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed R.Mutt.

I sat down with the creative Karl Toomey, who frequently deals in hilarious takes on popular culture, technology, and the commercial world, to discuss the importance of humor and play when tackling important problems. Toomey recalled a Pecha Kucha talk he gave in Dublin back in 2009. The brief was to present ways in which the city could be improved. “Dublin has a very poor transport system. There was also a huge amount of Spars replacing corner shops. Really sad,” he says. His plan was to replace the bus systems with the Spar Bus, “going Spar to Spar, thereby connecting all of Dublin.” I briefly reflected on how quickly I could get home if London had a Pret A Manger Bus. “With that there was a foot in a kind of reality, highlighting two problems at once,” says Toomey.

Another idea from his talk was to provide prisoners in Dublin with sunbeds in their cells, and having them released through the local airport’s departure lounge. The aim was to impress potential future employers with “how enriching their long trip abroad had been.” These speculative proposals embody what Toomey terms “Trojan horsing-in ideas,” while also distilling a serious brief into something that’s as absurd and hilarious as it is universally approachable.

Toomey’s advice on using silliness as a tool for innovation centers on the question “Why not break things apart completely at first?” He suggests that designers “answer the brief in the most incorrect, disastrous way as a mental exercise. ‘What’s the worst thing we could do here?’ That will reveal all sorts of truths that wouldn’t be considered normally.”

This reminded me of my first day at art school and how we had to present a small project that we had created over the summer holiday. That crit was a baptism of fire. “You can be the best or the worst, just don’t be boring,” our formidable tutor Zelda Malan instructed.

“answer the brief in the most incorrect, disastrous way as a mental exercise. ‘What’s the worst thing we could do here?’”

Design and development studio Bong International boasts a bonkers homepage featuring a huge, sound-effect-laden interactive Newton’s Cradle, and its portfolio is characterized by galvanizing playful ideas into something seriously engaging. Founders Ben West and Simon Sweeney, now split between Dublin and Amsterdam, met studying graphic design (also at Kingston University), and they credit the “ideas-first approach we got bashed with there” as vital to their practise today.

The world of coding and web development is often seen as one with prescribed approaches and set working methods. But Bong reckons that naivety is the key to making fresh work. “We don’t have much in the way of habits or a defined process, good or bad,” says the studio. “UX principles and the like have flown over our heads and into the bin. There’s a certain standardization emerging in web products, which we do our best to resist, so it’s a good thing we weren’t taught it.”

The products of this rebellious stance include a virtual look inside Trump Tower, an election polling site using erections, a rotating gallery for set designers Isabel and Helen that responds to the proportions of each case study image, and a constantly updating homepage for “It’s based on references to graphic design software and process and the old fashioned ‘under construction webpage’,” says Bong of the latter, “so admittedly a bit of a circlejerk, but we like it anyway.”

Speaking of circlejerks, London-based illustrator Mr Bingo has built a reputation both for hilarious tongue-in-cheek depictions of human behaviour and his creative industry lectures. With most creatives opting for a fairly similar lecture style—chronology of past projects, funny anecdote, insightful conclusion—Mr Bingo has an act that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place at the Edinburgh Fringe. “For some reason, people are interested in what I’m doing with my life and so I get invited to speak about it quite a lot,” he says. “I think people are interested in the fact that I do everything on my own and I’ve sort of invented a life which operates outside most of the normal rules of society and work.”

His irreverent tone extends to all areas of work, whether you’re buying a “Fucking Bookmark” from his online supermarket or getting “shitfaced” with him on the train as a reward for helping fund his Hate Mail book on Kickstarter. Other pledge deals included the artist doing your washing up, sharing a drink with him five years in the future, and an option to have Mr Bingo as your own personal troll.

“A lot of people and bits of life are really too serious, so I think for many people my stuff is a release from that, it’s a good antidote to the over-seriousness of life,” he says. Recent japes include buying his 50,000th Instagram follower a beer: “It happened to be a bloke in Ipswich called Tom, so I tracked him down and turned up at his flat last night with a pint.”

Undoubtedly inspired by Mr Bingo and Toomey, I embraced an invitation to talk at Somerset House for Sheffield Hallam University with my own creative hijinks. I hired two actors to present themselves as me. The married pair, best known for their touring Shakespearean productions, spoke on my behalf on the duality of my ideas and of course; taking silliness seriously. Highlights from the performance included explaining the thought process behind a five-foot purple dildo that I had repurposed as a crayon; and introducing a self portrait that, despite their best autobiographical description, was of a 25-year-old (me) balancing a selfie stick on his nose, and recalling a morning of trespassing on a private golf course as “super-fun.”

Indeed, what is creativity without a little bit of super-fun? Camberwell College of Art grad Lily Kong makes vibrant, smiley images that are straightforward in their charms. However, she acknowledges the dangers of enforced “play” in the creative process. “I don’t worry too much about playing with materials or experimenting when I start a project,” she says. “There’s a lot emphasis on having to be playful with your work, which can put pressure on, but most of the time playing comes naturally.”

Her motto is “enjoy more, think less,” and that enjoyment shines through in her work and the inspirations she reveals online behind it: YouTube cat videos, New Year celebrations, and “small precious daily activities and things that make people happy.” This take is a welcome remedy to the overprescribed, conference talk-ready notions of play. Sometimes it can be as simple as doing what you love (silly) and working hard to make it happen (serious).

“There’s a lot emphasis on having to be playful with your work, which can put pressure on, but most of the time playing comes naturally.”

I thought it would be best to get in touch with the man that is responsible for this essay, Kieran O’Connor, and ask him to elaborate on those words from 2015, and to describe the value of an arts education that encourages silliness in the face of the end goal for many: a creative industry that can feel both impenetrable and often rather sober. “Education aims to learn from the seriousness of industry by integrating the experience of visiting and fractional lecturers and by running live briefs. This tempers the unconventional with the conventional,” says O’Connor. The educator sees this a two-way street, with industry and pedagogy feeding each other ideas and creating a useful dialogue between students and tutors.

“silliness acts as small cogs that move everything along—it’s not something to be smuggled in for appearances or old time’s sake.”

O’Connor recently advised a student to draw on his face in a tutorial. “Her idea involved tattoos and I got the sense her doubts were betraying her,” he says. “To cheerlead for her proposal I spent ten minutes as a prototype surface there and then. This seemed silly in the moment but it had serious intentions: to guide with more than words; to show her and the class that I was in it with her/them; to unleash the power of a prototype so the idea stood up or fell down for itself.”

He shares Toomey’s conviction that silliness can be a crucial driver in revitalising the design process. “I think silliness is a tool itself,” says O’Connor. “In instances when the design world is a serious one and does address problems I think silliness acts as small cogs that move everything along—it’s not something to be smuggled in for appearances or old time’s sake.”

Kieran O’Connor by Jinqing Zhang