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Web Designers are all Comedians

March 6th, 2011 by Nate

Often when I’m trying to gain insight on a particular issue, I find it useful to explore something that is similar but easier to dissect and apply those findings as potential insight into the original issue. One could roughly compare it to the transitive property of equality in mathematics, where if a=b and b=c, then a=c. Obviously since math usually has concrete answers to a problem it doesn’t translate entirely, but it’s useful nonetheless. It’s especially useful for stepping outside your own set of beliefs and opinions, allowing a more objective view of ideas, because it’s based primarily on logic rather than emotion.

While browsing my netflix queue of standup comedy earlier this week, I got to thinking about how a comedian’s and a web designer’s job are similar on many different levels. Not only are both “artists” within a creative field, but they both require a certain level of communication finesse. It’s from these communication elements that parallels can really be drawn.

The Audience

Comedians are acutely aware of the audience to which they’re communicating. They have one job to do – entertain the group. It doesn’t matter if a routine has the funniest and most innovative humor in the world if the audience doesn’t appreciate it. It’s in a comic’s best interest to taylor their routine to specific venues and to constantly be adjusting it on the fly based on the audience’s reactions. Likewise, web designers must know their audience from the very beginning of a project. Who will be viewing or using this site? What do they appreciate and need the most? Delivering the best and most effective result requires researching your audience and communicating with them on their level. Plan for adjustments along the way to keep the site focused on what’s working with the audience, and eliminiate what isn’t working.

The Setup

The Comedy and Humor Blog has a perfect description of this element:

“This is the beginning of the joke. This is where you gain the audience’s trust. It’s just something that the punchline has to breathe off of. You couldn’t just walk onstage and say punchlines. The audience would think you were crazy. For some people, the least number of words you can get in your set-up, the better. If you can take your set-up and whittle it down by three words and still get the same or better response, you should do it. Sure, it means the joke will take up less time, but it will also allow for a quicker route to the punchline, which will set up a quicker response. The whole problem is that people, if the set-up is too long, may forget what you’re talking about before you get to the punchline. And that’s not good for comedy. However, the set-up is definitely relevant and it needs to be there for every joke.”

This relates to web design in so many ways. For example, take a website where the goal is to promote and sell a product. A person won’t simply buy the product because you tell them it’s the best solution for their needs. Earning a customer’s trust will go a long way towards making them feel comfortable about a purchase. The site should answer their questions and allow them to make the decision on their own. Logical content presented in a clever way will keep them engaged and hold their attention. Furthermore, concise content will get them to that decision faster. Eliminate distractions and simplify. People have limited attention spans and if they have to wait through your overly long setup in order to reach the punchline, you’re likely to lose a conversion.


Delivery of the message can be nearly as important as the message itself. Some comedians are spectacular at delivering their jokes – they tell interesting stories that connect with and entertain their listeners all the while leading up to the punchline. Their uniqueness of delivery gives them identity as well and defines their style of comedy (think Demetri Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Dave Chappelle). It immerses the audience in the experience so that they’re pleasantly surprised when the punchline is dropped on them. Even if the punchline is a bit weak, a strong delivery will help give it credibility. The audience feels like they should laugh because they’ve been entertained up until that point. A smart audience may feel betrayed by this, so the punchline should at least be as good as the delivery.

A user’s desired actions on a website should be supported by a strong delivery. Engaging, educational content presented in the right format will help the user feel like they are receiving something in return for the time they’re spending. Even if they leave the site, they’re more likely to return later because they remember the positive, useful experience. Whether it’s deciding between flash/html, mobile site/mobile app, or testimonial videos/case studies, the right means of delivering messages and presenting content should be used to enhance (or at least, not detract from) the experience. This creates credibility and shows that you know how to make good decisions regarding your users.

The Punchline

A joke is not a joke without a punchline. It’s what gives the joke a conclusion and draws the biggest response from the audience, releasing the built-up tension from the set-up. All the other elements of the joke exist to support the punchline. Various techniques exist for making the punchline as impactful as possible, such as careful placement of wording and the language used. A punchline also gives a certain joke an identity – it’s what you really remember when you’re trying to repeat the joke to someone else later on. You can improvise the set-up, even make up your own as it makes sense, but the punchline will always stay the same.

Not every website has as distinct of a “punchline” as others. Obviously, the punchline of a sales site is to present you with the option to buy the product. It’s strong and inviting, and your natural inclination will be to say yes (laugh) if the setup and delivery were of quality. But really, every site should have a goal in mind for it’s users. Whether it’s getting them to read more articles, download a sample of something, or learn about what your company’s capabilities, that goal is the punchline and it’s what you want to achieve most effectively. All the elements of your site should exist to support your most important goals first. Conversely, a site without a clear goal is simply a waste of time – it’s like sitting through a joke with no end or purpose.


People in creative fields really are very similar to one another. We can all learn from and apply each other’s most effective communication techniques. From this, new insight is generated and fresh styles and methods of communication are born.