Seriously Funny: Metaphor & the Visual Pun


John Pollack writes in his book The Pun Also Rises that, “Critics and curmudgeons often deride the pun as the lowest form of humor. Others would counter that if that’s true, it would make punning the foundation of ALL humor.” While a verbal pun is defined as a humorous phrase that suggests two or more meanings by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, a visual pun suggests that a visual may have two or more meanings, in addition to or instead of language. Like verbal punning, visual punning also exists throughout the world, in cultures from the Inuits to the Aztecs. Pollack writes that because puns are so ubiquitous and appear in many forms and cultures across history, “that they appear to reflect something fundamental, enduring, and perhaps even universal about human expression.”

Just as Einstein is attributed to have said “Creativity is intelligence having fun,” puns are metaphors having fun. Visual metaphors, symbolism, and puns are inherently linked. All of these concepts similarly seek visual patterns in our environment and make connections between these patterns. Developing our inherent ability for pattern seeking allows us to discover the connections between seemingly disparate elements in our world, allowing us to, in the words of musician and author Amanda Palmer, “Collect the dots. Then connect them. And then share the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing.”

Metaphor and symbolism in visual art can sometimes be difficult concepts for students to grasp, especially the ability to simplify a recognizable object into the basic colors, shapes, and lines that form its symbolic components. Visual puns, however, are more easily recognized and appreciated. By studying and producing art that contains visual puns, students’ education in visual communication can be scaffolded from understanding the patterns that underlie humorous visual puns to understanding powerful metaphors and symbolism found in art.

Defining Metaphors, Symbolism, and Puns

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that literally refers to an object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a similarity between them. In the book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson state that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but in thought and action.” Lakoff and Johnson state that metaphors are not purely linguistic, but that they derive from a “metaphorical concept” that is integral to our human thought processes. Symbols, while similar to metaphors, are more concise; they can “be a single thing (usually an object but not limited to one) that is not directly given meaning through comparison, but whose meaning is created by the context in which that symbol is used.” Because both symbols and metaphors are inherent to our human conceptual system, they can and are often used in visual art as well as in language.

Visual puns can come in two forms: those that derive from verbal puns and those that are purely visual. In Visual Puns in Design, Eli Kince determines three varieties of puns that can be applied to visual puns that rely on spoken or written language, as well as purely visual puns. These categories include the literal pun, the suggestive pun, and the comparative pun. In literal puns, the pun is necessary to “uphold the primary meaning of the message,” such as in this poster for Yale’s fire marshall by Eli Kince, in which the letters crawl along the bottom of the composition as if they were people.

In a suggestive pun, it may take a second look to understand the picture play, since the pun is merely suggested, as in Boston’s WGBH-TV ads for Channel 2, which play on the elegance of Chanel №5.

Finally, comparative puns rely on “at least two key symbols” to construct the pun, as in Rene Milot’s mouse/lion illustration or in M.C. Escher’s Bat.

In addition, Kince notes the relation of visual puns to other types of pictorial play such as optical illusions, ambiguity, cartoon, and, importantly, metaphor. By attempting to categorize different varieties of visual puns and pictorial play, Kince illustrates that a multiplicity of visuals can be considered puns, while also playing roles as symbols and metaphors.

Rebuses, where a sound has been replaced by a visual symbol, are one of the earliest examples of a visual pun that relies on language. Rebuses also show up in early pictorial languages. To give an example of a visual pun that derives from a verbal pun, we can turn to examples of Dutch Gable stones, or gevelstenen. The “Batenburg” stone in Prinsengracht, Amsterdam puns on the name of a village through the Dutch words baten (to profit) and burg (castle).

My own work also relies on visual puns that derive from verbal puns, including my Jailbirds series of illustrations based on the characters from the Netflix show Orange is the New Black.

The pun began with thinking it was funny that the main character, whose name is Piper, did not just have a name that sounded like a bird, but the fact of her incarceration made her a “jailbird.” My series of greeting cards likewise rely on words and visuals working together to create the humor.

These puns are still visual puns because they rely on the visual to communicate the joke, but equally rely on the verbal component.

In art, the purest visual puns, however, do not rely on language at all, but imagery alone. Israeli artist Noma Bar is a master of this sort of visual pun. He replaces the hair of John Travolta with the iconic mustache of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. He plays on the pecking order by replacing the negative space of a dog’s mouth with a cat’s head and the negative space of the cat’s mouth with a mouse’s head on the cover of his book Negative Space.

In Escape the Weather, the point of the umbrella becomes the nose of the airplane, the sides of the umbrella the wings. And the pop-culture reference in Spock made it worthy of the cover of Esquire. In most of Noma Bar’s puns there is no verbal component, but the joke is exclusively visual.

Christoph Niemann is another genius at the purely visual pun, using both physical objects accompanied by illustration to create his puns. A coffee cup can allude to a sleepy morning, a butler’s carefully pressed and folded shirt makes him ready to serve afternoon tea, a couple of bananas are a fine visual pun for a horse’s rear end, and Niemann’s inkwell becomes a lens for how he sees the world.

Even the most simple visual image becomes a visual pun in Niemann’s art. What are you looking at in this image?

Why, it’s a top view of spaghetti, of course.

Niemann’s quick witted conceptual process also delves into the realm of symbolism and metaphor. In a cover for WIRED magazine for a story entitled “How the NSA nearly killed the internet,” Niemann plays on finding the visual pattern and similarity between the “at” symbol and a human skull to illustrate the struggles of internet freedom.

Niemann’s sharp and witty skills of creating clever visual concepts can therefore be applied to not just puns, but also symbols and metaphors.

Some artists such as Guy Billout also help create a transition from the humorous to the profound. In Billout’s illustrations, the rules of physics are bent… sometimes literally bent, as in his lighthouse illustration of the light that follows the path.

Light humorously takes on the properties of a solid object, as a man walks through a tunnel of it, or picks up a shadow like a piece of cloth, or rolls light along the ground like a hula hoop.

Billout creates other visual puns out of other subjects, such as the lazy statue who just wants to take a break on the grass, or a rowboat owner that is wondering if it has comprehensive boat insurance, or a janitor cleaning up an oil spill.

But Billout’s illustrations are not merely humor. A couple cuts through a maze, unable to wait for life’s path to lead them for each other, challenging the idea of chance in favor of choice.

A tank rolls over some surprisingly resilient sunflowers, a metaphor for optimism and resilience in the face of a bleak landscape of war.

These purely visual puns move beyond our linguistic skills to reveal something more inherent about our ability to perceive and interpret visuals and visual patterns. Our ability to create and interpret visuals is a precursor to our verbal skills. This is shown historically, as our ancestors created visual imagery thousands of years before they created written language. Even visual punning, Eric Carpenter writes, “is an ancient art. A carving from the Canadian Arctic, circa A.D. 1300, simultaneously represents a man in a hooded coat and a dog or… a dog-man, perhaps one popular in Eskimo tales.” Our ability to create and interpret visuals also precedes our verbal skills developmentally, as shown when babies interpret hand symbols (“baby signing”) before they interpret or create verbal language. We also practice this skill as children when we look up at the clouds and interpret the ambiguous sky sculptures as rabbits, dragons, and castles. This ability to create, interpret, and experiment with visual imagery is apparent in the earliest stages of human development and re-accessing these skills through the play and humor that comes naturally to children can help lead us into a greater understanding of patterns, the connections they make, and their application to metaphors and symbols.

Visual Puns: Seriously Funny

Visual metaphors and symbolism seek visual patterns in our environment and make connections between those patterns. When we identify a metaphor or a symbol, it is as if we are connecting the dots of a drawing by number, finding similarities and making the connections between them to reveal a larger picture. Kathleen Forsyth writes “Metaphors are bridges that order the nature of our collective and individual humanity. Metaphor provides the reality to the pattern language of thought for it is the mechanism of ordering newness.” Finding connections or patterns between abstract ideas and piecing them together to form a gestalt, is a critical component of conceptual thinking. However, not just metaphors and symbols, but also visual puns, can aid in developing this skill of pattern recognition.

As verbal puns “play a formative role in childhood development,” visual puns can do the same for our formation of perception. John Pollack writes, “As children gleefully learn to spot and evaluate simple meanings… they’re learning how to think critically. To get the joke, they have to overlook the obvious to explore other possible interpretations.” In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud agreed, observing “jokes have not received nearly as much philosophical consideration as they deserve in view of the part they play in our mental life.” The artists of the Dada movement, with their visual puns and picture play, paved the way to help artists “explore the spontaneity of intuitive expression,” which is now “firmly embedded within the consciousness of the individual artist.” Therefore, puns exist not just for our amusement, but can also inspire creativity, as well as critical and conceptual thinking.

So does a pun have to be funny in order to be effective? In Visual Puns in Design, Eli Kince writes that there are two effects of visual puns: a humorous effect and an analytical effect. He writes that an analytical pun is not just witty and apt, but also can be “appreciated intellectually more than emotionally.” It is this type of pun that can scaffold our understanding of visual metaphors and symbolism. Pollack writes that “in ancient Babylonia and Greece… punning often had religious implications and could even lead to armed conflict.” Punning is serious business. Humor has the power to reveal great truths. Pollack writes “from the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Panini… to playwrights and philosophers such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and Sartre, punsters have long deployed their subversive wit to expose the complex challenges — and perhaps even futility — of defining the world around us.” Contemporary comedians, such as Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah, can also show us how humor can be used as a pathway through which to reveal greater truths and scaffold one’s understanding of profound issues and concepts.

As an example of a verbal pun that was converted into a visual symbol, Pollack writes about an incident that occurred in 1989, when Chinese students protested by smashing small bottles, angry about the government’s Tiananmen Square massacre of democracy activists in Beijing. “The symbolic message?” Pollack writes, “Chinese leader Den Xiaoping’s name sounds a lot like the words for “little bottle,” xiao pingzi, and he had acquired that nickname for his ability to survive purge after purge and still bob to the surface. A shattered bottle sinks.” What began as a humorous pun of Xiaoping’s name resulted in an effective symbol with a serious political message.

Noma Bar’s seemingly humorous visual puns can reveal even more profound connections between visuals that help reveal social issues, such as in his video for the World Food Programme.

His visual puns can also be interpreted as symbolic connections that help to show the power of innovation and human progress.

Puns have the power to show us connections between relevant social issues and their underlying meanings. This type of analytical pun, as defined by Kince, is the keystone in bridging the connection between puns and metaphor.

Application in the Classroom

In my classes at Georgia Gwinnett College, our first visual art project of the year is created as a fun way to introduce my students to visual punning. I have my students draw one blue card and one green card from two separate piles. The blue cards each have an example of an animal, and the green cards each have an example of an everyday household object. Therefore, a student may have a CD and a koala, or a stapler and a lizard, or a cat and a pair of scissors. The students are then asked to look for visual similarities between the two objects by observing their basic shapes, lines, and textures, and finding the patterns that exist between the two objects. The students then create a “mutant drawing” or visual pun based on the objects. The results have shown their ability to use humor and puns to start making visual connections. A couple of examples from the past few years include headphones made out of flamingos, with their round bodies as the round shape of the headphones and their long thin necks as the headband, a hamster with a pretzel replacing the hind legs and the feet, a penguin with a clothespin replacing its bill, a snake with a textural similarity found between the zigzag pattern of a snake’s skin and the zigzag pattern of a zipper (with an additional visual pun of the snake “unzipping” its skin), a dinosaur’s spine created with credit cards, and, finally, a giraffe’s long neck as the handle of a fork.

Upon researching Christoph Niemann’s illustrations for this paper, I realized with satisfaction that this popular illustrator had independently discovered the exact same pun as my student.

Puns teach us more than just a cheap laugh, but also teach us something much more profound: the ability to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Metaphors, symbols, AND visual puns can teach the ability to perceive a tangible object along with its symbol at the same time. As seen in the works of Christoph Niemann and Guy Billout, sometimes the line between what is a visual pun and what is a visual metaphor is blurred. In 1937, Rene Magritte demonstrated similar effects in works like Not to be Reproduced.

Regardless of the name, the line between each of these three types of visual pattern identification — metaphors, symbols, and puns — is not always a clear one, but they all come from the same source, the same root of understanding and creativity.

Later in the semester, I show my students the artworks of Do Ho Suh, a contemporary Korean artist who moved to the U.S. and now lives in London.

Suh makes life sized replicas of his past homes with diaphanous, transparent fabric, which alludes to the sheets that cover old furniture. The result seems more like an ephemeral memory instead of a tangible, fully-formed house. It is as if Suh is reconstructing his memories of the past, memories he can fold up, put into a suitcase, and carry with him wherever he may go. It is if Suh is reconstructing his memories of the past, memories he can fold up, put into a suitcase, and carry with him wherever he may go.

I then show my students an artwork by Felix Gonzales Torres, which I saw in person at the Art Institute of Chicago when I was in middle school.

When I saw the pile of candy with the accompanying sign allowing me to do so, I was excited to grab a piece of it and, as I was crunching the candy in my mouth, read the placard displaying the powerful description of Gonzalez-Torres’ artwork:

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres produced work of uncompromising beauty and simplicity, transforming the everyday into profound meditations on love and loss. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is an allegorical representation of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. The installation is comprised of 175 pounds of candy, corresponding to Ross’s ideal body weight. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’s weight loss and suffering prior to his death. Gonzalez-Torres stipulated that the pile should be continuously replenished, thus metaphorically granting perpetual life.”

A fork is not just a fork, but it is the neck of a giraffe. A flamingo is not just a flamingo, but a set of headphones. A piece of cloth is not just cotton, but the fabric in which we construct our memories. A piece of candy is not just a piece of candy, but it is life itself. Regardless of whether these comparisons are metaphor, symbol, or pun, they all “collect and connect.”

“Part of what philosophy does,” Nigel Wartbuton writes, “is, sometimes, make you see what you already knew in a completely different light.” Kince writes, “In both pun and illusion, two truths can occur in the same space.” In art as well, a pun is more than just humor, but the light emanating from the laughter it creates illuminates the truths that lie behind the metaphors and symbols that shape our world.


Visual puns, metaphors, and symbols all seek visual patterns in our environment and make connections between those patterns. The humor found in visual puns is an accessible way for students of visual literacy to gain an understanding of metaphors and symbols in art. While verbal puns have been more thoroughly explored, the realm of the visual pun is just beginning to be more fully investigated. Visual puns have existed since the beginning of time and continue to affect and innovate our critical, conceptual, and creative thinking today.

In Visual Puns in Design, published in 1982 and preceding our contemporary digital world, Eli Kince wrote: “It is more likely than not that visual puns will continue to grow in use and in popularity as the need for communicating increases. As societies become more visually literate and international symbols take effect, what could be more efficient, memorable, and universal than the visual pun that speaks in two different ways at the same time.” In 1998, Google, now the most visited multi-platform web property in the U.S., produced its first “Google Doodle” visual pun, which Time magazine later deemed to be Google’s “most creative asset.” Thirty years after Kince’s prescient statement, artists such as Noma Bar, Christoph Niemann, and Guy Billout are still stretching the boundaries of the visual pun, innovating the way we think and educating a new generation of visual learners.

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Illustrator : Assistant Professor of Art : ATLien @catamooreart