Keep it complex, smart?

cowtoolsIn 1982, Gary Larson published ‘Cow Tools’, the single-panel cartoon to the right.

Get it?

No? Neither did anyone else.

In Larson’s autobiography, ‘Prehistory of The Far Side’, he discusses the infamous comic. He explains that he simply found it humorous that if cows made tools, the tools would suck. Simple. A cow is presenting his shitty tools.

However, as Larson laments, he made the mistake of giving one of the tools an apparent function – the saw. Because of this, people thought the joke was in discovering the purpose of the other tools. What function could these oddly-shaped object perform? And what the fuck do cows need tools for?

According to Larson and his publisher, out of thousands of cartoons, this is the one he received the most questions about. To this day, the Internet is still searching for meaning in ‘Cow Tools’. But there is none. Larson admits, it’s just a funny idea that’s executed poorly.

People love to find meaning in things. More specifically, people love to find patterns – in fact it’s one of the few things we do more efficiently than computers.

As creatives, we toil over making things as easy to understand as possible.However, media is becoming ever more complex, and people are becoming ever more media literate. Often, people can managecomplexity with ease.

For example, the most recent Superman movie, ‘Man Of Steel’, never says ‘Superman’. The audience is media literate enough to know ‘Man of Steel’ is a Superman movie – to the point where the writers can tease the audience by not saying ‘Superman’, see 2:35:

Of course, this is a relatively plain example of the complex media environment. As Clay Parker Jones discusses in ExitCreative, there are many more layered examples, such as ‘Arrested Development’ – which is “So complex, so meta, so referential, that the depth of its humor only becomes apparent on subsequent watchings. Season 4 takes this idea to the limits of its applicability: it only began to make me laugh on my second complete viewing of the season.”

Jones hits the nail on the head:

It’s a pretty simple idea, but one that gets overlooked with unnerving frequency:
people want to figure things out.

Of course, this is the premise behind most good advertising. For example, below, the product helps the viewer figure out why the wrestler is smiling. But, what if, in a highly media literate environment, we could add complexity outside of the ad itself – referential, meta, or contextual complexity that requires a depth of media literacy.


You could use the same actor in the background of all your TV commercials. Let people figure it out. Who is the actor? Why is the actor always there? Provide an answer elsewhere.

You could tweet in anagrams on a Wednesday. Let people figure it out and reward them when they do.

You could *shock-horror* have no call to action.

You could let people figure things out.

They’ll thank you for it.

Creative Disclaimer: This ain’t no be all end all. Just an idea that’s been floatin’ ’bout lately.