I recently heard Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, gushing on Joshua Jay, a magician and all-around magic nerd. Jay just came out with a new book on magic, titled How Magicians Think where he answers 52 questions that magicians are frequently asked.
I hadn’t planned on making a IRLXD post out of this book. When I picked it up it was only out of personal interest. But soon after started reading it was clear that being a magician has an awful lot more experience design involved than is obvious at first glance. Sure, most tricks have a look, motif, and the building of suspense, but for the better magicians it goes a lot deeper and detailed than what you see on the surface.
As has become my habit of writing on books, this post is not a review or summary. Instead, I’ll go over the parts that resonated with me and/or that I thought were related to IRL Experience Design.
Start With Why
Jay talks a lot about the need to understand the why of the trick. This is how I know he’s my type of experience designer.
If you read this blog or talk to me much about projects I am all about the why. Not primarily out of curiosity, but primarily because understanding the why helps make decisions better and faster. Knowing why also reminds me why I should care. And when I care, I do better work.
The Magician Teller said “Caught up in the difficulty of mystifying, magicians often forget that the first job of any artist is to communicate a beautiful idea. Without that, any trick, even a real fooler, is an empty exercise.”
It’s not all shock and awe or flashing lights and energy. There must be a reason driving your work. Otherwise it’s just a demonstration of physical capabilities.
I liked that he added this quote from screenwriter Robert McKee: “You can have flaws, problems but wow them in the end and you’e got a hit.” (If you want to understand how stories work, I recommend reading McKee’s classic on screenwriting, Story. )
People were surveyed about what they liked most about magic and the top answer was none of the following: to be amazed, for the mystery, not knowing how it was done, or wanting to figure the tricks out.
The top answer was they liked the elements of surprise the best. This was consistent across age and backgrounds.
Jay says that “One of magic’s great paradoxes is to amaze you in ways you didn’t expect, to make you think, I didn’t see that coming, then, but I should have”.
This is much like the oft-given writing advice to “give your reader what they expect but not in the way they expected.” To meet expectations but not meet expectations is a tall order but if you can do it well people love it.
Jay illuminates the idea in a slightly different way with this quote from screenwriter William Goldman: “You must surprise an audience in an expected way.” (Make sure you read that as expected, not un-expected).
A good quote on misdirection from Jay: “Remember: If you can get people asking the wrong questions, they will never arrive at the right answer.”
The More Rigid The Reality, The More Magical
Of all the tough audiences a magician can have, Jay says that the toughest are kids. “Young children are often unimpressed with magicians because their line between reality and magic is blurred”.
This is one of the reasons my designs for The Eureka Room are for grownups only. Since to kids much of the world is new and wondrous, they don’t come to things with a set of beliefs about how reality works. Their reality is constantly being rearranged and edited and it’s not as surprising to them to see something they don’t understand as it is to adults.
Starting The Show
Jay says, “Most magic shows start with a bang. You have to impress before you can suggest. The right to tell an audience a story – to transport them – has to be earned”. This was reminiscent of Priya Parker’s advice to “awe” and “honor” the guests as you welcome them.
On Making Awesome Sh*t
Here’s a few quotes I really liked on this topic.
“To achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.” Tom Robbins Author.
“Elements omitted from a work of art are as much a part of that work as those included” Scott McCloud, cartoonist.
Possibly my favorite quote was this one by magician Simon Aronson: “There’s a world of difference between a spectator’s not knowing how something is done versus his knowing that it can’t be done”. If you don’t mindfully aim for the latter, you might end up with the former. It might be surprising but it’s not as amazing as it might have been.
On Performing Your Best, Over and Over
Jay was asked what the best advice he was ever given in regards to performing and I liked his answer: “ Perform like it’s the first time and the last time.”
The first time it’s exciting and new. The last time, the act carries maximum meaning and appreciation of the moment. Combined, they are incredibly powerful.
Beat Up Guitars and The Second Uncanny Valley
Rick Johnsson has this thing called the “too-perfect” theory. Jay explains it like this: Imagine a magician has a coin in one hand, closes both hands, opens both hands and the coin is now in the other hand. Amazing, right?
Now imagine both hands are open and the coin is in the palm of one hand. The coin – in plain view – levitates from one hand and flies through the air into the palm of the other hand.
When you see the first one you’re amazed. When you see the second one you are thinking “how is he doing this trick”? Somehow, despite it being even harder to do for the magician, as a viewer it’s somehow not as satisfying.
When a trick looks too good to be true, people know it’s a trick and don’t let themselves experience wonder.
This got me thinking about a few things. Why is it that perfectly new things (homes, restaurants, bars) often have a certain sterileness and things that are a little “broken in” feel more comfortable and natural? At least to me. Why do people pay more for distressed jeans or jackets. Why do people pay an extra few hundred dollars to have their new guitar come already beat up? Clearly there is some sort of value in not being perfect.
The other thing this makes me think about is the “uncanny valley” (Even if you don’t know this term, you’ve experienced it. Ever seen a CGI human face that looks a little “off” and creepy? That almost-not-quite-perfect uneasy feeling is the uncanny valley). Is there a second dip in the familiarity curve? How can there be a “that looks amazing and perfect” followed by a “that looks even better but not perfect”? Is the curve different for objects than people? Something to think about.
The Phrase I Needed
While the concept was not new to me, the phrase “the beholder’s share” was. For art to be what it is requires two things: the art and the person interacting with the art. The beholder’s share is the work done and meaning made in the mind of the spectator. It’s the music notes added to the song, it’s the impression of and reaction to the art inside the viewer.
The Magic Castle
The Magic Castle is an exclusive private club for magicians. There’s loads I could write about The Magic Castle in regards to IRLXD but will save it for another post.
Also.. that post would be better if I could actually visit. Anyone care to make me their plus one?