Invisible art, intrinsic motivation
Imagine waking up at 8am practising something for 12 hours, going to bed, getting up in the morning and doing it all over again. Imagine eating soup, wearing the same pants everyday* and avoiding all distractions. Imagine that you take weekends off, but use them to visit your Aunty Doris, who you hate. According to some ‘experts’ you can adopt this sort of lifestyle and master a skill within just over three years. It’s an extreme way to do it, but I’m sure it’s what some people do to become a ‘master’. Is it a price worth paying?
It might seem mercenary, but the cost question kept troubling me. Is it worth practising magic. After all, most magic is for kids and unusual uncles, isn’t it? And if something costs you a lot, shouldn’t you show it off? This needn’t be ostentatious or flashy, it’s just human nature. It’s perfectly natural to want to celebrate owning the things that took effort to acquire. But this becomes especially difficult when you’re talking about magic (and information design, funnily enough) – you need to hide the art. Design is about making effort invisible.
Almost all performers have part of their personality that compels them to show off. This is what enables people to approach a room, group or individual with the certainty that their qualities qualify them to monopolise attention. When I began learning magic tricks it was, and occasionally continues to be, extremely difficult to avoid making the effort visible. This might work for certain types of trick, even Yoda scrunches up his plastic face when he’s using the force. But the graceful elegance of plucking a thought from the air or a card from the pack is a little diminished if the moment of magic is surrounded by truckloads of tomfoolery. The trouble with lots of magic is that the performer wants to take credit for the 10,000 hours, rather than for the single moment of inexplicable magic. This is the trap I would fall into – this is the sort of selfish diversion that can focus any trick (or piece of design) in the wrong direction.
Magic as town planning
Some jobs require your ego to take a back seat and embrace loftier ideals. Town planning is one. You never want to be sat in car, traversing a town and thinking, ‘this is a very well placed roundabout’. The distraction might prove disastrous. In 1967 Swansea was entirely re-modelled after the beauty of two pelican crossings and a “Give Way’ sign was found to be ruining local business – people lost faith in capitalism and established socialist communes with the intention of ‘contemplating the signs’.**
In his book with the ISBN number 978-0-06-092043-2 Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi describes the psychology of the optimal experience. I don’t think many ‘optimal experiences’ need to be like experiencing the sublime – all full of shock, awe or wonder. I think they should flow in the way Csiksentmihalyi describes, conjuring up a state:
“of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
This is what I like to do, whether performing a magic trick or designing a digital experience. I want to imbue the experience of participation with an ‘intrinsic motivation’ which compels the audience/participant to ignore the art and embrace the magic of the experience.
Motivation is probably the biggest M in the world of my magic – it’s almost certainly more important than the other nine M’s in this sentence, for example.
Magic only works if it is logical. You should re-read that sentence because it’s very important. To make sure you do I’ll re-type it. Magic only works if it is logical. This might seem illogical in itself. Isn’t magic about breaking rules and showing that the impossible is possible? It is. But impossibility and illogicality are completely different ball games.
Take ball games as an example
Imagine I have two balls in my right hand. Your hand is empty. My mum always told me it’s nice to share. So I give you one to hold nice and tight, in your fist. I place the ball in your hand and close your fingers round it, tight. There’s an issue though. The balls are in love. Didn’t I mention that? They hate to be parted. When you open your closed fist the ball has gone from your hand and I’m holding two again. Lovely.
It’s not the optimal experience, but it does have internal logic – if you forgive the anthropomorphisation of sponge. The point of this? Magic needs logic. Each effect needs to be logical. Why do you need to me to write my thought down if you’re going to read it out of my mind? Why didn’t you have me sign my card if the one you’ve just pulled out of an onion is really the one you just put back in the pack? These are logical challenges that require answers. Participating in an experience assumes the user is asking questions of the internal logic as they ‘perform’ their role – which you have designed for them.
Design is about asking the questions your participants will during the experience, and ensuring your answer is logical.
Invisible art, invisible compromise
With no compromise in the logic, experiences flow. The designed experience becomes a world in itself, different from the mundane experiences that surround it. In magic, the logic of an experience is bound to the moment, so that in the retelling, the participant needs to invent things to make it possible, because the logic you designed and projected is masking the possibility. This hides the truth still further.
In digital experience the logic is invisible in the same way breathing is most of the time – it’s just the automatic, most logical thing to do. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur – but easy is different from invisible. Make the ‘effort’ invisible and your design will delight.
** this is not true