What UX designers could learn from magicians

What UX designers could learn from magicians

“There’s an illusion called the Newspaper Tear and Restore,” says Jared Spool, an expert on user experience (UX) and co-founder of the UX design school Center Centre, located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “The version you’ve probably seen is called the Anderson Tear and Restore. It’s a favorite of birthday party performers.”

He’s also a big fan of magic.

As Spool talks to me over the phone about how the trick works, I can hear how passionate he is about the magic trade as he spouts out, not just how the trick works, but also the history of the craft. Spool explains the Newspaper Tear and Restore in detail, how the magician shows all of the pages of a section of the newspaper, then folds up the paper and tears it into shreds, folding them up into a little ball. Then, the magician waves the ball in the air, taps it with the magic wand and then unfolds the ball, showing a completely restored ball.

“It’s popular because Gene Anderson—a world-renowned magician who performed only on weekends, and worked at Dow Chemical during the week—figured out how to deal with the little wadded-up ball,” he says. “Obviously, the secret is with that little ball. We call it an Anderson Tear and Restore because he did it, it’s his. That’s how magicians work. They learn this method of provenance to communicate to each other to be able to quickly identify what each other does and how they do it through the language of provenance, by attributing it.”

Spool further explains that any flourishes added to the trick by other magicians that add value—the modifications to the overall illusion—get a name. So, magicians will perform the Anderson Tear and Restore with an Oliver Flourish, which is David Oliver’s version of how he does the Anderson Tear and Restore.

That idea of provenance, of recognizing the history of things, says Spool, is something the UX design field hasn’t dealt with yet. Someone will come out with a new design, and it’s just a repeat of something that’s already been done. And no credit was given to the original person who actually did the work. And so, there is overlap, with no system of record.

To Spool, the magician’s craft is about 60 years ahead of what the design craft is today.

When Spool’s son was training to be a professional magician, one of the things Spool noticed was that they didn’t just teach the illusion—his son’s teachers taught the history of the illusion.

It’s standard practice in professional magic. “You learn the history of the things you’re working on and most designers today don’t know the history,” Spool says.

“You can sort of look at the magic profession and see our future,” he says. “One of the things that happens in design is we invent things but nobody knows who invented them. We’re seeing it right now with things like chatbots Alexa and Siri, where we’re basically reinventing command-line interfaces. All the benefits and problems of command-line interfaces are about to show their beautiful faces in these chatbots, which are evolving to just be extensions of old command-line UIs.”

Spool explains that UX design is constantly in a state of reinventing processes, with designers creating tools and apps and functions, leaving others in the industry unaware of their origins and who created them. His point is that because no one teaches provenance in the UX design industry, nobody is learning the history, either; which leads to a lot of reinvention, without the lessons of why things evolved the way they did. If UX designers kept better track of who created what, technology would progress even faster, and concepts created could be built upon, improved with flourishes, much easier and quicker. And the same mistakes wouldn’t be made.

“Who did the first usability test? Who was the one who created the first scroll bar? Who made the first video player?” he asks. “These are the things that nobody thinks about.If we had a better way of passing historical knowledge down to new generations of designers, we could avoid this reinvention of old mistakes. The magicians solved this problem by using provenance in their oral tradition.”

Spool then asks me if I know who created the first video player on computers. I have no idea. He then informs me that it was a woman named Joy Mountford, a designer who created it while working for Apple in the 1980s.

Spool points out how that fact has gotten lost over time. “There’s a real thoughtfulness to how she built the first video player,” he tells me. “The fact that we have an icon that is a triangle, the fast forward and rewind button behavior, the way that the scrolling works to sequence you through frames, all of that stuff that we use today, that’s a common visual language for a video player was invented by a person not that long ago. We shouldn’t forget our history.”


Charlie Moss

Senior Copywriter

Charlie Moss has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Week, Slate, MOJO, VICE and other publications. He has a passion for comic books, Star Wars, and The Beatles.