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  • The Uses of Distraction

    The late Johnny Carson did magic early in his career. So did Steve Martin and Dick Cavett. The striking intellectuality of all three may be coincidental, but I doubt it. The few magicians I know are almost preternaturally cerebral, leading me to suspect that perspicacity and prestidigitation are inextricably linked. Well, they would be, wouldn't they? A magician, after all, is an entertainer in the business of putting things over on the audience, a task that calls for, if not Mensa membership, at least the street smarts of a con man.

    My friend Mark Mitton is a magician with an intense interest in what and how people see. Perhaps all magicians share that interest, since their work is so largely visual. In a sense, however, it is just as strongly anti-visual, as evidenced by the respect paid to the adage “the hand is quicker than the eye.” Invited by the Philoctetes Center to organize and moderate a roundtable discussion under the rubric “Perception and Imagination,” Mitton saw an opportunity for assembling a few scientists to address a subject that has long fascinated him: “the use of misdirection to better understand perception.”

    Misdirection is a skill almost as important to designers as to magicians. Since both are engaged in trades that seek to manipulate attention, both inevitably traffic in distraction. But a funny thing happened to Mitton on the way to the event: he got distracted! Realizing that all the panelists he had recruited happened to be an internationally celebrated expert in one of the five senses, Mitton deftly changed the subject of discussion from “distraction” to “sensory perception.”

    The discussants were the painter Philip Pearlstein; neurologist Frank R. Wilson; sound mastering engineer Greg Calbi; perfumer Sophia Grojsman; and chef Nils Norén. “We are people who connect things,” Wilson observed early on, and in connecting their own creative experiences the panelists revealed the commonality of their various specialties. Regardless of whether the organ of specialty is nose, tongue, ear, eye or hand, the same recognizable and mysterious process seems to be at work. When Calbi described his attempt to “re-imagine the sound” of an album, Norén related that to his kitchen experiments, adding, “Food really involves all the senses, including sound.”

    It was a heady evening, but I left ruminating on what might have been explored if the discussion had gone as originally planned. The magician's hand always seems to be quicker than the eye because of the performer's ability to direct your eye away from the operative action, controlling what you are looking at by controlling what you are looking for. You think you see what he is doing, but what you see is what he wants you to think he is doing. This is not peculiar to stage magic. I suppose everything we see is seen at the cost of something else that we don't see. Sometimes what you are looking at is itself an obstacle to seeing what is there: “can't see the forest for the trees” is more than just metaphorically apt.

    Distraction in the hands of a stage magician is an instrument for making something appear to happen that cannot actually have occurred. The deception, of course, is benign. This isn't three-card monte. The object is not to get your money; the box office has already collected that. The performer wants to fool you into an illusion, not into harm's way.

    Graphic artists may use similar skills. Magritte, who insisted his painting consisted of “visible images which conceal nothing,” was a master of concealment. Much of the power of an Escher drawing comes from the contradiction between what you are seeing and what you know to be the way things really are. The Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists is dedicated—as its motto promises—to “mastering the art of deception in its highest form.”

    In a fiercely competitive environment, one of the designer's tasks is to keep the viewer from attending to the myriad other calls on her attention. One of my first magazine assignments required interviewing a package designer whose office was equipped with a set of model supermarket shelves stocked with samples of products that competed with his client's product. “Look,” he said, “when one of my designs is on a shelf you can hardly even see the other ones.” It was not a subtle approach—as a rule the most effective packages don't make others invisible, they just make yours look more appealing—but he was not a subtle designer, or a particularly good one either. Yet even the best designers must consider ways to screen out messages that would get in the way of those they are delivering. Stefan Sagmeister's book is brilliantly titled Made You Look. But an equally appropriate boast for graphic designers has got to be, “I made you look away!”

    Photo credit: Still of Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent on The Tonight Show.

    About the Author: 

    Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.

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