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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
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
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.
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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