Design as Predictive Storytelling

In 1973 the renowned author and member of the so-called ‘Big Three’ of science fiction Arthur C. Clarke decided to put his opinions of successful predictive storytelling into law. Behold his third and most famous law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and modify Clarke slightly to read “Any sufficiently designed interaction is indistinguishable from magic.”

So, what do we think?

In Clarke’s books, 2001 A Space Oddyssey for instance, his writing prowess shone when he was describing deep future technologies. It was critical to him and his contemporaries to make sure that the far out tech was somehow based on the most advanced existing tech of the time, only extrapolated a few decades or centuries. Thus “predictive storytelling”; essentially, taking what we have now, and imagining what it will be in the future, based on extensive knowledge of current research. The better the storyteller, the more magical the future seems.

“If design can be a way of creating material objects that help tell a story, what kind of stories would it tell and in what style or genre? Might it be a kind of half-way between fact and fiction? Telling stories that appear real and legible, yet that are also speculating and extrapolating, or offering some sort of reflection on how things are, and how they might become something else?”
– Julian Bleeker of The Near Future Laboratory

Pretend for a second that you can predict the future

In fact, you have just been sent through a mental wormhole 100 years into the future. What do you see? How are people communicating? Traveling? Eating? Now bottle those visions up and bring them back to our present-day with you. Oh, what’s that, you can’t? Why not? The technologies don’t exist, you say? Hmm… Ok, how bout this – come on back and write some stories about it. Or better yet make us a ton of prototypes that each hint at some part of the future! How do you suppose an interaction designer might take on this challenge differently from say Arthur C. Clarke? This is what interests me: predictive art and design that is essentially indistinguishable from magic. I’d like to clarify my meaning of the word “magic” a bit. Historically magic has meant many things, ranging from illusionists’ glamorous stage performances to wizards and witches casting spells. The “magic” I’m referring to is more of an abstract concept I suppose – one that creates a feeling of wonderment in its audience by exhibiting some seemingly impossible or supernatural feats.

The multimedia duo SWEATSHOPPE recently delivered some magic to the streets of New York. Consisting of Bruno Levy and Blake Shaw, SWEATSHOPPE “works at the intersection of art, music, and technology” all three of which are resonant in this digital-light-painting evidence video.

More magical interactions

If we push interactions to be more and more magical, they will begin to be indistinguishable from the future and from magic itself. I have been referring to existing examples of this effort as “Fringe Design”. Fringe, as in living on the outskirts of “the ordinary”; pushing the boundaries of the imagination, the visual vernacular, and the plausible, without batting an eyelash. Fringe Design should be embraced for its foretelling abilities – not every crazy technology ridden invention predicts how we will live in the future, but it MIGHT! Julian Bleecker, co-founder of The Near Future Laboratory puts it best in his essay, Design Fiction: “Science fiction can be understood as a kind of writing that, in its stories, creates prototypes of other worlds, other experiences, other contexts for life based on the creative insights of the author. Designed objects — or designed fictions — can be understood similarly. They are assemblages of various sorts, part story, part material, part idea-articulating prop, part functional software.” Further on he states that “design fiction objects are totems through which a larger story can be told, or imagined or expressed. They are like artifacts from someplace else, telling stories about other worlds.”

Neurosonics Live
from Chris Cairns recalls the decades-old dream of realistic, interactive 3D holograms.


They say good design is invisible

What we’re talking about here is the exact opposite (although it may occasionally involve invisibility cloaks or some such related thing). We’re talking about design as spectacle. Art as predictive storytelling. The practicality of this type of work may not seem immediately apparent, but I urge you to think deeper into the future, when the things that these works hinted at decades or centuries ago, are an everyday reality.

Good design is about the voyage

As always, with good design, it’s about the voyage; the process by which the idea evolved. As J.J. Abrams puts it in his article for the April 09 issue of Wired Magazine, “the buildup to a magic trick’s big flourish—is as much of a thrill as the result. There’s discovery to be made and wonder to be had on the journey that not only enrich the ending but in many ways define it.”

Science fiction is largely based on the notion of an alternative future world. Consider this futuristic present the big flourish of the magic trick and everything up until then, the buildup. Since time isn’t restricted to a fixed line in the sense that there is only now and the future, but infinite points in time in between, this journey is happening now and will continue to happen forever. It’s up to designers to consider our role in delivering magical flourishes for the alternate worlds of tomorrow. Without props, there could be no magic trick. That is certainly not to say, however, that by simply having props, you have a magic trick. The props serve as vital, tangible ingredients in the total experience of a trick, but they alone do not add up to a series of interactions that comprise an experience. Claiming such a thing would be to ignore other crucial components such as the magician, the stage and architectural context, the crowd of fellow wonderers around you, and perhaps above all, the theatrical trickery of a good magic show. This is not to say that well considered interaction design MUST employ trickery, but what if it did share more similarities with magic shows? How could we begin to think about designed objects as part of a “service and people” economy the way props are part of a magic performance? Consider the three acts of a classic magic trick (as portrayed in the movie, The Prestige):

  • Act 1: The Pledge –  The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course, it probably isn’t.
  • Act 2: The Turn – The magician makes his ordinary something, do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it.
  • Act 3: The Prestige – This is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, in which you see something shocking which you’ve never seen before.

What if designed experiences followed this pattern (minus the life-threatening bits in the third act, of course)? Perhaps designers can integrate aspects of this time tested process into the design of every things. To take users to a new depth of wonderment where anything seems possible.

Arthur C. Clarke knew that science fiction fans were seeking “immersive fantasies. They wanted warmly supportive subcultures in which they could safely abandon their cruelly limiting real-life roles, and play semi-permanent dress-up…”

as Bruce Sterling notes in his essay, Design Fiction. He knew that in order to make his fantasies truly immersive, though, he would have to stay somewhat grounded in contemporary notions of the future, reflecting upon today while extrapolating into tomorrow. To inspire readers to speculate on how things are and wonder how they might become something else. Maybe, even to motivate the designers out there to take charge of defining the steps in between today and tomorrow.

Microsoft plans to have its Project Natal available for Christmas later this year, proving that experience designers ARE working on delivering tomorrow to today’s holiday shoppers. If it works half as well as all the press videos make it look, it will be the most magical gaming system of all time.


Interacting with a thing rarely happens all at once and then is over

It tends to happen over time, or at least can be broken down into a series of interaction events. Each of these events presents an opportunity to elicit the same sense of wonder and joy of a good magic trick, or the end of a great chapter in a science fiction novel. “What will happen next?” the makers of these things want you to ask. “How will this end?” “How does it all work?” Magic and science fiction both typically do a wonderful job at this, but what about design? Why can’t our everyday experiences push our mental boundaries of what is possible today and make us wonder more often – what will tomorrow be like? What will the next century be like? I propose we follow Julian’s lead and “throw out the disciplinary constraints one assumes under the regime of fact” and allow our minds to wander. Wander to a place where robots, ray-guns, time machines, artificial intelligences, nanotechnology, and magic abound. Let us all wander, to tomorrow.

Top image: The Prestige

Seth Snyder

Seth Snyder is an experience designer at Tellart in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in cross-disciplinary explorations through research, brainstorming, concept development, and interaction design. Prior to joining Tellart, Seth graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tellart.

3 comments on this article

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  3. Seth, another great article!
    I really like your writing, you have a very fluid and fun style.

    I remember when I made my multi touch table a few years ago, I would always explain it as a magic trick. The wonder is in the seeing something you have never seen before, and in not knowing how it works. Then after explaining how it works, it always lost value. But magic is often like that.

    Your ending to this was wonderful and reminds me very much of my favorite quote. “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”