Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs

Jared Spool

March 5th, 2008

Want to know what relationship behind magical illusions, practiced by professional magicians, and experience design, practiced by UX designers, really is?

That’s the subject of a presentation I’m giving twice over the next week. The first time is tonight, at Yahoo!’s Sunnyvale offices, and open the public. The second time is at South by Southwest Interactive on Sunday.

I get really nervous when presenting this talk, since the magical illusions I’ve embedded into it take more concentration and focus than a normal presentation, where all I need to do is focus on the lecture portion. So, if you come, please be gentle. 🙂

Here’s the official talk description:

Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs

As children, we’re told the world is a magical place. Babies are delivered by storks. The tooth fairy harvests retired teeth in exchange for currency. Bunnies deliver candies in brightly covered baskets on a spring holiday. The world’s adults use magic to explain away the complexity of life.

In our work, confusing complexity is the natural result of an unchecked design and development process. Teams work hard, responding to customer requests through incremental improvement and feature enhancements, yet they often end up with a dismaying array of features that make users unhappy.

In this entertaining presentation, Jared will share some of his recent research into the craft of professional magic. He’ll demonstrate the parallels between the world of magical illusions and the world of digital design, comparing the similarities between professional illusions and some of today’s top design techniques.

In this presentation, you’ll learn how:

  • Illusions performed by professional magicians follow the same design principles as your computer’s file system
  • Designers can create specific mental models to eliminate perceived complexity
  • Simple design tricks can make designs seem to be faster than they really are
  • Whimsicality, attention, and functionality are essential elements to creating delightful experiences

You’ll see examples of illusions built into a variety of designs, including those from Microsoft, Flickr, Netflix, iTunes, and Facebook. Jared will also, possibly at his own peril, reveal the secrets from several magical illusions to show you just how the tricks were created and the effects are realized, giving you the ammunition necessary to build illusions into your own designs.

18 Responses to “Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs”

  1. Andrew Says:

    This is similar to, and complementary with Mike Kuniavsky’s fascinating discussions of magic-as-metaphor for ubiquitous computing. I think this is a great topic to explore, for the reasons you’ve mentioned above, but also because of the role that “staging” has had in the history of technology. The smoke-and-mirrors demo, even the idea of a roadshow goes back to at least the Mechanical Turk.

  2. Michael Zuschlag Says:

    Actually, I think Spool will be talking more about using the principles of professional magic to make better designs, such as described by Tognazzini in 1993 (; that is, using stage magic to makes things appear different than they technically are. That’s very different from invoking “real” magic as an explanatory metaphor, as Kuniavsky describes; that is presenting technology as enchanted artifacts. The former achieves broad effects by playing on user expectations, habits, and assumptions. The latter contradicts these, and in the process subverts its own purpose. Technology like real magic is a problem. Technology like stage magic can help with that.

  3. Terry Storch Says:

    Jared, great talk! I really enjoyed it..

  4. Magic « Ben Lavender’s Blog Says:

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  5. Stuart Says:

    Interesting that he has enough interest in learning from the techniques of magic that he bases a talk around them but so little respect for the profession of magic that he blabs its secrets. I associate this kind of behavior with young boys when they first get into magic and are more interested in showing off what they know than in learning the art. I also think that a talk of this sort is better is you don’t blab the secrets. Those who want to know how illusions work will find their own way to the secrets and be better for it.

  6. Mike Kuniavsky Says:

    Michael, I haven’t seen Jared’s talk, but I think he and I are saying the same thing. For me, magic is a metaphor for explaining the functionality of ubiquitous computing devices in a way akin to the desktop metaphor’s way of explaining graphic UIs. It’s explicitly not about lying to users and pretending technological objects are magic. We know a file folder onscreen doesn’t act like a paper folder, but it is (or was at one time) a useful way of explaining a hierarchical file system. I’m suggesting we can design device behavior by leveraging a set of expectations based on a widely-shared set of ideas based in mythology. I haven’t seen Jared’s talk, but I agree with his statement that illusion and design have much in common. For an example of it in industrial design, look at how Apple fiddled with the visual grade of the edge bevel of the Air to make it appear thinner than it is and you’ll see that in action. I’m also sad that I missed what sounds like an even-more-than-usually fun, insightful and thought-provoking talk form Jared.

  7. Manuel Aristarán Says:

    Great Talk, Jared; I really enjoyed it. You’re an amazing speaker.
    Are you going to post the slides somewhere?

  8. Joshua Ledwell Says:

    I also enjoyed the talk Jared. And, I heard you gave another panel a copyright reality check. Rock on!

  9. Angelo Directo Says:

    I really enjoyed this presentation at SXSW the week before last. Absolutely delightful! I found the concept of illusion as a separation of the user and designer model as particularly useful in what I do. I keep telling the story of the shrinking head trick. Thank you!

  10. Chris Says:

    Where can I view or listen to this discussion…? Has it been posted online???

  11. Michael Says:

    Can’t say thank you enough for the ridiculously awesome presentation. Spool, you rock. Plain and simple.

    Chris – I did my best to blog on the presentation as it was happening here:

    Every time I reread it, I found a new dimension of the presentation I hadn’t noticed before. It also inspired me to think a ton about how Web usability and narrative structure are becoming more and more like TV and movies:

    Thanks again!

  12. What's the New Media Buzz? Says:

    SXSW live: Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Design…

    Note: Postgame analysis now posted here. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Jared Spool, the man himself is up on the dais of the big ballroom here. Funk jazz greeting everyone who walks in. The last time I…

  13. Beaconfire Wire » Blog Archive » SxSWi: Nirvana for the Creative Soul Says:

    […] 4. Jared Spool doing magic tricks onstage to highlight the idea of using illusion to simplify designs. […]

  14. raysofrha » Blog Archive » SxSW Day 3 - Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs Says:

    […] Recap – This is Jared’s recap […]

  15. Ben Lavender Says:

    Great session but please can you post the presentation.

  16. Mendy Ouzillou - Art Glass & Glass Jewelry Says:


    Thank you for the blog commentary on Jared’s presentation. I would have loved to have been there!


    As an amateur (I work on my own site as a hobby, not professionally for others) I really struggle to make simple changes to help my customers. The concept of “delight the customer” is one I am very aware of as a director of marketing for a high tech firm. What I found interesting was how this simple “common sense” aspect can alter perceptions like time. As others have asked, any chance of posting the original presentation?



  17. online newest fun news » Blog Archive » SxSWi: Nirvana for the Creative Soul Says:

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  18. SxSWi: Nirvana for the Creative Soul Says:

    […] 4. Jared Spool doing magic tricks onstage to highlight the idea of using illusion to simplify designs. […]

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