NewslettersAugust 3rd, 2021

PG #87: Boring Magic

Iain Phillips
Iain Phillips, Design Director
Illustration by Willow Berzin of a top hat with cogs and sparkles coming out of it. A magic wand lays beside it. The hat is reflected in a mirror but the reflection shows a rabbit wearing a bowtie where the cogs and sparkles were.

In 2013 at the Roundhouse in London I saw Fuerza Bruta.

The performers amazed an audience of thousands by appearing to swim underwater above our heads, walk upside down across a sky that ballooned around us, run through walls that appeared between us – creating a show that literally surrounded us and immersed us in a world that was not our own. It felt supernatural.

As I left I found myself thinking:

  • How did they make it safe?
  • How did they get everyone, including the audience, into exactly the right place at the right time?
  • How do they do it all over again at the same time tomorrow?

These probably aren’t the questions other attendees walked away with, but for me, understanding how something is done adds to my admiration and amazement. Particularly with a show like this – a feat of design and engineering as much as of creativity.

So when I read a blog post by Steve Messer about delivering digital services in government, it made me realise how humble designers can be. He quoted a colleague’s assessment of the process:

We essentially create boring magic.

He’s right. An idea like ‘Renewing your passport online’ sounds simple, but the amount of effort that goes into making it actually happen is often an act close to the supernatural.

For every show there’s a hundred rehearsals, for every scene there's a hundred prototypes and for every magical moment there are a hundred failed attempts.

For every government service that actually works, there’s policies to change, communities to engage, pilots to run, and hundreds of decisions that need to be made just right.

Good design is like a good show – the result of many many hours of practice and engaging with your audience.

So next time you’re feeling the drag of practice… remember, it’s the key to making magic.

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