Design Vs. Circus Magic

I am a designer. I’m in love with circus. What do my favorite things have in common?
On the surface it appears like nothing. But if you take a closer look you might think differently….. You get to a circus show and there is a sudden burst of MAGIC!

You are surrounded by different performers with different personalities and different skills. The magic is not made by one, or another. Everybody is part of it. Everybody is working together to create a unique experience and making sure every part of the show fits together and that the storytelling is good.

Solving a design brief and creating compelling user experiences has a lot in common with a circus show. First of all. The people.

To have a good circus show you need a team with a broad range of skills. Depending on the length of the show, or the storytelling, you need different capabilities. You need people that can connect with the public, good athletes and people that play with stuff. Essentially you need a good mix of hard and soft skills.

Often circus performers have overlapping skills; a clown can be juggler, a juggler can be a contortionist, a contortionist can be an aerialist. This doesn’t mean that everybody can do everything, on the contrary, every discipline requires dedication and talent. But the eclecticism creates unique profiles, and the overlap of skills creates opportunities to create new performances and deeper understanding between the performers.

Aurélie Bernard - circus artist

Aurélie Bernard – circus artist / picture by Mark Jackson

In a circus show, the storytelling is the glue. For example, how does the controlled and elegant acrobat fit after the messy looking fire juggler?
Well, the old fashioned approach would be for a man with a big belly to announce: “and now you are going to watch the TRIPLE JUMP OF DEATH”. This approach is very much based on sequential narration and almost like reading a collection of novels.  I personally prefer a more contemporary approach where there is a unified storytelling that smoothly transitions through all the parts of the show. This is like when a designer is curating an overall experience comprised of multiple touchpoints, that will be delivered by different stakeholders.

In order to have seamless storytelling you need somebody that has an overview of the whole show, while the performers focus on executing to their best ability. This person has to figure out the logistics of how the apparatus moves around the stage and when it is needed; are the aerialist’s silks part of the scenography when not in use? Or do they need to be removed quickly before the fire hoop enters the scene? Is that part of the storytelling or not? How do light and music transition through the show? There are so many invisible details that need to be considered.

So, besides the people you see on stage, there are many you don’t see, working behind the scenes to make the performers work possible.

Producing magic doesn’t have a unique formula. It happens with experience, motivation, intuition, the right tools and a good combination of people, and sometimes a little luck! As the audience, if you are captivated and immersed by the magic, there is no doubt it has been a good show. If you start to question the details or get bored… enough said.

Isn’t this the same for a well designed user experience? What do you think?