Designing Deception: Marketing in the Golden Age of Magic

 

Back when going "viral" had less exciting connotations - back when tweeting someone meant getting to the nearest telegraph - magicians and entertainers alike had to use other marketing techniques to lure people to their shows. A popular approach (and still is) was to hire artists to create sensational posters to advertise their upcoming shows. These posters were traditionally made using a long and arduous process called stone lithography. Magicians and mentalists like Houdini, Kellar, Alexander and Thurston all created stunning (and often exaggerated) images that have stood the test of time. Their vibrant colors, stunning composition, and simplistic tag lines piqued the public's curiosity. Memorable phrases like "The Man Who Knows", "Do The Spirits Return?", "Death Defying Mystery" or "Wonder Show of the Universe" all make our eyebrows raise. 

 

 

 

 

Occasionally billboards and posters were made to depict a feature act that distinguished each performer from their competition. Harry Houdini often teased the dangerous escapes he performed nightly (as seen in the famous milk can poster above). Harry Kellar is thought to have popularized the depiction of the devilish imps in his designs. These imps were swiftly replicated and copied by almost all the other magicians in that era (and still repeated ad nauseam by some today). 

 

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My favorite design? This "Ask Alexander" billboard which is displayed in one of my favorite spots - Brooklyn Bowl. You'll have to see it in person to get the full hypnotic effect.

Hand Crafting: The Importance of Manual Creation

I've always been curious about the history of fonts and typesetting (I'll admit - I'm a typoholic!). So I decided to learn a bit more about it's origins. This past week I attended a class at a letterpress workspace called The Arm in Brooklyn NY. I wanted to get acquainted with the now ancient art of font fondling (technical term). But something strange happened after I had printed my first letter-pressed poster - I was overcome by a strong euphoric feeling. I sat back and looked at my poor excuse for a first attempt and said with pure elation "I made this." 

I began to think about why I felt such astonishment for accomplishing something seemingly so simple. I quickly realized why - it wasn't so simple. It took time (seriously - lots), patience (I cussed like a sailor), and attention to detail (like, you know, spelling). Although, individually the steps were simple - the process as a whole was complex and consuming (compared of course to a simple click of the mouse). As a result, I was forced to look at creativity differently. Why was this so hard? Well, I had been living in the luxurious world of instant gratification. More specifically instant creation. I'm guilty. I apply filters to my shitty iPhone photos, I mindlessly add songs to playlists, and order from Seamless way more than I should. But I occasionally forget about the time it took someone to craft these things that I take for granted. The technique of getting the color right in a photo, or how an album is consciously composed from beginning to end or how a meal is delicately prepared and presented. The appreciation for the art of making is often superseded by quick consumption and automation. 

It's an obvious point and a tale as long as time - but this moment resonated with me in a very real way because it allowed me to think more deeply about why I love what I do. And it further proves that by being attentive and intimate with a craft in this way you start to uncover it's beautiful idiosyncrasies. It's purpose begins to emerge. By no means am I now a master typesetter (nor is my final product a thing of beauty). But the appreciation was real. Although the Vandercook No. 4 Printing Press is far beyond obsolete - the joy of it's existence will forever remind me of the importance of making something astounding with your own two hands. 

  The final product. An homage to the Wizard of Oz (and my previous post). 

The final product. An homage to the Wizard of Oz (and my previous post). 

Are you a typoholic? Do you wrinkle your nose in disgust when you get an invitation to your college friend's wedding printed in Papyrus? Walk down the street and stop to salivate at the simple yet striking kerning on some random sign? Do you involuntarily vomit when hear the word Zapfino? These are the symptoms of a typoholic. Contact your local letterpress and ask if they have classes today! For those curious here's a video of the Vandercook in action.

 

New site!

My website, much like my work, is ever-evolving. I care very deeply about detail. In many ways you (as a witness to magic) don't always get to see the nuances and subtleties we put into our performances. We spend much of our time refining them to a point where you aren't aware of them. My job is just that: to hide the truth so that you may have an astonishing experience. Good design works much in the same way.  If it's easy to use and appealing it's because it's designed so well that these touches become invisible.

Something that's stuck with me for a while is from the heart of a professional tinkerer you may have heard of, Steve Jobs:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

 

 This is how it feels to be a magician. You spend hours, days and even months on details people will never see. But I know they're there so I strive to make them as refined as I can. And because these details are unseen it's often upsetting that I can't reveal them to you. But nonetheless gratifying. 

I often have felt that my website could act as a place where I could reflect to you all the details I care so deeply about. So here we are. It's been about two years since I last updated the site. I consider this a new beginning, a fresh start, but more importantly years of tinkering. It's simpler to navigate (thanks to SquareSpace) and hopefully aesthetically pleasing. All of the design work, I'm proud to say, is done by yours truly. Most of the photography by my friend Ben Arons.

I do hope you love it as much as I do. Ladies and gents welcome to the brand new NowYouSeeHim.com! Enjoy.