The Empty Box Theory

Posted by Sasha Bailyn on Monday, March 5th, 2012

What’s the best thing about being an entertainment designer? Well, aside from the fact that you don’t have to work in a cubicle or wear a silly uniform (unless you want to, of course), entertainment designers get to work in the world of their imaginations. Imagination drives innovation, whether it’s for creating a massive horticulture expo, a car-inspired hotel, or a 4D theme park that allows visitors to become avatars and experience a virtual world.

The amazing thing about being an entertainment designer is that your imagination is not only in demand, it’s also necessary for re-imagining things that are often boring, like education. Many entertainment designers feel that the future of design is “edutainment,” or the intersection between information, learning, and entertainment. But edutainment has a certain stigma as being lackluster and contrived; red flags include cheesy design gimmicks that highlight rather than hide how boring a lesson is, over-complicated gadgetry that makes learning more daunting, or shallow storylines that fail to capture the audience. In all these instances both the entertainment and the education fails.

How can a designer make education fun and memorable? The obvious answer is, “by using their imagination,” but oftentimes there is another kind of imagination missing: that of the audience. To me, all one really needs to succeed at making education fun is a genuine narrative, a touch of humor, and… an empty box. Why an empty box? Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that sometimes the coolest toy on the market isn’t as interesting to their kids as the box that the toy came in. An empty box may seem like nothing, but in reality it can become anything at all.

The Empty Box theory holds that it’s better to keep things simple and open-ended, because sometimes even if an experience seems to have all the right bells and whistles, the audience gets lost if there’s no room for their imagination.

In a way, the Empty Box fascinates all of us in the entertainment design world. Those of us who can escape the filters and blockages of adult life can connect with our childlike wonder for an empty box, and remember that sometimes less is more.


Sasha Bailyn


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