The Magic Hat

How I conjured up a playful drawing game for unconscious world building. 

Like a Kleptomaniac magpie with unresolved trauma, I collect and hoard ideas. Thousands of diagrams, doodles, words and phrases jumbled and scattered across various locations. Engulfing every wall in my studio, cluttering up my iPhone and laptop, cramming a multitude of sketchbooks. Chaotically stockpiled, ready for some kind of creative apocalypse.

Sad and lonely ideas

Abandoned at birth, these ideas had meaning the moment they were captured, but their potential has long been forgotten. They lay in stasis, sad and lonely. Waiting patiently, longing to be picked up and feel useful again. 

Fuel for the the beast

What if I had some way to revive them and allow them to play together? Could I magically transform these forlorn fragments into fuel for the immersive beast?

Inspired by stories of setting challenges and daily practices in ‘Finding your creative voice’ I decide to create a daily drawing ritual seeded from my pile of ideas, and guided by things I’m interested in creating. I’m hoping this will not only help develop my art style but also act as a way to unconsciously connect ideas through exploring them visually.

I begin the Plunder Expedition, clearing and sorting my spaces, re-organising everything, and at the same time hunting down and setting aside words I have previously captured to act as drawing prompts. I find around one hundred random and strange phrases that make me smile, from ‘Rats and Rubble’ to ‘Fourth Dimension’ and ‘The Black Tide’. I transcribe these onto small individual pieces of paper and fold them up into secret squares. Now this is going somewhere.

Playing with potential

I’m intrigued by the fortune cookie unpredictability of picking out one of these pieces of paper each day and drawing something inspired by the prompt. 

But what should they be pulled out of exactly? A jar? A bowl? Not quite right. I need something that makes them feel special, almost magical.

Scavenging my beloved fancy dress box, I find an old top hat. Perfect. “I name this hat ‘The Magic Hat!‘” I draw a label, stick it on and tip the prompts inside. 

Now for some rules to play this game. I decide on 3 simple rules to get me going and keep things as open as possible; what comes out must be drawn, no time limit, and use only one or two pages in the sketchbook.

Magic Hat Rules
Magic Hat Rules.

Surfacing the subconscious

After a few weeks I’m enjoying the quick-fire visualisation of ideas that are arising from my subconscious, and I’m starting to see some patterns emerge. 

The drawings below represent the following prompts:

  • Ridogulous
  • Leaky gut
  • Spike
  • Trinklet
  • The emotion detector
  • Rub to activate the smell
  • Ridiculous objects of worship
  • The hygienist
  • Outcast
  • Hedgehogs for dinner
Leaky Gut
The Emotion Detector
Rub to Activate the Smell
Ridiculous Objects of Worship
The Hygienist
Hedgehogs for Dinner

I’m fascinated by what this practice seems to be revealing. The drawings I’m making appear to depict a variety of beings from other worlds, ceremonial places and strange contraptions and objects. What on earth is happening here? I’m intrigued to know if these images are from deep within my psyche or being influenced by the book I’m currently devouring by Graham Hancock entitled ‘Supernatural‘. Only time will tell.

The accidental ritual

As I take stock of where I am and how this experiment is going, I realise that I always do the Magic Hat drawing first thing in the morning. It’s when my brain is ’empty’ and able to make connections quickly without the flood of noise and distraction from the events of the day. It’s my quiet time, my meditation.

Upon further reflection I also realise that I have unconsciously been doing the same series of actions in the same order every day. It begins with setting up the space by clearing my desk and mind, then asking the Hat for something that’s right for me to focus on today. Yes, I am actually speaking out loud to it. As if it were some Oracle-like sentient being, gifting me a delicious morsel in tune with my vibrations each day. How did this start happening? Curiously, invoked by the ‘magic hat god’ and these ceremonial drawings, I seem to have accidentally created my own ritual.

What an interesting experiment this is becoming.

Addicted to the unpredictable

A couple of months in and I’ve forgotten what most of the prompts say. Every day brings a tiny hit of endorphins as the surprise phrase is revealed. It’s delicious and totally and utterly unpredictable. This daily habit feels like some kind of mind activating recreational drug, and I’m becoming addicted.

I suppose I could just keep doing this same routine day after day, forever. But like an addict, the high gets harder to achieve, so the anti has to be upped.

Upping the anti

I ask myself a question: “Could I make this even more interesting if I added some new elements? Could I make it more playful and game-like? What if the prompt wasn’t completely open? What if there were a couple of extra ingredients to add to the mix? How might that guide my drawing?

I decide to amp up the game aspect and introduce some new ways to play.

I look back over the drawings I have made, and think about the types of experiences I want to eventually create. I end up making two sets of ‘Wild’ cards, which can be randomly added if I’m feeling adventurous. One set is to influence the type of thing I’m drawing, the other designed to be a slightly surreal and playful way to explore interactions.

Wildcard set 1: Things


Sentient Being



Wildcard set 2: Gestures













How the Wildcards work

If the Magic Hat prompt is ‘Fourth Dimension’ and the Wildcard from set 1 is ‘Object’, then I must use these as my guides e.g An ‘object’ from the ‘Fourth Dimension‘.

If I also include a Wildcard from set 2 (Gestures), then I must think about this as well.

Going Wild

After a few days with these new Wildcards, it’s clear they are adding a new dimension. Here are the first few experiments.

  • PROMPT: Wilf
  • THING: Sentient Being
  • GESTURE: Twist


WILF stands for ‘What Is Life For?’
WILF is a super intelligent Sentient Being who has multiple answers for everything.
He looks a little like a vintage radio, but you can interact with him as if he were a Bopit toy.

You can ask WILF anything, from “What should I have for breakfast?” to “What is the meaning of life?”
If you don’t like the answer, simply twist WILF’s arm to get a different one.

Had enough? Poke him in the eye to turn him off.

  • PROMPT: Tiny Dreams
  • THING: Artefact
  • GESTURE: Press

The Dream Explorer

The Chosen Dream Explorer stands perfectly still, eyes closed and arms outstretched atop a small and extremely high platform, while clusters of onlookers gaze up from the ground way below.

He is wearing the Dream Capture Head Appliance and is in some kind of deep trance like state. Thin tubes extend out from the appliance and climb high into the sky awaiting visions from the ancient ones above. Two side tubes curl down, ending their journey in the palms of the Dream Explorer, waiting to be activated. Each one determines the type of dream that will be inserted.

The captured dream may be viewed by a few chosen others through a special machine far below. They may only see this once.

  • PROMPT: The Double Gift
  • THING: Dwelling
  • GESTURE: No gesture selected

Miniature Worlds

At first glance, these miniature dwellings appear to be cute toys or something you might display in a glass cabinet along with china plates. But look a little closer and you will be rewarded.

If you take a magnifying glass or microscopic lense and peer through, you will see these strange buildings are alive with commotion. Get a little closer and you may hear voices. You might even smell something sweet. A whole world is inside each one waiting for you. Other realities in the palm of your hand.

  • PROMPT: Super Nuts!
  • THING: Contraption
  • GESTURE: Insert

Crazy arcade

You enter a Pinball arcade and glance around. Everything seems pretty much as you might expect, until you spot at the far end of the room, atop a striped platform, a machine like no other. You see 3 or 4 arm-like rods flailing around wildly. It seems to spot you looking and beckons you over with its ‘hand’. You walk over and climb the platform. Standing in front of the machine, occasionally ducking to avoid the waving arms that are snipping and waggling at you, you find yourself confronted with a garish, flashing ,multi-coloured sign that reads ‘SuperNuts’, ‘Can you beat the machine?’

Looking down you notice a deep hole where you might expect the pinball mechanism to be. You can not see the bottom.

Two puzzling questions pop into being:

What do you actually need to do to beat this machine and what might you win? Or possibly, and more importantly, “What happens if you lose?

Do you play or leave?

Ok, so that was unexpected.  I was adding these drawings to the blog, and I had an urge to write a description for each one, which seems to have turned into a moment from a story. Now I REALLY like where this is headed.

I’m now asking myself:

“What else might be in this world and how might I express those things? What might the story be? What kind of experience might this thing be a part of?”

Expanding the world

I’m recognising that I’ll need some way of further, deeper exploration that goes beyond my favourite pen! Although it’s a great way to quickly get an idea down, I’ll need to explore storytelling in different formats and mediums if I want to express how a world might feel, and ultimately design an immersive experience.

What’s your Magic Hat?

Are you making games, immersive experiences or playful media? Do you have a daily practice or ritual that helps you develop ideas? Have you made your own version of the Magic Hat? I’d love to know!

Emma Smith

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