• 08.27.13

The Imaginary Factories Inside All Our Gadgets

What if an iPhone wasn’t just a gadget but a place where tiny people worked? The Imaginary Factory series explores the inner life of our technology.

The problem of explaining how technology works to an inquisitive kid can befuddle the best of parents. It’s easier to explain to a kid how a radio works if you pretend that, instead of transistors, there’s a tiny orchestra inside every box. Likewise, a television is the stage of a versatile, microscopic theatrical company; a computer, filled with wizards and mathematicians.


Maybe it’s because grown-ups resort to such whimsical explanations of technology that there’s something so deeply satisfying, as an adult, to think of our gadgets as filled with a race of tireless Lilliputians. Twenty-eight-year-old PUK artist Jing Zhang’s work explores the imaginary world of the tiny imaginary people who live inside our iPhones, televisions, cameras, and teapots. Her Imaginary Factories are very charming, indeed.

Part How Stuff Works, part Polly Pocket, Zhang’s Imaginary Factories peel back the layers inside our favorite devices to reveal the whimsical factories within. Her work isn’t going to teach anyone how to tear down an iPhone or a digital camera, but it does humanize our technology by making us think about it more intimately: the gadget, not as a sandwich of silicon and glass, but as a workplace some tiny munchkin might conceivably spend 40 hours a week in.

“One thing that really intrigued me in the creation of Imaginary Factories was Ikea furniture manuals,” Zhang tells Co.Design. “They are just the amazing, beautifully designed pieces of universal instruction.” What Zhang wanted to do with her Imaginary Factories was borrow the design language of an Ikea brochure and bring it to life with as much vividness as a kid’s playhouse.

In Zhang’s designs, for example, Apple’s iPhone becomes a long, mostly flat radio station. An antenna connected to a giant mainframe sucks in and spits out broadcast signals, while blue-collar pixies man the intricate clockwork of the camera and gesture control apparatuses. A digital camera, on the other hand, is like a multistory printer, in which different wavelengths of light are combined into a single vibrant photograph. A cuckoo clock doesn’t just house strange clockwork birds but actual people, pulling on cords and working levers. And in Zhang’s world, even something as simple as baking a cake can be explained with the metaphor of the munchkin.

“I believe there is a miniature world in everything,” says Zhang. And she’s right, of course. Our gadgets may not be filled with tiny people, but like any factory, they do have inner lives to be explored. Zhang’s infographics might not explain to archeologists of the future the specifics about how the technology inside an iPhone actually worked, but that’s not what they’re for. Zhang’s Imaginary Factories aren’t so much a glimpse inside our gadgets as they are a glimpse into the child within all of us.

You can explore Zhang’s other work here.