Three. That’s the magic number.

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Yes, in the immortal words of Bob Dorough (made a little more famous by De La Soul), three truly is the magic number. But why are we drawn to it? And what does it have to do with design Corin? Surely it’s just one number of many and they’re all as good as each other. Well, actually, it’s a really useful creative design tool, which works particularly well with storytelling.
List of three things that feels easy
A list of three things feels easy – even when it's not.
In fact, there really is something magical, alluring and captivating about the number three. A list of three things feels simple and easy to do. An instruction in three parts feels easy to start and quick to complete: ‘Ready, set, go’. Any good writer understands the Rule of Three, whether it’s pigs, musketeers or the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker. And all good stories have a beginning, a muddle and an end. It’s so appealing that we sometimes use it even when there are more than three steps to a process (next time you see a ‘simple three-step guide’ to downloading and activating something from the internet, just double-check and see if it really is as simple as one, two, three). It’s just so damn seductive.

It’s something that’s wired into us at a neurological level –while our brains feel satisfied with symmetry, adding an odd number of things makes our brain feel challenged and compositions feel more dynamic.

The Rule of Thirds

It’s something that’s wired into us at a neurological level –while our brains feel satisfied with symmetry, adding an odd number of things makes our brain feel challenged and compositions feel more dynamic.

Three is the smallest number we can use to form a distinguishable pattern in our heads. When you see an odd number of things, your eye is forced to move around more, making for a more engaging visual experience.

As graphic designers, you’ll see the concept of threes popping up all over the place – large numbered lists or icons all with three things. When creating grids for layouts at their simplest form, we’ll use a three-column grid (yes, I know that other column grids exist, but often these will be secretly hiding a much more complex structure of six, nine, or twelve columns so divisible into three).

Example of layout grid
You can see from our work with Surviving Economic Abuse. A three column grids feel active and interesting – it's the asymmetry at work.
When we overlay a camera's viewfinder you can see that all the action's happening in the right hand two thirds. Better still the old man's eye is exactly at the crossroads between vertical and horizontal thirds.

And it’s not just graphic designers. Interior designers use it in their compositions, arranging clusters of objects in odd numbers. Photographers use the principle to make their shots more interesting – it’s as simple as dividing up the view into thirds and aiming to have the focus on one of these divisions. Modern cameras often have this as a setting that you can add to the viewfinder, and when we’re cropping images we’ll often set them off-centre to create more interest in the subject.

Easy to do; great effect.​

Three and the art of persuasion

In his book The Wikiman, legendary adman Rory Sutherland shows the value of three in behavioural economics. He talks about ‘satisficing’, which is a cross between being satisfied and sacrificing – not the best outcome, but not the worst. He uses fridges as an example in the book, but we can easily extrapolate to things like price points for fundraising campaigns. If you only have one price point, then people will either take it or leave it. If you create a second price point, then people will take or leave both depending on their financial situation. But if you then add a third mid-range price point, it draws people in.  With fridges it’s because they want to make the “least-shit choice” (his words, not mine). With fundraising asks, it gives supporters an option with which they can feel at ease. They won’t feel cheap, but nor will they be financially stretched in a way that feels uncomfortable. It’s satisficing.
So next time you’re looking at a design, photo, illustration, or even a room, and you think it looks good (or doesn’t) but you just can’t place your finger on why, try looking for threes. You may be surprised. Back to De la soul: “Now you may try to subtract it, But it just won’t go away, Three times one? What is it? One, two, three! And that’s the magic number.”
Adding numbers to a form makes it feel easier to finish (even if the truth is quite the opposite).

“Now you may try to subtract it, But it just won't go away, Three times one? What is it? One, two, three! And that's the magic number.”​

POSDNUOS, ‎TRUGOY, ‎MASEO (DE LA SOUL)​

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