This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
‘Two’s company, but three’s a crowd’. We have all heard that saying. And it’s true. A few years ago, when we took our 12 year-old daughter (an only child) to a nearby island for a vacation with two of her school friends for a couple of weeks, I discovered for myself that three was one too many. At various times the kids splintered into ‘two against one’ power struggles. It was a big lesson. You have probably found similar in your own experience.
On the other hand, three is a magic number in human perceptions, especially visually. People can recognize or recall three things much better than four. You can probably recall situations in which you could recall three items easily, but struggled to remember four. And having only two options is limiting. There is magic in three.
The brain finds it fairly easy to grasp threes – elements, colors and fonts – in visual material. When that number is increased to four variables, the brain gets confused.
You probably can recall many occasions in your young days when so many things were based on three elements. For instance, ABC; 1, 2, 3; three blind mice; the three musketeers, the Three Stooges, etc. Perhaps it was intuitive, but the people who originated these concepts recognized that three is a powerful number.
Internet marketing expert, Sean D’Souza, also recognizes this fact. He says that visual material should have only a maximum of three features: elements, fonts and colors. Many graphic designers get it right, but others stuff up big time because they try to cram too many variables into marketing material they design.
If you look carefully at many mundane designs in advertising and marketing public relations, you will find there are too many design aspects. One of the biggest sins is to throw too many fonts and font size into the mix. Keep it simple and strong! Maximum of three variables.
Look at the most popular brands in the world. McDonald’s logo consists of two elements – the name of the company and the famous Golden Arches. They use just one font and just two colors – yellow and white or yellow and black. Coca-Cola also uses just two fonts and simple colors.
Now check out your own corporate and marketing material. Review your brochures, website, annual report, and logo. You will be surprised at the clutter in the design and layout. But it is easy to smarten it up.
Also, check the number of variables in other areas and try to limit them to three. This will simplify the information a target audience has to process in their minds.
As a result, your communication materials will be tighter and more professional. And the materials will be consistent with a psychological facet that is deep within the human mind.
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