The Power of Threes

<aside> đź“Ž This piece was originally written for Intercom.



We all know too many options are detrimental. Books are written on the subject. Too many stimuli are adverse to progress. Design is an intentional process of reduction. Constraints are freeing and open potential. It is difficult to distill big ideas and concepts down to three points. But that is where the magic thrives.

A practical way to restate this viewed through how Intercom publishes: our Content team writes, Brand Design creates the vehicle, and Marketing promotes. The arc fits within a set of three. Drilled deeper, for instance, we might see the written content divided into three sections: introduction, argument, conclusion.

Enter Triads

The Power of Three is a cultural theory of mental and psychological grouping and understanding. We understand greater in sets of threes, in triads. There is an intense pattern and resonance to the Power of Three. One, two, four, and five are distinct; three is divine.

Triads are basic systematic groupings: whether in science, chemistry, geometry, or any other field. Triads are groups of three determinate items; a paradigm or model. There is an archetypal principle of triads in all mediums and means of communication. Threes establish rhythm, emphasis, and rhetoric. Three is the smallest number required to create a pattern. Triads are magical.

Let’s observe a few triads —

Perhaps I might begin by noticing how different numbers have found their champions. Two was extolled by Peter Ramus, Four by Pythagoras, Five by Sir Thomas Browne, and so on. For my part, I am a determined foe of no innocent number; I respect and esteem them all in their several ways; but I am forced to confess to a leaning to the number Three in philosophy.—Charles Peirce, The Collected Papers Vol 1: Principles of Philosophy, 1931

Charles Peirce is responsible for the philosophical study of signs, semiotics. Semiotics is a triad of categorical understanding broken into sign, signified, and signifier. I have previously written on design as semiotics here.