Rule of Three: Thinking Visually in Threes

  • Have you ever categorized information into threes?
  • Have you ever told a joke using threes?
  • Have you ever visualized in threes?

Ah yes, the Rule of Three… a rule that is engrained into the bedrock of our culture… a rule that we seemingly take for granted. What is this rule all about anyway?

The Rule of Three is part of our jokes, it’s part of our speeches, it’s part of our music, it’s part of our plays (three act structure), it’s a part of our art, it’s part of film-making (trilogies), it’s part of language, and it’s part of how we think, make sense of, and cluster information.

This is all well and good Adam, but how does the Rule of Three apply to visual thinking?

We’ll get to that in a moment. First let’s take a look at what exactly is the Rule of Three.

What Exactly is the Rule of Three?

The Rule of Three is a typical pattern used in stories, nursery rhymes, parables, jokes, comedy and speeches.

The human mind actually enjoys thinking in patterns. In fact, we naturally look for and create patterns everyday, in everything we do. An example of this idea is within our language where adjectives are often grouped together in threes in order to emphasize an idea.

The Rule of Three is relevant because the number three is the lowest figure that can be used to form patterns in our mind. This is important, because the first instance of something occurring, always comes down to chance; the second instance is considered a coincidence; while the third instance is perceived as a pattern.

Proponents of the Rule of Three state that things are more engaging, satisfying and more effectively presented when using this rule. In fact, it is said that an audience is more likely to consume and absorb any type of information presented to them when it is grouped into threes.

Now that you know what the Rule of Three is all about, let’s look at some practical examples.

How the Rule of Three is Used

Comedy and Jokes

The Rule of Three is often used in comedy and jokes because three is the smallest number that can be used to form a distinguishable pattern. Moreover, the series of three points is often used to create progression from one point to another. Usually the purpose of the first two instances is to build tension, while the third instance releases the tension.


The Rule of Three is also often used in language:

  • Ready, aim, fire…
  • Ready, set, go…
  • Lights, camera, action…
  • Reading, writing and arithmetic…
  • Three, two, one… Go team!
  • Father, son and holy spirit…
  • Mind, body, spirit…
  • Stop, look and listen…
  • Blood, sweat and tears…
  • That’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…
  • The good, the bad and the ugly…
  • The third time’s the charm…
  • Give me three solid examples? (removes chance from the equation)


The Rule of Three is often used in storytelling. For instance, the typical story has a beginning, middle and end. Furthermore, the protagonist often goes through three main challenges or obstacles before attaining his/her objective.

We also find triples used in many other ways multiple times throughout the story to get a variety of point across to the reader. The triples that are used, form patterns. These patterns likewise feel comfortable because they are aligned with our mental models of the world — how we think and process information.

Nursery Rhymes

The Rule of Three is used in nursery rhymes:

  • The three little pigs
  • The three blind mice
  • Goldilocks and the three bears
  • The three Musketeers
  • The three wise men
  • The Thee Stooges (not a nursery rhyme, but entertaining)

Content Creation

The Rule of Three applies to content creation because people think best and remember concepts far more easily when they are grouped into threes. Therefore when writing a blog article for instance, it’s best to focus on only three main ideas.

Speech Writing

The Rule of Three is a powerful speech writing technique that allows you to express your concepts more completely, eloquently and memorably. First you tell your audience what you’re going to tell them. Then you tell them. And finally you tell them what you’ve told them. Also within the main body of your speech you would highlight three main points that you want your audience to takeaway.

Art and Design

The Rule of Three is used in art and design. It’s actually a rule of thirds where artists place items in the intersections between thirds-lines to help them draw more attention to their artwork.

Song Writing

Finally, the Rule of Three is used in song writing with the chorus often being sang three times.

The Rule of Three and Visual Thinking

As you can see, the Rule of Three is everywhere. It’s actually ingrained into our society, culture and psyche. It influences how we think, remember and process information on a daily basis. But how is it relevant to visual thinking?

In a previous post I mentioned the 6-12 Kiss Principle of visual thinking. The article explains how we should focus on getting our point across using no more than 12 core visual elements. Any more, and our message will suffer, which can lead to confusion and misinterpretation.

To further enhance the 6-12 Kiss Principle of visual thinking, it’s critical that you incorporate the Rule of Three into your visuals. To do this, simply take the 6 to 12 core visual elements you will be presenting and divide them up into three core messages that build the foundations of your idea. In essence, these three core messages become your modules, and each visual thinking element becomes a topic within each of these modules.

Using this strategy to present your visuals — or simply to think visually — will ensure that your ideas are organized and aligned with how we think and process information on a daily basis. I’ll give you more details and provide you with practical examples once we start delving into visual thinking techniques and presentation methods.

Everything you read here is part of ongoing research and experimentation within the visual thinking arena. The goal is to create a comprehensive framework for visual thinking that encapsulates creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. Your comments, ideas and suggestions are most welcome.