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.

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Visualizing Values, Beliefs and Memories

When communicating your visual message to another person or group, it’s important to take into account several critical psychological factors that will irrevocably influence how these people process and understand the visual information you are sharing with them. These psychological factors include values, beliefs and memories — forming the bedrock of how we delete, distort and generalize information.

By taking these factors into consideration, and by adjusting your visual message accordingly, will help you to effectively synergize your communication with people’s mental models of the world.

Let’s now break down each of these psychological factors in a little more detail.

Visualizing Values

Values help us to evaluate the visual information we see — determining whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, etc. Given this information, we are able to decide how we should feel about something. Significantly, all of this is based on our understanding of the world, or more specifically, upon our mental model of the world as we know it.

It’s also important to note that values are context driven. Therefore, your visual message may be interpreted differently by people depending on the context you use to present it. In other words, by becoming aware of your audiences’ values, you can shape your visuals into a context (using metaphors and analogies) that naturally meet these values and therefore drive your message home in the way you intended.

I’ll discuss this in detail and provide practical examples in future posts. For now, if you want more information about values, please see the value transformation mind map.

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Visual Thinking Psychological Filters

As we go about our daily lives we are bombarded every second with two million bits of information, that — under normal circumstances — would completely overwhelm our senses and make it extremely difficult — if not impossible — to make sense of anything in our external environment.

Given the fact that the conscious brain can only pay attention to about 134 bits of the two million bits of information that are coming at us per second…

  • Is it any wonder that we don’t always get the entire message?
  • Is it any wonder that we don’t always see things from the same perspective as somebody else?
  • Is it any wonder that we sometimes find it difficult to understand or fully grasp the ideas that another person is trying to present us with?
  • Is it any wonder that we often only see a mirror reflection of our own personal reality and mental model of the world? 😉

In order to cope-with and manage the incredible amount of information that is flying at us every second, we naturally apply a filtering mechanism that effectively deletes, distorts and generalizes this information — allowing us to make sense of the world around us.

People will Delete, Distort and Generalize Your Visuals

You might be wondering how all this applies to visual thinking. Well, this filtering mechanism works 24/7, constantly deleting irrelevant information, distorting other pieces of information, and making generalizations and assumptions about the world around us. [see: unhelpful thinking styles]

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The Visual Thinking Mental Model

Within the previous article I mentioned the 16-12 KISS Principle of visual thinking. This principle explains the importance of keeping your visuals simple and straightforward. Moreover, I mentioned that we all construct mental models of our world that help us interpret our understanding of how things work. Let’s now dig into this topic in a little more detail.

What is a Mental Model?

Mental models are the deeply held internal images (symbols and beliefs) we have about how the world works. They are in essence simplified systems and representations we have made about our world, people and the objects within our environment that stem from our past experience, memories, knowledge and perceptions.

Mental models are explanations of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world and the relationship between its various parts. They are an important and critical component of our psychology because they help shape our behavior and define our approach to solving problems and carrying out tasks.

To further elaborate, mental models are simplified models of our own reality that we use as a means of interpreting the world around us — effectively determining what we pay attention to, and consequently what we do about this information on a daily basis. In other words, they represent possibilities, not probabilities, that are based on our understanding of cause-and-effect relationships that we have accepted as truth.

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