An Introspection on Triads

The Power of Threes

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 — 

  • Socratic Transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty;
  • The precious metals (and medals) of sports achievement: gold, silver, and bronze;
  • There are three dimensions to the physical universe in length, width, and height;
  • Christianity’s Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
  • The educational model of hand, head, and heart;
  • Triads in music theory: the root, third, and fifth;
  • Triads in color theory: red, blue, and yellow and primary colors; secondary colors are also represented: orange, purple, and green;
  • Chronologically, there is a past, present, and future;
  • Even on the playground: rock, paper, and scissors.

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.

Peirce’s basic claim that signs consist of three inter-related parts: a sign, an object, and an interpretant. For the sake of simplicity, we can think of the sign as the signifier, for example, a written word, an utterance, smoke as a sign for fire etc. The object, on the other hand, is best thought of as whatever is signified, for example, the object to which the written or uttered word attaches, or the fire signified by the smoke. The interpretant, the most innovative and distinctive feature of Peirce’s account, is best thought of as the understanding that we have of the sign/object relation.
—Albert Atkin, “Peirce’s Theory of Signs”

What is the impact of triads in brands?

Design as a whole can be theoretically through a lens of triads. Color, form, and typography are three highest tier categories through which we can describe design elements. Point, line, shape, and space are all subcategories of form.

It is this theory of threes that informs and directs Peirce’s semiotic theory toward design. Design is a triadic profession. Intentional design is a practice of Peircian semiotics. Designers 1) receive input, 2) internally process information, and 3) finally output design as a product or solution. This drills deeper to the specialist, brand identity designer.

Another way of extrapolating this triad is as follows:

A brand is a triad:

  • visual (how it looks),
  • visceral (how it feels), and
  • verbal (how it reads, writes, says);

Each of these three categories is further observed through Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion (again, a triad):

    • ethos (credibility, trust),
    • pathos (emotion, values), and
    • logos (logic, reason, truth).

    And finally, a synthesis of these form an additional triad:

      • market (who, audience),
      • message (what, copywriting, text, typography), and
      • medium (how, design; brand).

      This last triad is borrowed from the Leadpages blog, authored by Sean Greeley (who credits Dan Kennedy) for inspiration on the piece.

      Each of these triads build and inform the next so the brand evolves from concept and big idea to execution and final application. With these matrices we can more clearly understand, critique, and improve brands, visual identities, and marketing strategies.


      Less is more. Three is magical.

      Triads don’t solve problems. They just help identify instances that inform solutions. Triads are a lens through which to observe instances. Triads are not rules or laws or scientific facts. However, simply put, triads are invaluable — triads inform and enhance design and visual identity through fundamental understanding.

      This is all a bit pedantic and formal. Nonetheless I think the concept is a helpful platform, no matter how fully or topically it is applied. I am still interested in case studies or examples that might tactfully show quantitative impact.

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