In defence of three things

We are figures in a fable, and it is only right that we recall that in fables, the number three is first above all others.

Jorge Luis Borges1

Dave Ellis’ article All Websites Look the Same keeps coming up. Published earlier this year, not a week goes by without coming across some mention of it. Its main claim consists of a simple but precise observation: that websites often look alike. Ellis pairs this observation with a wonderfully slapdash visual, but without much explanation.

The are at least two, and probably more, ways of explaining the increase in homogeneity. One is to describe web design as becoming unimaginative and derivative, like a Hollywood blockbuster. The other is to describe web design as having found effective patterns for solving common problems, as has been the case for highway signage or doorknobs.

Ellis seems to side with the first explanation. I am inclined to believe the latter. Perhaps because I see web design as being less like making a poster or a sculpture and more like making a book or a map.

In this spirit I would like to mount a brief defence of one of the elements that Ellis singles out: the list of three things.

Dave Ellis' mockup shows three items and reads, in part: 'Always. Three. Columns. You could have four columns here but you won't. You'll have three, like everyone else.'

Designers don’t resort to using the list of three things because they lack imagination, but so as to invoke the resonant power of this pattern.

In his compendium of writing advice, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark claims that the numbers of examples you use when writing prose create different kinds of effects.

I won’t replicate the relevant chapter here, but roughly:

  • One element is powerful. It makes a strong impact and feels certain, absolute.

    This product is fast.

  • Two elements are juxtaposed. Playing off each other, the elements can be balanced or lopsided, compared or contrasted.

    This product is fast and cheap.

  • Three elements are complete. This pattern feels well-rounded, like it’s giving you the whole picture.

    This product is fast, cheap and reliable.

  • Four or more elements are abundant. You can add as many as you like, but though your list might be more accurate, it will never feel as whole as that of three elements.

    This product is fast, cheap, reliable and popular.

In other words, a list of three elements is not just what happens to fit on screens of a certain resolution. It’s a well-known rhetorical pattern, used in such skilful constructions as:

…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.2

or

Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash.3

In a similar manner, a list of three things is visually effective because it combines the pleasing symmetry of two elements, with the anchored strength of the single element.

A sketch showing the axis of symmetry for one through five items.

Notice how the axis of symmetry runs through the center of the middle element only in the cases of the one and three elements.

My final reason is the force of convention itself. That the list of three has emerged as a common pattern for presenting features or options at a glance reinforces its use.

Users are already subconsciously familiar with this pattern. If it suffices for your content, there is no need to invent wildly. Presenting information in an unusual manner is counterproductive.

As Jakob Nielsen put it over fifteen years ago:

Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.

The anxiety of influence is old hat in many disciplines, but like the medium itself, it feels terrifyingly new on the web.

Some time ago a designer told me that he had trashed all his work from the last couple of weeks because it was so derivative. He’s a much better designer than I am, so perhaps he’s on to something.

But I take the pragmatic view that the purpose of most websites is to accomplish certain tasks and not to call too much attention to themselves. I don’t scoff at beauty, but it’s not the most important – and certainly not the only – criterion by which to evaluate web design.

The best parallel I can think of is with book design, an honourable craft that over the course of five hundred years has established patterns and conventions of such strength that they that are all but invisible to the incurious reader.

From the book jacket, to the typography and layout of the main body, as well as the precise arrangement of the paratextual elements, the amount of thinking that a book requires to put together is mind-boggling. And yet, picking a popular novel or scholarly monograph off the shelf, you would hardly think twice about it.

There are worse fates than getting a job done so well that people are incapable of acknowledging the thinking that’s gone into it.

  1. “The Mirror and the Mask”, The Book of Sand (1975/1977). Trans. Andrew Hurley. 

  2. Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”. 

  3. Winston Churchill, attributed. 

Originally published on Digest.

Image credits.

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