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  • October 28, 2010

The Magic Number

At the age of three I decided that three was the best number. This was based on sound science: my toddler-brain resolved that being 3 was the best age. This infatuation has stuck around for years, and now taken root in my design methodology. Ever since my first creative director demanded three different concepts, I’ve always subscribed to the Rule of Three (3): it’s my de facto way to structure process and unveil work to clients. Want Happy Cog to design your website? You’ll probably get three different solutions to choose from.

The Mind of DeRuchie

Of course there is a lot more to our process than that. During our visual design phase, the Rule of Three means distinguishing three unique but strategically related solutions. The ingredients for this cocktail can change. One project might be three different art directions built on the same user experience. Another might explore three very different user experiences, each with a similar look based on a well-honed identity. The three different designs fit together in a manner that presents a purposeful range. One might be structured on storytelling. Another might employ a highly focused primary navigation system based on key user tasks. We mix and match in a manner we feel will solve the important design problems while still exploring different conceptual directions.

Three provides the opportunity to solve beyond the expected. I can’t think of a project where it wasn’t worth our time to think beyond the obvious. When presenting our ideas, clients feel good because we are bringing some adventurous thinking to the table. We are exploring every nook and cranny, leaving no stone unturned. And my favorite part of this approach is that we involve the client in the decision-making process. They don’t feel like they are being dictated to or coerced into choosing our favorite design solution.


I’m a practical person, and I realize that this approach has some painfully costly drawbacks:
  • Time in total hours: Creating three independent stand-alone concepts uses a hefty share of the hours allocated for the design phase. Might those hours be more valuable later? Also, those extra hours add to our overall estimate, making it less competitive.
  • Time in designer hours: Our Rule of Three also came with the stipulation that each design must be created by a different designer. That means that every new project immediately needs three designers. This can be very hard to plan for a shop juggling multiple projects.
  • 2/3 of the effort is discarded: 99% of Happy Cog projects are structured around the idea of getting our clients to a good place, then letting the client take command. In many cases there won’t be a follow-up project. Unless some key ideas are plucked and saved from the unchosen directions for incorporation into the selected design, the work ends up on the design cutting room floor: unrecoverable and lost forever.


So what is a creative director to do? I love the range and quality of work that the Rule produces, but more often than I’d like, we find ourselves struggling to find the hours necessary to complete the design phase. We’ve tried some early phase intermediary deliverables like mood boards, and while they are great to get to an aesthetic earlier, the client doesn’t always understand them. Much like the glassy-eyed stare we occasionally get from presenting information architecture deliverables, early phase exploratory work is not always right for every situation.

We’ve also toyed with doing only one concept with multiple iterations. When I casually polled my Twitter followers this was the most popular process. Perhaps it is because of faster timelines, tighter budgets, fewer people working on a project, or all three. I don’t know if they’ve ever tried the Rule of Three.

And this makes me a bit sad.

I think of all the amazing work that will never be conceived. Or amazing work that was conceived but not nourished. Or amazing work that was never shared with the client to discuss its possible merits. How many great ideas never made it past the perhaps “too-quick-to-please-the-client” design director?

Designers should attack projects with obvious gusto. The best ones will always want to push boundaries and expand their range. With only one solution provided, is there a possibility that they might rely on their strengths and not stretch themselves? My experience has shown me that supporting this type of design process is a surefire way to ensure my team and I don’t grow.


Thankfully, process is something we love to scrutinize here at Happy Cog. Expect my future Cognition posts to expose some of our tweaks and experimentation with the Rule of Three. And I’ll happily surface the realities of our process, as pretty or ugly as they might be.

Meanwhile, I’m still going to fight for stickin’ with the Rule. Quality and quantity still reign in this agency. But I concede that tough times call for more focused efforts. When you deliver one direction, are you confident it is the best direction? Is your design process ensuring that the sole idea is as strong as it can be? Or are you a Rule of Three believer, like myself?

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