Threesology Research Journal
Examples of "Threes"-oriented Web Pages
page 20

~ The Study of Threes ~

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.

Visual Thinking 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.

Looking for Three Patterns

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.

The Three Little Pigs

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 take-away.

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.

The 6-12 KISS Principle of Visual Thinking

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.

Core Principles of Visual Thinking

Thinking Visually in Threes

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.


Posted on March 20, 2013
Author and contact link: Adam Sicinski
A Mad Hemorrhage

a network blog by Graham Morehead

Maximal Triparticity
Graham Morehead
Mar 6, 2011

The term Maximal Triparticity was coined by Conor Quinn. It comes from the research of Cedric Boeckx, a professor, whom I also had but no longer remembers me [ More Info]. Simply put, under Maximal Triparticity a thing has at most three parts. Anything that has more than three parts should be resegmented differently.

Why do so many fundamental things come in threes?

  • physical dimensions of space (x, y, z)
  • 1st 2nd and 3rd person (verb conjugation)
  • past, present, future
  • good, bad, ugly (this one isn't actually fundamental to our universe)
  • positive, negative, neutral
  • solid, liquid, gas (putting aside plasmas which lose their electrons so could be considered something else entirely)
  • primary colors: red, blue, yellow (an artifact of the way our color receptors work)
  • color description requires 3 dimensions: hue, brightness, saturation
  • types if human relationships (Alan Fiske): dominance, communality, reciprocity

I'm curious about fundamental concepts or constraints in this universe that come in threes. Here are some more arcane ones that fascinate me. Some of them would be true even if our universe never existed. In that sense they are elements of Truth.

BOIDS: Flocking birds, or schools of fish, exhibit beautiful collective movement. It's astonishing to watch how quickly a whole school of fish can turn. The way Starlings move is just breathtaking. The term 'Boid' comes from Craig Reynolds who wrote a paper on this topic in 1987. Using a simulation he showed that only three simple concepts are necessary to recreate flocking behavior:

  1. Separation (each bird steers to avoid local flockmates)
  2. Alignment (each bird aligns itself with the average local direction)
  3. Cohesion (each bird steers toward the center of the group).


PRIMITIVE RECURSIVE FUNCTIONS: We all know about basic arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc. Some of us also know about factorials, primes numbers, exponentials, sums, products, Gödel numbers, etc. A while back, mathematicians hit some speed bumps in proof theory and had to relay their foundation. Building on Giuseppe Peano's research, Rózsa Péter came up with the term Primitive Recursive Functions. All the above and other commonly used functions can be derived from just three incredibly simple concepts:

  1. Constant function (output is always zero): f(x) = 0
  2. Successor function (output always one higher): f(x) = x+1
  3. Projection function (gets ith element in list): f_i(x1, x2, x3, . . . xi, . . . xn ) = xi


Caveat Lector: Some readers my want to bring up the Ackermann function as a counterexample. Functions like this one are not "commonly used," so to speak.

EQUIVALENCE RELATIONS: An Equivalence Relation is a way to partition a set into subsets so that every element is in exactly one subset. The most common example is the relation known as equals (=). Let's say you have jar of coins and you want to divide them into meaningful subsets. One way to do it is to divide them into pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Find four empty jars and place the coins in those jars in such a way that any two coins taken out of the same jar will satisfy the following: value of coin A = value of coin B. This is how an Equivalence Relation can be used to divide up a set. As you can see, there is only one jar to which each coin can belong. A relation (such as '=') is an Equivalence Relation if and only if it is:

  1. Reflexive (a = a)
  2. Symmetric (a = b implies b = a)
  3. Transitive (a = b and b = c implies a = c)


PARTIAL ORDER: Almost the same as an Equivalence Relation. Just replace Symmetric with Antisymmetric. A common example is the less-than relation (<).

RECURSIVE SETS : This set theory concept has deep implications in linguistics and computing theory. If we are always able to determine, in a finite amount of time, whether or not something is in a certain set, it is a Recursive Set. Such sets are closed under three operations:

  1. Union (combining two sets together)
  2. Intersection (given two sets, taking only elements that are in both sets)
  3. Complement (creating a new set comprised of all elements not in the original set)


SUBITIZING: When we see a cluster of one, two, or three items we know how many there are without counting. We know it almost instantly. This is known as subitizing, from the latin subitus meaning sudden (term coined by Kaufman).

It is believed that there are neuronal structures dedicated to the abstract concept of one-ness, two-ness, and three-ness. When you see a cluster of three objects the three-ness neurons are activated almost instantly. You never get to the point of having to count. In children and adults, counting above three is much slower [link]. Dehaene, et al., show that this is truly a separate ability from counting because patients with a certain brain dysfunction have lost the ability to count but can still subitize [link]. The wikipedia page shows that some scientists think subitizing extends to the number four, but Dehaene and Kaufman don't seem to be among them. Dehaene's results convince me that subitizing ends at 3. If it's true that the human brain treats numbers up to three separately, it could point to an adaptation to something fundamental in our world.

These are some concepts that are deeply three. Please send in others. This post may lengthen over time.



I guess the saying: "all good things come in threes" is true. Thanks for an informative read!

The subitizing theory is very insightful. A few years back an "isolated tribe was discovered in Brazil." Their counting system was: "One, Two, Many." It makes sense that we force things into patterns of there; they are easier to remember, and after three the ‘brain’ has to think more.

Generally in speeches and presentations we like to list things in the ‘power’ of three (Tony Blair with his "education, education, education speech" being one famous example). It gives authority to the words, and they are easy to remember. Even stories have a "Beginning, middle, end."

You asked for examples of ‘threes’ in science, well what about the universe being divided into Matter, antimatter, and energy perhaps?

There are also 3 groups of quarks, with different electron charges:

  1. Down and up
  2. Charm and strange
  3. Bottom and top

Or how about there are three types of neutrino: (I learnt about this sub atomic particle from our guest blog post last week)

  1. Electron
  2. Tauon
  3. Muon

It seems "Three” really is the "magic number!!!"

Posted by: Laura Wheeler
Mar 10, 2011 10:40 AM

Sorry my links didn’t work:

Isolated tribe was discovered in Brazil

Tony Blair with his education, education, education speech

"Three" really is the magic number!!!

Posted by: Laura Wheeler

Nice additions to the list of threes! Another friend of mine also mentioned the groups of quarks. Being a former physicist I should have thought of that myself. My friend also mentioned:

Baryons: (e.g. protons, neutrons) particles that are composed of three quarks.

Your remark about Tony Blair reminded me of what Lenin used to say, "Uchitsya, Uchitsya, Uchitsya!" (study study study). Real Estate agents say "Location location location." And how to you get to La Scala? "Practice practice practice!"

Posted by: Graham Morehead

There are lots of trios in electronics... Transistors have three terminals, base collector emitter for BJT, gate drain source for FET. They also have three states, cut-off saturation active (although there is also reverse-active).

There are also the three basic circuit elements, resistor capacitor inductor (no, I don't buy Chua's memristor even though I respect him a lot and I do think that research is totally interesting). Logic terminals can also be high, low, or put into the high impedance "tri-state".

There are also many minimal sets of logic operations that are able to implement any possible boolean function, but the most "famous" is definitely AND OR NOT.

Posted by: Nicolau Werneck

I am fascinated by what I refer to as the phenomenon of threeness in life - see link to my site:

In addition, herewith other interesting related links you might enjoy:


Posted by: Simon Kelsey

Updated Posting: Saturday, 17-June-2007... 4:26 PM
Newest Update: Sunday, 09-July-2017... 5:58 AM
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