The Rule of Thirds (and the power of the Pareto Principle)

As a self-described perfectionist, I’m always on the lookout for good examples of the Pareto principle, (aka the 80/20 rule). The principle states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. You can see this in sales (80% of revenue from 20% of clients) and sports (20% of the exercises/habits have 80% of the impact). But does it apply to design?

As a left-brained Computer Science major, design has always felt like a squishy and hard-to-implement discipline. (I’ve heard the joke “good design is like pornography, hard to define but you know it when you see it.”) Yet as an entrepreneur, the need for design first principles became quickly apparent in uses cases ranging from PowerPoint presentations, logo design, and picking/pairing the fonts for this newsletter.

In creating the Rad Awakenings Podcast, I’ve worked with countless profile photos from our guests. These two always jumped out at me.

Ashley Feinstein-Gerstley, The Fiscal Femme

Yup, not only are Scot and Jacq (the founders of State Bags) and Ashley Feinstein-Gerstley (aka The FiscalFemme) rad AF, but there was something about these two photos. Yes, clearly they were shot professionally in a studio and with good lighting. But was this also an instance of the 80/20 rule?

We were recently on vacation and I took one of those free hotel-provided photography classes. They taught us fancy features about apertures (i.e. how “open” the lens is), ISOs (lighting exposure), and shutter-speeds (to match the movement of your subject). This involved manipulating camera settings and adding various lenses. All this tweaking was interesting, but tbh I didn’t see myself ever applying that level of granularity in my every day life.But one little rule changed the way I’ll take photos for the rest of my life.

The Rule of Thirds is a neat little “trick” to understand the composition of a good photograph. It’s as simple as positioning your subject in one of the “thirds” of your camera’s viewfinder. This will make more sense by revisiting our two profile photos:

My logic-seeking brain would have assumed that given the symmetry of a profile picture, you’d want to shoot it head on and perfectly centered. But let the ? direct your eye to the appropriate “third.” And while I don’t purport to understand why our brains visually process this third, it clearly works.If the quirky camera settings are the 20%, the rule of thirds is the 80%. (And for my money peeps, the 80 is free and the 20 is expensive AF.)

You can’t unsee good design

Another unintended consequence of good design is that it’s really hard to “unsee” it. (Probably where the pornography example breaks down ?.) For example, as I strolled through the Broadway-Lafayette subway station, there was a Bowie-inspired Spotify campaign:

Shot on iPhone

Learning about the first principles of design has been one of the highlights of entrepreneurship, particularly for an analytical mind like mine. And in a very noisy digital world, design is the means by which great ideas rise above the fray. And you’ll find the Pareto Principle in abundance, whether it’s in typographycolor pairings or video lighting.

So here’s your guys’ homework: on this beautiful spring day, take a crack at the rule of thirds. Though I slightly missed the third (I think I was 80% there ?), here’s one of my first attempts:

The Pareto Principle quickly identifies “high leverage” opportunities, while reminding us that “perfection is the enemy of good enough.” And that’s all fine and dandy. But what’s more exciting about beautiful design (or great writing) is that it changes the way you interact with the world. It helps you appreciate the beauty  of the texture of life. It’s eye opening. Wonder-inducing. And impossible to unsee.

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