How I used the ‘3 rules’ of the Magic Triangle to design a lovable T-shirt

by: | Sep 23, 2021

I was recently asked to design a new T-shirt for my company, ArcTouch. The design ask was a blank canvas, simple and unbounded: Create a shirt for employees that looks cool. And right about then my product designer’s brain exploded from all the possibilities.

When creating products, it is fairly common for UX designers to use established methods and practices that help us model the desired user experience. After some discovery work, the problem usually becomes clear, along with what needs to be done to solve it. I’ve been so immersed in this mindset over the past few years that given a purely visual task was difficult for me. What should this T-shirt be like? How can I design it to look cool? What are the unstated requirements? Are there any?

“Although seemingly contradictory,  boundaries can, in fact, amplify your creativity. Boundaries aren’t there to limit the designer, but to limit the problem.”

After spending some time trying to haphazardly figure out what I should design, I shared my progress with my colleague Eduardo Zmievski. He suggested I use a framework called the Magic Triangle.

The Magic Triangle

I wasn’t familiar with the Magic Triangle, but the basic premise is simple: create a set of three rules that structure the problem and create boundaries.

Magic Triangle for T-Shirt design

Source: Tim Rodenbroeker 

Even in a visual sense, establishing three non-aligned points define a plan. Metaphor aside, these three rules determine what I call the problem space. The idea is simple: Inside the triangle is the space of my problem, where all the possibilities that satisfy my three rules live; all the other ideas that don’t satisfy the three rules live outside the triangle. This approach guides decision-making — because even though a blank canvas has a million possibilities, a million is too much. It’s way more than I can possibly reconcile in the course of solving this problem.

In product design, this is called overchoice, a phenomenon described by Hick’s law of UX. The more choices available, the longer it takes for one to make a decision. Therefore, structuring the problem with a few definitions reduces the number of possibilities, and eases decision-making.

Although seemingly contradictory, boundaries can, in fact, amplify your creativity. Boundaries aren’t there to limit the designer, but to limit the problem.

Now it was only a matter of picking which rules would help me solve this problem.

The 3 rules of the ArcTouch T-shirt

The first rule was obvious: The T-shirt needed to have global appeal to both my Brazilian and American colleagues. We eliminated any options that were too localized and couldn’t be fully understood and embraced by anyone in the company.

The second rule was about the message we wanted to communicate. Because it’s a T-shirt for our staff, it made a lot of sense to use the ArcTouch company values (see more on our careers page) as the message: passion, positive attitude, ownership, excellence, diversity, and fellowship. Besides being a message everyone can connect with emotionally, they’re also meaningful and self-explanatory.

The third rule covered the artistic style. Our design team wanted to explore different directions — some more figurative  with pictorial representations of the values, some with lettering and typography, and finally some randomly generated computer artwork.

We created mood boards to support our exploration:

Moodboard for ArcTouch Values T-shirt

We liked all the concepts —but decided to move forward with Theme #3.

Using Processing for the winning design

I used Processing, a computer language specifically designed for visual artists, to transform our mood board theme into a working design. I wrote a program that took the ArcTouch company values and explored variations of typography and colors in a continuously pulsating and evolving loop. You can see an example below:

We created the T-shirt artwork by extracting a single frame from that animation and masking it with the shape of the ArcTouch “a” logo.

ArcTouch core values T-Shirt

Tips for applying the Magic Triangle

I enjoyed using the Magic Triangle to help structure this design problem. Once we defined the three rules, the process went smoothly and the results were great.

Here are some tips about defining the three rules:

  • They can be anything you want, but don’t overthink it. Pick the ones that fit the context.
  • Ask yourself questions such as “Does this rule even make sense? Is it the best rule I can come up with?”
  • Create different sets of rules and compare them side by side. Eventually, the best options will become clear. In our case, we defined three triangles, and one designer explored each direction.
  • The rules are there to help you. The Magic Triangle author argues the rules should never be broken; that is, once defined, you may not deviate from them. In this project, we were less strict, which ended up being important in our explorations. We explored one direction that wasn’t mapped in any of the initial triangles.
  • Have fun! Even though using this Magic Triangle framework may sound excessively systematic for a creative problem, having fun is essential to creative tasks. Structuring the problem was a rational approach that enabled me to have totally spontaneous explorations.

By using the Magic Triangle to limit the design problem, I was able to unleash my creativity.

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