Surprisingly familiar

Published on 
2 min, 337 words

Categories: life video

In the TED talk The four-letter code to selling anything Derek Thompson explains about a concept called MAYA.

MAYA stands for "Most advanced yet acceptable" and was introduced by a designer called Raymond Loewy. Loewy had a huge impact on the 20th century with significant designs in multiple areas. He said humans are torn between two opposing forces:

  • neophilia, a love of new things and
  • neophobia, a fear of anything that’s too new.

He identified that success lies at the intersection of those two tensions. We like things that are surprising as long as they are also to a certain extent familiar.

This battle for balance leads to the cycles we see in a number of areas including music, fashion and even baby names. People pick something that is different but still similar to what they know. Over time that pick becomes more popular and in doing so becomes too familiar. People then look for the surprise and pick something that is different but still fairly similar. Over time the original becomes less popular and we get a bell curve of popularity.

We see this in so many areas. Software builds on the software before it in terms of interaction and features. It is very rare that a completely new genre or approach is immediately successful unless it builds on an existing paradigm.

We see company logos and websites go through these same cycles. Suddenly we get a burst of logos using similar typography or the same shapes. Or we see a load of websites using the same layout or theme.

We can hopefully use this to our benefit when designing things - whether digital or physical. We need to consider two main questions:

  • How do you balance familiarity and surprise?
  • Can you engineer a familiar surprise?

If we can find that fine balance then we may be onto something special - until it gets replaced by the next big thing.


The four-letter code to selling anything