General / 01 October 2022

Illustration by Mark Weaver

Ready to unleash the power of design? Meet Raymond Loewy. The French designer created some of the most iconic designs of the 20th century. He brought modern aesthetics to the U.S., designing trains and cars with sleek aerodynamic shapes, and created cultural staples like the Lucky Strike package and Coca-Cola soda fountains.

But what was his top-secret formula for success? Enter M.A.Y.A., the “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”. He understood that the key to good design was striking a balance between the familiar and new, the expected and unexpected. He called it "Familiar Surprise" - something bold and innovative, but instantly understood.

Think about it, as humans, our brains are wired to recognize and trust familiar patterns, but crave the excitement of the new. A study in 2011 even found that people prefer objects that strike this balance. This is why Loewy's train designs were so successful, they were clearly recognizable as trains, but the streamlined bullet shape added a surprising element that helped them stand out.

Our brain filters out the familiar because at a very primitive level, it’s not a threat to our survival. Humans and other animals subconsciously scan for threats in the environment, and with a lack of actual threats in a modern setting, this equates to something “out of the ordinary”.

This is the power of Familiar Surprise, it doesn't just grab attention, it retains it. And in the world of entertainment, whether it's music, film or games, understanding this principle of popularity can give us insight into why certain designs, songs, and films resonate with us and become successful.

In the late 90's the top films were all original, these days they're sequels. The entertainment industry sees franchises as a safer bet but as we’ve learned, those need to be infused with originality to be successful. How much depends on who it’s for.

There's a science to this “principle of popularity” but it's not an exact one. When we understand the power of Familiar Surprise we can create designs, songs and films that not only stand out but also resonate.

Now, go make something extraordinary!