The MAYA principle

One of the benefits of following smart people on Twitter is that I regularly pick up on techniques and principles I’ve not heard of. I don’t remember who first mentioned theMAYA Principle, but I investigated and found a powerful idea I think is worth sharing.

MAYA, Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, is a heuristic coined by Raymond Loewy, who explains it thus:

The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.

What Loewy is saying is that a local maximum exists for creative work: the behaviour, understanding and mental models of our userbase anchor us and cause work that’s too far removed to fail.

Matthew Dent’s recent Royal Mint coin designs are a great example of the MAYA Principle in practice.

The task of redesigning currency is daunting. British coins hadn’t changed since 1968, and as such represented a great deal of tradition and cultural identity. Over the years, we’ve literally come to accept the portcullis, three feathers, thistle, lion, double rose and Britannia as icons of our nationality.

Individually, Dent’s new coins are unashamedly modern. They feature aggressive cropping and striking full bleed layout, with the 5p being a particularly bold example. Britannia they aren’t. However, taken as a holistic whole, the full suite of coins form the royal shield of arms. The design makes admirable use of the concept of closure, whereby our minds fill in the gaps to maintain a coherent pattern. The coins are also wonderfully tactile and interactive: the process of arranging them, jigsaw-like, to reproduce the bigger picture is novel and enjoyable.

Both the common historical thread and the design’s interactive nature were a conscious choice:

I can imagine people playing with them, having them on a tabletop and enjoying them… I felt it was important to have a theme running through from one to another. – Matthew Dent, in The Times

While a traditionalist may not appreciate the individual coin treatment, the strong nod to British history should placate him. The designs also encourage us to reexamine these everyday objects as a result of their interactivity, causing us to refocus on our money, the patterns they display and the connection to our identity they inevitably form. In short, this redesign skilfully mixes the old and the new in a way that is advanced, yet acceptable, to a potentially intransigent public.