Repeat after me: Repetition is critical in good design

April 8, 2019

Once upon a time, I was driving.

Fascinating story so far, yeah? Don't worry, it's a short one. See, as I was getting off the freeway, I noticed a white Hyundai Sonata in front of me. Except I didn't. I noticed three white Sonatas. And then a fourth pulled up next to me, and a fifth on the other side. I was surrounded by white Sonatas.

And that, my friends, is the thing about repetition. If it had been just the one white Sonata, I wouldn't have remembered it or even noticed it at all. Two, or maybe even three, wouldn't have seemed like more than a momentary glitch in the matrix. But five? Noticeable. Memorable. The fact that there were five of them gave them a significance one or two wouldn't have carried.

Because our brains are always searching for (and creating) meaning, we like to latch on to things like repetition of like elements. Even five white sedans of varying models would have stuck out, but five of the exact same thing practically forced me to notice, to try to make some sense out of this strange occurrence.

Yep. Repetition.

  1. Reinforces the point so the point actually gets through.
  2. Ties a design together into a unified whole.
  3. Creates a sense of significance. You said it more than once, so it must matter.

What's important in your message? Say it again. That’s a lesson you need to learn sooner rather than later.

I've had to become okay with repeating myself a lot. And it hasn't been easy.

See, like you, I'm a creator by nature, and I've always felt a powerful need to come up with new and original things. All new, all the time. And there's definitely a place for that, but there's a much, much bigger place for repeating yourself

Repetition is how you actually get through to people. If you only say something once, you're cutting off most of your impact, because most people missed it. Say it again. Say it again in slightly different ways, in different places; and also say it again the same way, the same freaking place.

Repetition is critical in design. Colors, shapes, stylistic elements, fonts, themes...if you don't repeat any of it, you don't have a design. You've got hideous, incomprehensible chaos.

Some of the ways repetition shows up in my world

You may not be aware that a lot of the stuff I write in my emails ends up here on the blog later. I write an email to my list pretty much every weekday morning, and it isn't really planned or strategic. But pretty often I'll get on a roll and do a series of emails on a topic, and then my team takes that series and turns it into a blog post or two

The email gets posted on my social media right when it goes out. And then the same content gets posted on my social media again when the blog post goes live. And do you know how many people have complained that I'm repeating myself?


The thing is, most people don't see everything you put out there. They pick up what interests them, and then they go on about their lives. If they see the same thing again, they've probably mostly forgotten about it, but the point you're trying to make will start to sink in the next time around. Or they'll pick up something new, make a new connection.

Repetition takes the pressure off, too.

Recently I was interviewed for a podcast, and it was pretty cool to be able to lean on content I've already done. There were questions about my design process, and what I ask my clients to think about in order to end up with a design that freaking works. I didn't have to make up new answers on the spot, because my answers are already out there. They're the first three steps in Before You Self-Publish: 6 things every non-fiction author needs to know for self-publishing success. (You've downloaded that thing, right? It's going up for sale on Amazon soon, so grab it while it's free!) They're in the worksheets I send to my Simple Brand clients. They're in the Brand Clarity Interviews I do with my comprehensive branding/website design clients. They're in everything I write here, and they're repeated everywhere I show up.

If you never repeat your message, you don't have a message. Don't worry about being original. Originality is baked in, because you're you. Repetition is how your unique message actually gets through.

I’ll say it again:

Repetition is how your unique message actually gets through.

Even though it can feel awkward to keep saying the same things over and over again, it's what lets your message sink in. Without repetition, you don't have a message.

I was chatting with a friend about this because I’m using his awesome comic strip in an upcoming post as an example of how repetition of visual elements ties a design together. (Hi, Brock!) We'll get to that part, but there's more to be said about repetition in the big picture before we dig into the subtle details.

See, my friend's comic strip, Robonk, is repetitive by its very nature. The premise is a robot sex therapist with human clients. I know, that's already pretty awesome, but the way it's created is even more brilliant.

The copy is generated by an old-school AI, responding to actual profiles from an online dating site. (Check out his blog post for more about how that's done.) So the robot's dialogue is pretty repetitive, because of the way the old AI worked; but there's also a fair amount of repetition in the human dialogue, because there are a lot of repeating themes in human desire and the way we express it. Repetition is part of who we are. The familiar creates comfort. Recurring themes help us remember.

So really. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself. That's what helps us get the message.

(And if you're bothered by sexy talk, you might not like my friend's comic, but otherwise, go read it! It’s wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful!)

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