Do you have a favorite number?
Maybe one that you feel is lucky? If you do, you’re not alone. Mathematics writer Alex Bellos surveyed more than 30,000 people from around the world about their favorite numbers because he was so fascinated by people’s emotional responses to numbers (The result? The world apparently agrees on a favorite number; read on to find out what it is).
What is it about numbers that triggers these feelings? Well, as long as humans have used numbers, they’ve held deep meaning — meaning that goes beyond just the mathematical symbol. Nik Contis, the strategy director at branding firm Siegel+Gale, puts it this way:
“As history goes, number-letter combinations have held religious, superstitious, mythical and, of course, mathematical significance…
Some would argue that numbers are the most universal form of language.”
What does this mean for graphic design? Numbers are loaded with hidden meaning whether we intend them to be or not — and we can capitalize on those qualities to make our designs and branding more effective.
Let’s take a look at 10 different types of numbers and how they can lend extra meaning to your design projects.
For as long as numbers have been around, they’ve been associated with other, more relatable concepts. The ancient Sumerians, one of the first people groups to create an abstract numerical system, used words for the numbers one and two that were the same as words used to describe men and women, respectively. In fact, the Sumerians may mark the start of when odd numbers (like 1, 3, and 5) began to be associated with stereotypically masculine qualities and even numbers (like 2, 4, and 6) with stereotypically feminine qualities.
Studies have proven that this connotation persists even in our modern, enlightened society. Psychologists Galen Bodenhausen and James Wilkie of Northwestern University have conducted experiments that reveal that people perceive numbers as “gendered” — specifically odd numbers as masculine and even numbers as feminine. The studies placed odd or even numbers next to ambiguous items like foreign names and the faces of newborn babies (participants were told to ignore the numbers; they were for record-keeping purposes). However, participants still reacted to the numbers subconsciously, rating the names and faces paired with odd numbers as more masculine to a statistically significant extent.
Let’s look at a couple applications of this concept in a design context. You can use the perceived gendered qualities of odd and even numbers to enhance the visual themes of your design. For example, the straight lines and sharp edges in the first image below give the design a more masculine feel that complements the odd number 1. Meanwhile, the curved lines and decorative embellishments on the gift shop logo that follows are more feminine and suit the even numbers (and are more likely to appeal to the most probable customers of a gift shop: women).
In Bellos’ favorite number survey, one number came up much more often than any other: seven. Across cultures, ages, and genders, the number seven was the clear favorite. It’s no wonder; seven is a recurring and significant number in many religions, mythical traditions, and even in everything from nature to pop culture. Just to name a handful: in the Bible, God rested on the 7th day of creation; in Judaism, 7 symbolizes divine perfection and completion; the 7 heavens in Islam; the 7 deadly sins; 7 planets visible to the naked eye; 7 seas; 7 continents; 7 colors of the rainbow; 7 wonders of the world; 7 dwarves (plus Snow White); James Bond, 007.
Seven is also mathematically unique. It’s the only digit of the first 10 numbers that can’t be multiplied or divided within the group (you can double 1 through 5 and get a number ten or less; you can half 6, 8, and 10, and divide 9 by 3, but you can’t do anything with seven.) Bellos says that:
“The way we understand numbers has to do with their arithmetic…
The arithmetic has been absorbed by culture, and the greatest example of that is the predominance of 7 as the most special, religious, mystical number that there is.”
So, in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, seven is a pretty unique and special number to almost everyone; it’s ingrained in our consciousness. So including the number in a design may give your project an extra sheen of significance and substance. The tactic may be especially appropriate for designs with a high-end aesthetic, as with this branding work by STUDIOJQ. The studio said that the client wanted to communicate brand values such as “powerful,” “distinguished,” and “prestigious.” What better number to do that with than 7?
Last year, Bellos joined Greg Rowland to contribute to a Radiolab podcast titled “For the Love of Numbers.” Rowland is the founder of Semiotic Alliance, which provides consulting services to help businesses and brands “harness the symbolic power of numbers” and other cultural touchpoints. He’s worked with some the biggest brands in the world like IBM, Coca-Cola, and Calvin Klein.
According to Rowland, 10 is a fairly emotionless number. “It’s going to be very hard to engage people emotionally with 10,” he said in the podcast. “Ten feels ordered and highly rational.”
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because it has practical, solutions-oriented connotations, the number 10 can be effective in designs that need to communicate those qualities — perhaps imagery that accompanies instructional content or branding for products that offer a solution to a problem.
“With 10, that’s where we get to a solution; the fingers on our hands run out…
So there is a sense of completion there. There’s a sense of, ‘We’ve gone through the process, and we’re going to come out ok.’”
Here’s a classic example. Advice articles named “10 Ways to [Solve This Problem]” or “10 Tips for [Completing This Task]” can be found all over the place. The underlying meaning of the number suits the practical purposes of those articles perfectly. Ten is used in a similar way in the illustration below, which was created to accompany a lecture titled “10 Things I Wish I Knew Sooner Rather Than Later.”
In the Radiolab podcast, Rowland describes how one of his most exciting branding experiences involving numbers was with KFC, the U.S. restaurant chain famous for its Kentucky fried chicken (hence the name). KFC uses a secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices to season the chicken. Why 11 rather than 10 or 12?
Rowland says that it’s because the number 11 denotes secrecy and has “enormous mystical potential, simply because it’s not 10 or 12 or 5; it’s not a sensible number.” It goes beyond the human finger count, beyond the practical familiarity of 10 — and therefore beyond the ordinary.
Here’s an example of 11 used in a logo concept that capitalizes on the number’s underlying meaning to enhance the imagery of the design. What’s more mysterious and extraordinary than outer space?
In Bellos’ book, Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life, Rowlands chimes in to say that going one beyond a whole number (like KFC’s 11 herbs and spices mentioned in the previous section, or Levi’s 501 jeans) “raises the expectation but doesn’t overplay it,” elevating a brand beyond the ordinary into something that’s not quite definable, that’s unique.
Here are a couple examples of more recent branding that uses the same technique. Rather than stopping at 100 or 500, 101 and 501 feel exceptional — one better, literally and figuratively.
In Alex Through the Looking Glass, Bellos explains how familiar numbers that are easier to process and easily divisible — usually even numbers (like 24; 8×3=24, 6×4=24) — are more attractive to consumers.
Dan King of the National University of Singapore and Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida demonstrated this idea when they conducted a study that found that people were more likely to buy an imaginary brand of dandruff shampoo called Zinc 24 than one called Zinc 31, and were even willing to pay 10% more for it! The researchers concluded that participants were more familiar with 24 from learning their multiplication tables as schoolchildren, which makes the number more appealing, comforting, and normal.
“King and Janiszewski’s point is that we are always sensitive to whether a number is divisible or not, and this sensitivity influences our behavior,” Bellos says.
So if you have a design or product that needs to reflect qualities like trust and familiarity, try integrating an even, easily divisible number like 18, 24, or 36.
Bellos also points out that King and Janiszewski, the professors we met in the previous section, conducted another experiment that had participants rate every number from 1 to 100 as liked, neutral, or disliked. As the results came in, a pattern emerged about the types of numbers people tend to favor: the majority (75% of the top 20 most liked numbers) fell between 1 and 20, with a particular liking for numbers 1 through 10.
If you want to tap into people’s feelings toward (and comfort with) certain numbers in your design, using numbers on the lower range of the 1 to 20 range should be a safe bet.
Numbers 3 and 8 came in second and third in Alex Bellos’ favorite number survey. Interestingly, like 7 (which took the top spot), both have significance in various cultures and religions. For instance, eight symbolizes good fortune in Chinese and other Asian cultures. Do you have a favorite number? Chime in below in the comments section.