The Secret Principle To Delight Any Audience

A long time ago, I noticed something about songs I love: They feel inevitable. I listen to them and have a sense of coming home, an idea that this song could not have been written any other way, that it has always existed and was just waiting to be born.

At the same time, a new and exciting song feels like a discovery. It offers a sense of delight, an activation of wonder, a lighting-up of my emotions that makes me want to share the experience with the world. Have you heard this? Does it make you feel as [happy/sad/energized/loving] as it makes me?

This combination of inevitability with discovery isn’t just at the heart of great music. It’s also at the heart of good art, design, advertising. It’s a tension that, once mastered, will unlock powerful emotional responses from any audience. It’s the secret principle that, once you see it, becomes impossible to unsee.

It’s the MAYA principle.

MAYA stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable,” and it refers to the art of being as far out front as you can without snapping the rubber band that tethers people to their comfort.



The term MAYA was coined by Raymond Loewy, a French-born American product designer, in the first half of the 20th century. You might not know Loewy’s name, but you definitely know his work: he designed the Coca-Cola bottle, the Exxon logo, Air Force One.

According to a 2017 article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson, Loewy “believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory 'Most Advanced Yet Acceptable' -- MAYA. He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about AI content generation, and the idea that pattern disruption trumps pattern matching. James Smith left a comment: “[Y]ou are right to stress that successful marketing is often about disrupting known or normal patterns, which points to a classic Leo Burnett quote. ‘The secret of all effective originality in advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.’”

Back to Thompson: “Paul Hekkert, a professor of industrial design and psychology at Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, received a grant to develop a theory of aesthetics and taste. On the one hand, Hekkert told me, humans seek familiarity, because it makes them feel safe. On the other hand, people are charged by the thrill of a challenge, powered by a pioneer lust. This battle between familiarity and discovery affects us ‘on every level,’ Hekkert says -- not just our preferences for pictures and songs, but also our preferences for ideas and even people.”

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. We seek those products, designs, ideas that challenge us just enough to be exciting but not so much as to unseat our sense of who we are. Too far in one direction and we can’t fathom it, too far in the other and we’re old hat, cliché, uninspiring.

Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting dots. The work of designers, artists, musicians, writers, marketers is not to come up with something new. It is to make the comfortable feel new -- and to make the new feel comfortable.

If you can pull that off, you’ll always win.

1 comment about "The Secret Principle To Delight Any Audience".
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  1. David Cutler from EatMedia, December 7, 2022 at 6:52 a.m.

    Thanks Kaila. This IS right on time to help me to define the very complex yet obvious capabilities of blockchain. The key is that it's nothing new... It's just the simultaneous interoperability of multiple functions... Redefining our capabilities.


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