Published in Content + Design -

The ‘flip-line’ philosophy: blending expectation + excitement.

I love reading and writing headlines. But then, that’s hardly a revelation – I’m a copywriter. I spend my days playing with prose, toying with tense, and wholly embracing semicolons.

One of my favourite kinds of headline is the flip-line, where an unexpected word is substituted into a familiar turn of phrase or saying. They’re fun to write, they’re memorable, and when written well, they can eliminate the need for body copy altogether.

Take this recent effort from Nike, in their campaign collateral for the Air Zoom Fit Agility 2:

NIKE screen

It’s a common copywriting technique, and it’s frequently used for good reason.

Functionally, the flip-line works because it combines two previously unrelated ideas about a product or service in a single sentence. In this case, it’s weightlessness (the ‘light’ nature of the shoe) with progress and improvement (the saying ‘a step in the right direction’).

In one headline, you’ve immediately communicated two distinct value propositions about the product: Nike has improved the shoe by making it lighter.

When statistics suggest that people only read around 18% of all online copy, at an average of about four seconds of attention per 100 words, this seems like a pretty effective way to articulate two ideas for the price of one.

On a cognitive level though, there’s much more at play in the flip-line, and it’s got me thinking.

Flipping the script.

Science suggests that people find comfort in familiarity.

But there’s research to suggest that we’re delighted when things surprise us too.

The flip-line offers the best of both worlds. It gives us the familiar and the pleasantly unexpected at the same time. It works because it effectively fulfils our brains’ expectations of how something should be, even while playfully departing from those very same conventions.

When you put it like that, the flip-line offers a great blueprint for creating engaging digital experiences.

I’ve always loved the idea of the flip-line headline, but maybe it’s just as good as a philosophy too.

The Flip-Line Philosophy:

Meet basic expectations and exceed them at the same time. Create a familiar experience that is also playfully unexpected. Substitute an element of amazement into an established formula, to create something completely new.

That’s the flip-line philosophy: a foundation of familiarity with a sprinkle of unexpected surprise.

But how do you unite two unrelated, and potentially conflicting impulses?

By definition, it requires creativity. In his book The Acts of Creation, Arthur Koestler describes creativity as “the association of previously unrelated frames of reference, or matrices of thought”. Steve Jobs also famously said that “creativity is just connecting things”.

It takes creativity to coherently bring weightlessness and development together in a single headline about Nike’s new shoe. And it takes the same kind of creativity to develop a website that is both conventional and surprising for users.

Creative approaches are key, because humans are contradictory by nature. As I’ve written previously, we love both complexity and simplicity. And it seems we also love familiarity and surprise equally, too.

The flip-line philosophy involves using a creative approach to merge familiarity with surprise, to produce an experience that is both comforting and completely novel.

And, it’s particularly applicable to digital.

The UX principle of Familiarity.

“Being reliable is something. Being good.”

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Think about how most people use the web. Most users look for experiences that fulfill their expectations of how something is supposed to be. They’re pleased when those anticipations are met and frustrated when they aren’t.

The comfort of convention is something you should be striving to provide for all users, in all capacities.

Because, whether we’re conscious of them or not, there are clear sets of principles that govern the way we interact with websites and design. These principles represent the foundational design principle of ‘familiarity’.

For instance, most people expect that by clicking on the primary logo at any point on a site, they will be whisked back to the home page. We’re aware that there will generally be summary content at the top of a page, with more detailed information available as we scroll further down. We know that if we hover our mouse over an icon and it animates or changes in some way, it will perform some kind of action when we click it. We know what to expect from an ‘About’ page.


If a page loads with minimal content above the fold, chances are you will know to scroll down for more material if you see a scroll indicator like this one.

The principle of familiarity helps to facilitate a ‘smooth’ user experience. Users can be directed to act in certain ways to achieve certain goals, based on expectations created by previous experiences with similar systems.

It’s why Mac users have had a little bin in the bottom right hand corner of their screens for the last 30 years – it may not be the most modern or inspiring visual icon, but from a usability perspective there is no education required. Put plainly, both the icon and the application are immediately familiar to us. We don’t need to learn anything new in order to use the trashcan – it fulfills our expectation of what it should do.

The evolution of Apple’s ‘trashcan’.
Familiarity is also why things like consistency of connectivity are important – if the money transfer feature of a bank’s mobile app looks and functions differently to the same interface on the bank’s website, it causes confusion and frustration. It’s problematic for users. We shouldn’t have to learn two sets of rules for the one game.

Consistent design and responsive resizing makes an app feel familiar across multiple devices.
But if everything is consistent and expected, then where are the surprises? Where’s the joy, the other element of the flip-line?

This is where creativity comes into play.

The UX principle of Delight.

“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerges from a formula.”

Bill Bernbach, celebrated creative director

Digital surprise can be achieved in many ways.

Remember when I mentioned that audiences seek experiences that fulfil their expectations? Well, they’re delighted when those expectations are exceeded and made memorable. This is the UX principle of delight.

Move towards delight: creating ‘wonder’.

Google’s Material Design Guidelines describe delight as “something that informs the user [and also imbues] the app with a moment of wonder, and a sense of superb craftsmanship”.

There’s no singular or definitive way to achieve this. We all have different ideas of the web and how it works. That’s why establishing an understanding of your audience is essential, so that your creative can be tailored to exceed their specific expectations, and create that sense of ‘wonder’.

For example, it could be a cinemagraph in place of the standard static primary image on a splash/home page.

A ‘cinemagraph’ is a still photograph in which a minor and repeated movement occurs.
A target demographic of 55-year-old wine enthusiasts with average digital literacy might find this exceeds their expectation of a standard website, and completely amazes. Hell, I find it completely amazing – soothing, fascinating – it captures an easy sense of luxury and motion, and creates atmosphere where there was previously none. The key lies in combining design, creative and site architecture to ensure the audience is still comfortable enough to navigate the site and buy the product.

For example, this could be achieved through:

  • Succinct and actionable copywriting
  • Clear header navigation that directs users to their area of interest
  • Scroll indicators that point to additional content further down the pagecinemagraph_v2

This mock-up uses simple techniques to employ the cinemagraph as part of a functional landing page.
That way, the experience both meets expectation, and playfully exceeds it. That’s the flip-line philosophy at play.

For more savvy millennials, it could be using augmented reality and a tablet to view IKEA furniture in your lounge room, to get a sense of what it looks like before you buy it:

IKEA’s furniture placement app, using augmented reality to showcase products in the home.

Notice though: pause the video at any point where the application interface is on screen, and you’ll see familiar hallmarks dotted around the app’s UI. There’s a little house icon, a big “X” and a question mark in a circle. No prizes for guessing what happens when you press down on each of those. That’s the flip-line philosophy again.

It could be using parallaxtransitional animations, or 3D immersion to tell stories via unique platforms that enhance their specific narratives.

Each of these examples nudges the scale of innovation while remaining comfortably familiar, thanks to a core foundation of conventional usability. The result? The stories are made infinitely more meaningful. You get a tangible sense of the experience of being on ‘the boat’. You’re more likely to discuss and share the plight of the ‘species in pieces’, because they’re aesthetically gorgeous and fascinating – like the animals themselves. You’re much more likely to spend time playing with PWC’s diorama than you would reading a text-only downloadable PDF of their commercial capabilities.

Speaking of text, delight can be achieved through something as simple as a refreshingly honest, open or “human” piece of copy in an otherwise bland, straightforward or purely functional piece of writing.

That’s an important point, it being refreshingly “human”, because all of these techniques – movement, playfulness, honesty, ease – work to make the experience of digital more human. More natural and less mechanical.

They create feeling.

This article by Chris Noessel proposes that the best digital experiences are human and emotionally satisfying, but also fulfil a utilitarian purpose. It identifies some other great examples of refreshingly “human” design too.

Like the flip-line, each of these adheres to what we expect they will do or be. Like the flip-line, they also excite us with surprise. And like the flip-line, they use creativity to combine seemingly unconnected impulses.

So, what have we learned?

Surprise and delight serve to humanize our digital experiences, while familiarity makes them purposeful. Functional and streamlined processes are essential, but it’s important to remember that people aren’t robots.

We’re human.

We’re contradicted.

We work out and then we eat chocolate as a reward. We like experiences to go as we expected, but we love to be surprised and engaged and amazed and delighted by them too.

We look for these contradictions in people, this perfect confluence of reliability and surprise. A good friend shows up to your dinner party on time, but with an unexpected, hilarious anecdote. It’s no surprise that we look for the same mix in digital experiences too, whether consciously or not.

Ideally then, our websites should cater to that fact by being conflicted as well. They should deliver on our sense of what is familiar, but they should also strive to pleasantly surprise us by departing from what we think we know, and what we expect as users. They should be robust and inspired at the same time.

I’ve identified and defined a couple of key terms throughout this article, namely familiarity and delight. As a parting gift, here’s one that sums up what happens when those two ideas combine:

To ‘innovate’ is “to make change in something established by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”.

We can only innovate by departing from convention, but we can’t improve upon conventions if they’re completely abandoned.

And so the headline reads loud and clear. By substituting a dash of the unexpected into the distinctly familiar – and following the format of the flip-line – we can find a formula for success.

It might be a simple copywriting technique, but with its smooth blend of the recognisable and the enjoyably unexpected, the flip-line offers a great philosophy – for approaching innovation, for accommodating users, and for creating more engaging digital experiences in general.