• cation–anion interaction;
  • mechanochromic luminescence;
  • onium fluorophore;
  • molecular design

Mechanofluorochromic materials have great potential for a wide variety of applications such as sensors, memory devices, motion systems, security systems, and so forth. However, only few design principles have been disclosed, which greatly impedes the growth of mechanofluorochromic dyes. Here, a strategy of molecular design for mechanochromic luminescence is reported, based on the cation–anion interaction-directed switching of molecular stacking. On the basis of this strategy, a series of common N-heteroaromatic onium fluorophores such as imidazolium, 1,2,4-triazolium, triazolopyridinium, benzoimidazolium, γ-carbolinium, and pyridinium salts have been designed and proved to have striking reversible mechanofluorochromic behaviors. The simple attachment of a non-fluorescent imidazolium unit to the pyrene scaffold through a flexible carbon chain can even trigger the mechanofluorochromic phenomenon, which gives a consummate interpretation that the cation–anion interaction can be considered as an important general tool to design organic mechanochromic luminescent materials.