We creatives love to think of ourselves as revolutionaries and rule-breakers, thinking outside the box, breaking free of convention and plucking inspiration out of thin air.
Formulas, rules and templates are for scientists, bean counters and corporate drones. What makes us special is our originality – our ability to come up with novel solutions and works of art stamped with our unique talent.
But is this really the whole truth? Could our creativity be more formulaic than we like to admit?
This was the question posed by a group of researchers who analysed a group of 200 adverts that were finalists and award-winners in prestigious advertising competitions.
They found that 89 percent of the winning entries could be classified into six basic categories, or templates. That’s remarkable. We might expect great creative concepts to be highly idiosyncratic – emerging from the whim of born creative types. It turns out that six simple templates go a long way.
(Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die)
The templates include:
- The Pictorial Analogy Template – a symbol is introduced into the product space. (E.g. croissant-shaped tennis ball used in an ad for the French Open.)
- The Consequences Template – extreme positive or negative consequences from using the product. (E.g. Steam coming out of ears when you eat hot chili sauce.)
- The Competition Template – the product is put into competition with another product (and inevitably wins). (E.g. Testing a new washing powder against your normal brand.)
(Original research paper: The Fundamental Templates of Quality Ads, by Jacob Goldenberg, David Mazursky and Sorin Solomon.)
Since reading about this study, I can’t help noticing these templates in the ads I encounter on a daily basis. It’s a bit like a magic eye illusion – once you’ve seen the concealed shape, it pops out at you whenever you look at the image.
I had a similar experience when I read Chris Brogan’s piece about the ‘writing frame’ he uses as the basis of most of his blog posts – only this time it was closer to home, as I realised his frame is very similar to the format I aspire to in my own blog posts!
- Great Title
- Related Graphic
- Strong+Story First Paragraph
- First Example
- Second and/or Third Example
- Action Items
- Call to Action
(Chris Brogan, How to Use a Writing Frame)
I don’t know how Chris evolved his, but mine is based on the format of my training workshops – start with a pressing problem, tell a story that dramatises the problem and suggest a solution, offer some practical advice, get people to try it for themselves, then open it up for discussion.
Now you might say it’s all very well to pick out templates in adverts, but many artists have a pretty low opinion of the standard of creativity in advertising. And blogging has a long way to go before it’s regarded as a respectable literary discipline. And of course patterns and templates are useful in teaching, as they help the learning process.
But Art (with a capital A) is different. There are no templates for genius or formulas for producing masterpieces.
Or are there?
I’ll start with my own art – poetry – which is unquestionably one of the fine arts, with no practical use whatsoever. And guess what? There are templates for poetry – loads of them.
If you want to write a poem, you can choose from the tetrameter, pentameter, alexandrine, blank verse, rhyming couplets, quatrains, terza rima, ottava rima, rhyme royal, the sonnet (three main types), villanelle, sestina, haiku, limerick and clerihew, among many others.
Even the modernist revolution, that gave poets licence to write ‘free verse’, placing the words on the page any way they like, ended up creating conventions of its own. There are only so many ways you can arrange words on a page, and certain arrangements will produce certain effects.
I’m no musician, but even I can hear the family resemblance between some of the great symphonies, in which composers took the basic ‘four movement’ structure as their starting point.
And rock ‘n’ roll, the archetypal rebellious art form, sounded anarchic when it first came along, but looking back now, some of those Fifties records sound quaint and restrained.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that rock ‘n’ roll is actually highly conventional music – in the sense that it has a lot of conventions of its own. The formulaic character of the song structure (not to mention the hairdos!) is obvious to us now.
The same may well go for our own work – we’re so immersed in the conventions of our time that we fail to notice them. ‘Learning the rules’ doesn’t sound very rock’n’roll, but it could be one of the best-kept secrets of creativity:
I wanted to get to learn the technique of the theater so well that I could then forget about it. I always feel it’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.
(T.S. Eliot, Paris Review Interview)
What do you think?
Can you spot any ‘templates’ in your own creative field?
Do you think it’s important for a creator to acquire a working knowledge of established templates, patterns and forms in their field?
If we are to use templates in creative work, how do we keep things fresh and avoid mediocrity?
Mark McGuinness is a coach for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, add Mark on Google+.