Is There a Template for Creativity?

Scissors cutting out paper template

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+.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Being familiar with the “templates” and techniques of a field, I think, gives a person an aesthetic appreciation of his/her community of fellow artists, many options to start with or to combine in novel ways, and an understanding of where the frontiers lie for introducing the novel idea.

    But this learning is a life-long, carrer long project. One doesn’t need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the field before making ones own experiments and forays!

    I think research shows that the eminent creative luminaries alive today and who have come before us almost always have/had a command of the techniques and ideas that exist within their fields before they “break set.”

  2. The title of this post offers a question that is so profound. One must understand what creativity itself is to answer the question! And dare we to assume that with this understanding, that one might recognize or create a template of it? Throughout our history creativity is seen as a mysterious force, activity, skill, talent, what ever one wishes to call it. All these observations are related to one aspect of creativity or another. It may be possible to go deep enough into the energy of creativity to define it as a substance of our humanity. Then might we advance our ability to manifest our creative force to become replicable. I mean, as the article illustrates, we use templates to save us time, or for educating ourselves about how others are approaching a situation, a problem, or solution. Is there a template for creativity? Seems to me it is some sort of order brought out of the chaos of our existence as humans. What a divine gift to create a template for it!!!! The article mentions several templates for different manifestations of out creative efforts, so maybe this is the only level we can apply templates… but what a thought – a template for creativity itself!!!

    • One template to rule them all… ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Very clever, Mark.

        • Here is a link to a version of a template that simply blows my mind. Software than can write stories, normally a right brain activity and an art. The activity is called Narrative Science and it is in the beginning stages or use.

          These people are coming close to defining what it takes to ‘write’ stories from data. The program can write stories based on data but would a computer system ever be able to create a fiction story that comes entirely from imagination? Technical creativity, has it’s place but it’s thought provoking to think that it really can be done.

          • This is hysterical. Your comment reminded me of an old post I wrote about whether computers can think creatively. The bit you made me think of was about a computer programmed to write poetry (shudder).

            Then I read through the article and discovered I’d written about exactly the same research study re templates and advertising creativity, but had forgotten all about it.

            They say great minds think alike, so maybe I have two of them. ๐Ÿ˜‰

            • I’m chuckling that you found this so hysterical! I also sent that Link to Daniel Pink who wrote ‘The Whole New Mind’ and he had a comment that made him shudder a little as well. I had been in the software business for 30 years, then worked for a female Guru and managed large spiritual events and watched much transformation in people as they became ‘aware’ of their own stories. I attended a Lynne Twist seminar about ‘Fundraising From the Heart’ and she spoke of having a “Compelling Story” and my life was transformed from the ‘Left-Brain’ activities to ‘Right-Brain’ activities. When I read Daniel Pink’s book, I realized that I was naturally moving from the analytical skills toward more non-linear skills (which I describe as my ‘creative self’). The shift in perception has been amazing as I am learning just what it means to make a living using my creative side. When I was in software development, I based my motivation on a philosophical meaning, that the real-time application of quality management brought new awareness to the people working in manufacturing. I now realize that I was creating a ‘story’ for the meaningfulness of my work. Since I have been studying what it takes to be a ‘story maker’ I have discovered that the ‘creative force’ was with me all along and I’m so grateful to have found so many people like yourself supporting the creative spirit to have a gainful livelihood from their expression. I have been participating in your ‘Creative Pathfinder’ series which has directed me to so many wonderful sources in the creation of my new life. After my ‘spiritual’ experience with the Guru I came away with a new vision for my life, as a ‘Creator’, and now I’m defining what that means to me. Thanks for your work. I’m working currently for a start-up to provide coaching services to support entrepreneurs in building a culture that works based on valuing values, and 7 levels of consciousness, so there seems to be a divine force moving me along utilizing all my previous experience in a new way. It’s a grand story that has an energetic quality that I don’t believe could be replicated by a computer because the computer, at least so far, doesn’t apply the meaning that the creative mind and heart supplies. Thank You!

  3. I love the T.S. Eliot quote. “I always feel itโ€™s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” I think that sums up the ideas of templates and creatively stretching yourself.

    Our regular readers (and fans) expect some consistency (the template) but also desire something new (breaking the rules).

    If you did nothing but break the rules (or live without rules) it’s doubtful you’d allow a group to discover and follow you. There would be no context (or rules or predictability).

    • Our regular readers (and fans) expect some consistency (the template) but also desire something new (breaking the rules).

      For me, it’s the tension between the two that keeps creativity interesting.

  4. My favorite instructor in design school drove home the spirit of that TS Eliot quote to us (though without attribution!) I use templates in my design work daily. Without knowing how a loom works, how the human body moves or how plumbing in a bathroom functions, I could not properly construct textiles, clothing or home interiors. The sky’s the limit in terms of how I combine materials and colors, make shapes and all the other creative elements that go into my work – that’s where the fun happens. But at the end of the day, a design must function for my clients (however they happen to define those needs) so rules or templates are my launching pad.

  5. Nice article, and I too try to live by that TS Eliot quote. I wonder if there is not something subliminal going on in the test material: patterns become visible because the judges have similar training as to what is “good” and what is not. Therefore, ads that fit in to this mold are chosen above others that may not. It is not that the judges err, to the contrary, most ad contests are judged on judges personal tastes. It would be very neat to be able to take the ads used in this study (twelve years old) and categorize the ads by effectiveness – and see if that corresponds with the awards the ad was honored with.

  6. I was pretty skeptical when I read the header โ€ฆ but I can see how it makes sense. After all, a lot of great creativity is prompted by limitations, not endless options.

    However, I will say this: The greatest capital-A Art (and, Iโ€™d argue, the greatest advertising) starts with an established template, but then does something fresh with it.

  7. There’s no question that templates keep us on track and better organized as well. Like you Mark, I rely on a useful format for my training workshops. It can be a continual work in progress, for I’m open to tweaking it, and going with the flow when I notice a certain learning style in my audience, but the basics of the format give the whole a bone structure of integrity (and admittedly, comfortable discipline for me, so I don’t ad-lib too much!)

    This made me think of advice I was given when I started speaking too, with a mentor sharing that quote often attributed to George Bernard Shaw: โ€œTell โ€˜em what youโ€™re gonna tell โ€˜em. Tell โ€˜em. Then tell โ€˜em what you told โ€˜em.โ€

    • I am sure I use “templates’ in teaching, but I have taught so long, it is all automatic rather than planning into a format.

    • Yes, having a bit of structure counterintuitively makes it easier to improvise. I’ve done a few acting improvisation workshops, and I was surprised at first to discover how many rules there are in the improvisation games – but they are the key that unlocks the magic of spontaneity.

  8. Mark:

    For one I am a blogger (and writer) and I can tell you that there are many templates you can use to write your own posts. In my opinion things are easier that way because you know you are doing the right thing versus writing without a guide and knowing that it is likely going to suck. Confidence has a big role to play in a person’s writing (or any creative work for that matter.)

    For two if you are a creator it is important to acquire a working knowledge of an established template or pattern. Here’s why: you are more organized and you can be rest-assured that your work is going to be of a high quality.

    For three to keep things fresh and avoid mediocrity, one thing creative people can do is to use what Tony Clark calls a Pattern Adaptation. The basic idea is to study the patterns from one work and then use it to create your own. In other words pick a template and look at it in general terms. Then use what you have found out to create yours.

    The best way I know to explain this is to take a look into the field of Mathematics. If you want to solve a problem on factorization, there is a certain way you go about it. But it doesn’t mean because you have seen an example solved in one way, that is how all problems in factorization has to be solved. Sometimes you have to break the rules. But there is a general way of doing it.

    In the same way when you pick a template to use for your creative work, it doesn’t mean because someone has used it in a particular way, that it how you too must use it. Sometimes you need to break the rules.

    Copying verbatim sucks and it will make you look somewhat stupid. Instead work from your own strengths. Add something from your inner self that will it unique. Do a little bit of extra thinking and you will find it. Or look at someone else’s work and try to find a connection between it and the template you want to use.

    All in all, be unique. Because that is what will make your work stand out in the crowd.


    Sam Lab

  9. Working off a template also can allow a creative person to invest his energy into content and everything else that will be unique in the piece. There will always be some aspects of what one is doing that will be shared with other work in any case.

    A connection to other works in a discipline can be a plus in any case, if one thinks of art, or other creative work, as a conversation with others doing work at the same time or a conversation with other creative people in the discipline over time.

  10. if one thinks of art, or other creative work, as a conversation with others doing work at the same time or a conversation with other creative people in the discipline over time

    Which I, for one, most certainly do. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Mark:


    I have been reading Tony’s stuff for a while and it has opened my eyes to so many things. He is someone I respect so much.


    Sam Lab

  12. Mark:

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about it for the last few days, and the upsides and downsides of template use.

    The biggest upside, as I see it, is what Fritzie points out: “Working off a template also can allow a creative person to invest his energy into content and everything else that will be unique in the piece.” Yes indeed. Templates are a huge time and energy saver, allowing our best to emerge sometimes.

    And, they allow for consistency in our work, often a good thing. When we choose, we can depart from them and whatever our own norm is. As you wrote in one of your replies: “itโ€™s the tension between the two [consistency and newness] that keeps creativity interesting.” I agree.

    I think it’s hugely important to remember to explore what’s new for us. If we don’t, then the downside of template use comes into play …

    As someone who practiced law for 10 years, I know a lot about using templates. Lawyers call them “precedents.” They’re documents that have been written in prior matters that can be marked up and changed as needed in current matters. They’re a hugely necessary time and energy saver, and safe as well, because only successful precedents are used, i.e. those that have gotten the job done (e.g. briefs that won; filings that were approved by the agency they were submitted to, etc.). We knew they worked, at least in form.

    Sometimes, though, there would be something to be done for which there was no precedent, like a document that had to be drafted in accordance with a little-known/used statute that no one had ever worked with or written anything for. So we had to start from scratch, which was SO MUCH HARDER than using a template. When that happened, it illuminated, to me how strengths and skills can atrophy …

    Which is relevant here, because by that, all I mean the ability to make something out of nothing. The intellectual and creative process is completely different and far more challenging than drawing on something from before.

    I’ll say that out there in the world, I’ve seen many a brilliant template-originating post, poem, story, etc. Applause and praise for the creator are often in order. But most of the time, at least from my perspective, the rare instances when I’m truly floored come when someone does something unprecedented (untemplated, so to speak), either generally (i.e. the world has never seen it before), or specifically (i.e. the person has stepped outside of himself and his abilities and does something completely new – for him.) ๐Ÿ™‚

    The best example I can think of is a play I saw many years ago, a production of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt. There were many characters, main and minor, who throughout the play took turns, without notice to anyone, playing each other’s roles. So the aunt, for example, would morph, for a few minutes, into the nephew, and for that time, he would morph into her (without a costume change!). Or some of the waitstaff, say 5 of them, would collectively morph for a bit into some other character on stage (just one), speaking his lines in unison, while that one character, himself, became a group of waitstaff. All so masterfully done that the audience could completely follow along.

    Truly extraordinary. Certainly not the stuff of templates. But, as the very apt T.S. Elliot quote reminds us, the logical course is to observe first and violate later. My guess is that the creators of that play did quite a few conventional ones before they tried that.

    To sum up, templates rock. So does leaving them completely behind, which we must, sometimes, to ward off atrophy and keep ourselves strong (and those around us amazed by us sometimes).

    Great post. As I said, I’ve been thinking about this all week. Hence the volume of what I’ve written. Thanks for reading.


    • Thanks for the typically thoughtful comment, Susan. I’ve been thinking this one over… The more I look into creativity, the less convinced I am that anyone creates something completely out of nothing, without a precedent. If you dig around enough, you can usually find something the creator was using as a springboard – even if they used it to make a big leap!

      I suppose God is the obvious exception. But even then, when He was concocting the big bang, how do we know that He didn’t have access to a really good library of previous cosmic experiments? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. nice perspective on creativity. i was wondering abt talent . can that be taught too ?

    • Some people say the idea of talent is overrated – that it basically comes down to lots and lots of dedicated practice. Whether you agree with that or not, talent certainly needs to be developed with practice. I’m not sure it can be taught, but it can be coached.


    Speaking of templates – check out ‘Everything is a Remix’ an example of using previous work as a template fore reinvention.