What do I think about Templates?

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

—John Gall, Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail​

In digital marketing, templates show up in lots of places. Perhaps the one we’re most familiar with—thanks to Shopify, Squarespace and similar services—are for websites . They are often sneered at by the purists.

Me, for example, I used to like to use the word “bespoke”—and definitely meant it as a little dig against anything templatized. Bespoke is just a posh, high-dollar, way of saying custom.

As I get older I have come to prefer the word customized which means starting with something already built and working (a template!) and adapting it to the situation…

Another word for template is algorithm. (definition: A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations).

A well designed template is actually incredibly useful! In their best form they are orderly collections of solved problems and shared wisdom. They allow us to respond to common problems efficiently and quickly.

However, they can be overused. Additionally, these days, many of the examples of templates are really just copies of copies of copies and the core lessons the original contained become diffuse.

Templates also tend to get applied in a way that papers over what is unique about the situation or problem they are addressing—we often tend to think of them as a static framework, or worse, a rigid set of rules to be followed explicitly.

In the world of digital, templates are often offered as a way to lower the barrier of entry to DIYers and those valiant early stage entrepreneurs trying to spin an idea up into something real.

Templates do address a lot of complexity—hopefully making the complex simple. The problem is that when people use them, they often cede their sovereignty—they fall asleep at the wheel—they find themselves thinking that things that are highly complex should “just work”.

But, real work still has to be done. We still need to think through our business issues, and put in place what we want to have happen—leveraging, rather than leaning on the templates we employ.

In truth, templates are most effectively applied when used by people who know what they are doing—who are willing to stay curious and attentive to the specifics of the presenting problem to be addressed.

Another word for template is heuristic (rule of thumb). Which points to the fact that templates are employed in almost every aspect of our lives where they free us up from the basic, mundane and repetitive parts of thinking giving us the opportunity to be more creative and thoughtful.