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If You Want To Be Original Learn To Love Convention

I love convention.

As a statement from someone who sets out to promote creativity and original thinking this may seem a little counterintuitive, but allow me to explain.

Every creative category has a series of established conventions, underlying patterns or formulae on which almost all the examples within that category are based. Most movies follow a three act structure of set up, confrontation and resolution. Most pop songs are built around a pattern of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus. Most commercials end with the logo of the brand they are promoting.

Each of these conventions has evolved over time and become a series of unwritten rules so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we, as creators, follow them dutifully without even being aware that we’re doing so.

The benefit of adhering to convention is that it aids fluency in your audience. ‘Fluency’ is a term coined by psychologists to describe the way we process ideas. Fluent ideas are familiar, they’re much easier and quicker to process as they slip effortlessly into our established way of understanding the world.

However, this fluency comes at a cost.

Let’s take ice cream advertising as an example.

Traditionally there are two ways to advertise ice cream. Either you talk about the provenance: where it’s made, how happy the cows are on the farm that produces the cream and how creamy that cream is. Or you focus on indulgence: the luxurious pleasure of allowing the rich, cold, creamy spoonful of deliciousness to slip down your throat. Almost all ice cream advertising from the last fifty years falls within either of these two conventions. And almost all ice cream advertising from the last fifty years is instantly forgettable.

We understand a fluent idea immediately – indeed we may even experience a pleasant rush of familiarity as our world view is shored up by another example of something behaving exactly as it should – but the idea has no traction. Easy come, easy go.

Here’s a different kind of ice cream commercial, one which resolutely does not conform to either of the two conventions we’ve identified above …


No, it’s not a spoof. It’s a genuine ice cream commercial in which a distressed elderly woman is told that everyone she loves is gone while being forced to eat the product by a robot. No cream, no cows, no farms, no luxurious indulgence. And once you’ve seen it, well, you can’t unsee it.

Some people loved this commercial. Others hated it. But no one ignored it. And in 2017, the year the ad aired, Halo Top outsold all other ice cream brands at grocers in the US, including Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs.

Defying the conventions of the category you’re working in is bound to feel uncomfortable, because it’s disfluent, abrasive and counter to your established way of making sense of the world. But if you seek to create something outstanding and original it is the only way.

So next time you begin a creative project, rather than immediately hurtling off in pursuit of a brilliant idea, take the time to identify the conventions of your category. Write them down. Put them in a list. Then ask yourself what the opposite would look like.

It could be your first step on the way to a truly original concept.

Anyone for ice cream?

richard holmanComment