On being ... template driven

By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t remember much about being a kid and I certainly don’t remember whether I was the kind who always coloured within the lines in colouring books. It occurs to me, however, that maybe the real question isn’t whether I conformed when using a colouring book but whether I’d rather have had a blank page to colour on instead. My guess is that I preferred starting on a blank page…

I’ve thought about this because I’ve wondered if my adult dislike of templates has its roots that far back. Though it might not go back in kindergarten, I know my aversion goes back a ways. Indeed, I distinctly recall the first time someone in a professional setting suggested I use a template. The whole idea was so foreign to me, my initial thought was that I must not understand the meaning of the word. So, I looked it up.

Looking it up didn’t help. If anything, the definition only reinforced my thought that templates relate to manufacturing contexts. Eventually, however, I realized that templates are common in many professions, including law (though, to maintain an air of mystery, lawyers refer to them as precedents). And yet, even after realizing that many professionals use them, the thought of using templates makes me bristle.

I’ve always figured my reaction has something to do with the fact that I put a premium in being creative and, since one of the main purposes of a template is to ensure a certain amount of sameness, I see using a template as stifling creativity for the sake of productivity. In short, I think I’ve always subconsciously equated “template” with “repetition”, which quickly translates to boring, which sends me running.

Fortunately, given the nature of my work, I’ve pretty much been able to rationalize that every project is unique and so there’s been no need for templates. But, that’s only part of the story. If truth be told, I’ve quietly, but intentionally, actively shied away from them. For example, whenever a client might mention they’re interested in creating something based on some kind of template, I simply steer the discussion away and then I make sure they’re pleased with the final product and so the topic never comes up again.

But, in an effort to grow professionally (or so I tell myself), I’ve jumped head-long into a project that is largely template driven. I’m part of a multidisciplinary team that’s creating some e-learning modules for a multi-national firm. There are a number of teams on this project and each team has subject matter experts, experts in learning design, a “scriptwriter” (that’s my role), and computer programmers.

To make sure that the end-product of each team will fit together and that the courses ultimately created will meet the company’s training needs, a lot of time, effort and money was spent developing guidelines and templates for each function on the team, including for the scriptwriters. The usefulness of templates on this project is obvous -- even to me (not just to ensure consistency in terms of the end look and feel of the modules but because the technology involved is complicated and requires a certain level of uniformity to function). And, to their credit, the learning experts and designers have created over two dozen templates for the scriptwriters to choose from, so there is room for creativity.

So, for the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with all sorts of templates. (I did mention that there are over two dozen, didn’t I?) The struggles began with my computer repeatedly crashing. (Do you think computers are like pets? Can they sense their owners’ anxiety?) You see, the template files are big and when you start adding graphics and text, clearly you’re asking for trouble. After many hours of troubleshooting, I realized a program update was required. So, to my chagrin, I had no choice but to do an upgrade mid-project. I lost some precious time, but I gained much needed control -- at least of the computer problems.

Unfortunately, controlling my aversion to templates hasn’t been quite as easy. The fact that I dream almost nightly about trying to figure out where to put information in the different templates, or which template to choose, gives you some sense of how well I’m coping. But, for the most part, during my waking hours I’m able to control my anxiety by reminding myself that whatever quality I’m sacrificing to conform to the restrictions of the templates will be outweighed by the satisfaction my client will derive from receiving information in the format they want.

That said, on a personal level, unless a miracle happens, I can’t say that this project has converted me into a template-lover. But, this project has forced me to re-think one long-held belief. I used to think that when it comes to templates there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like them and who look for opportunities to use them, and those who avoid them like the plague. What I’ve come to realize is there’s a third kind of person: the pragmatic consultant who, though she’d be happier if she never had to use a template, will do her damnedest to conform if the project itself is interesting enough (or if the bucks are big enough)!

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


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