Everybody is going bonkers over setting their Notion boards right now. Why not? Notion recently announced that they are lifting their limits on free plans. It has come up as a powerful tool for notes and data management, but it requires a high initial investment. A blank board might feel daunting to anyone.

For easing the pain of setting up Notion, they provide multiple templates for every purpose. Look at their template gallery below. It’s crazy!

Notion template gallery

While templates are an excellent way to start a project, they can become problematic when we use them without a thought. And it doesn’t apply just to Notion templates but to all kinds of templates, be it a template for writing a UX case study, user persona, a portfolio website, or for an app for maintaining a to-do list. Thus, I want all of us to be aware of some problems and be cautious before we religiously begin using them.

However, before we dig deeper, let’s begin with understanding why templates exist in the first place.

The horrifying blank canvas

We all have stared long enough on the blank screens with no idea how to start the project. It feels like there is too much to do for setting up the stage. Templates solve this problem by providing pre-defined structures. They come as a useful handy tool for increasing efficiency and reducing the prep time for a project.

They remove the need for doing the same work over and over again — no more making the same structure before every project — thus reducing the cognitive load of setting up the project.

Different resume templates (1 & 2)

Today it is elementary to make a simple resume. We don’t have to invest time in thinking about what will go inside it. Start with a predefined template, and there is no need to set up the bare-bone structure.

But did it reduce decision making?

Templates, templates everywhere

Not a template to use

This is what Samuel Taylor might have said in his words. Where templates were supposed to reduce the effort of decision making, the sheer number of template choices has aggravated the decision-making problem further. Now we have to spend time thinking about what template to choose for a project. But before we talk about the solution, let’s first understand why we have so many choices when the idea of templates itself was about reducing the cognitive load. Why are there so many templates?

It is because of CONTEXT.

Every template has a context associated with it. Because there can be numerous contexts, there will be multiple templates. Different factors build the context-

  • The person who created the template
  • The time when it was created
  • Its objective

Let’s take an example where we are trying to build a portfolio website and download a website template. Before we start working on it, we need to figure out if the template suits our requirements. We can begin with the following questions:

Did the person who developed the template have enough knowledge to understand what an ideal portfolio website should look like? Was that portfolio website meant to be used by a product designer or a graphic designer? Did they build the template to support case studies? Or did they make it just for images?

Is the template obsolete? Is it suitable for current design standards? How advanced was the industry, technically, when the template was created? Is the template capable of doing everything we need? Or can we add more capabilities to it?

Lastly, what was the objective of the template? And does our objective align with that of the creator? Maybe it was created to showcase some of the work, whereas we might want to use it as a blog website to publish new articles.

Asking these questions can help us gauge how relevant the template is to our project.

Finding our perfect template

With the problems associated with using someone else’s template, it feels compelling to figure out what a perfect template would look like. Here are some of the methods which I use, to ensure that I make proper use of templates-

Since a template is customized according to one’s needs, the requirements may vary from person to person. The same template that worked for somebody might not work for us. We need to modify it according to our context.

One way to modify a template is by ticking just the right boxes i.e., by questioning every requirement in the template and then understanding what to filter out — what to accept and what to reject.

Mojo Jojo asking about the recipe to recreate Powerpuff Girls

Another way is experimentation. I remember an episode from Powerpuff girls where Mojo Jojo was desperate to find out a way to create a power equal to The Powerpuff Girls. Mojo placed an anonymous phone call to Professor Utonium, to ask about his recipe for the girls’ creation. Finding the ingredients of sugar, spice, and everything nice “too girlish” for his needs, He wanted something “tougher” and “more manly.” So he made a few variations on the recipe with everything he needed available in prison.

It is a great example where Mojo Jojo used the recipe given by Professor with some modifications to create something similar, but which suited his needs.

We need to find our recipe too!

With rigorous experimentation!

We can collect different template choices and use them as varying data points to mix and match what works for us and what doesn’t, to arrive at the final structure that suits our needs.

As ironic as it may sound, the perfect template could be “no template.”

Templates are useful when the objective is clear e.g., keeping track of all the articles that we discover on social media. A simple “to-do list” template that lets us save article/video links fulfills the purpose very well.

But when the objective is not clear — when we don’t even know what we need — it’s best, to begin with, a blank slate and to start maintaining a list; however, we feel comfortable. Once we’ve had enough list items, we can take a call on how we want to organize it into a “template.”

Summing up

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”- Aristotle

Critical thinking is essential to any project. Let’s not use templates as an escape board to short circuit our way out of critical thinking. Instead, let’s use them as a tool to navigate through unfamiliar methods and concepts and learn on the way.

Do you think there is a shortcut? Maybe there is. Or perhaps we have a long way to go before we figure that out. Let’s keep exploring. :)

Thanks for reading this so far. Keep following me on Twitter and Medium for more such updates. If you have any concerns about anything design related or other, ping me on any of the above platforms. I ‘d be happy to help.

Thanks, Vineet Arora for helping with the edits.

Product Designer at Gojek | Trying to read between the lines | Wish to document ’em all