Know Thy Theme

A lot of what I do for people is to convince them of importance of thematic integrity and encourage them to maintain it. We need themes in things. They’re the point of entry; the reference point from which we can put them in context.

Themes are useful for reducing mental and emotional overhead by establishing familiarity. Want to start a restaurant? Pick a theme. People look for themes because they have precognant expectations. When you provide a theme, you invite them in. “You will be comfortable here,” you’re saying.

It’s the structure, a starting point. It’s the human skeleton – it says nothing about how beautiful the person will be, but it does say that you hang a human on it. What you build on your theme is your own. The theme doesn’t dictate everything you’ll do, or whether you’ll do it well. It just sets down rules. “You will grow a head here.”

Themes aren’t usually new. You can alter a theme if you’re willing to go the extra yards educating people about it. You can even build your own entirely new theme, but you’d better be willing to spend some time and effort it would take to make people comfortable, which means creating an understanding, and setting up clear expectations. People like knowing what they’re in for. So if your theme’s new, you’ll want to make it familiar pretty quickly. The unfamiliar is well, scary – and while that can be part of a truly thrilling experience, were not at our best.

I’m not saying if you server pizza in your Asian fusion restaurant you’ll have three murders on the first night, but you never know.

If it’s confining you, change it – but change it to another theme. Don’t just incrementally erode it (by serving pizza in your Asian fusion restaurant. Yes, you Khan.). Themes need congruency: they need to be the same throughout, without any internal inconsistency. Don’t hang a painting of the Mediterranean in your Chinese restaurant, for example. Not while there are classical depictions of the yellow emperor to be had.

Accept and celebrate your theme. Give it the integrity it needs to thrive.

Posted on September 28, 2013, modified October 2, 2015.