Beauty = Structure + Variation

The beauty of snowflakes comes from structure plus variation

Beauty is the combination of structure plus variation

It wouldn’t be wintertime without images of snowflakes popping up everywhere. There’s no mistaking their beauty, but there are lessons in that beauty that we can apply to our own works.

The most beautiful snowflakes look as if they were handcrafted by a master artisan. They are shimmering crystalline masterpieces with perfect 6-sided symmetry. Of course, the symmetry comes from the fact that the water molecules are aligning themselves by a very simple, but strict set of rules. Without that structure snow would just be… well… sleet.

If that was the full story, we would just see trillions of identical snowflakes, but we know that’s not the case. A myriad of external influences create just enough variation in the growth of the snowflake to give us an infinite number of variations. That’s what makes them special and beautiful.

How does this relate to our everyday lives and our own creative work? Simple. Anything we create – whether it is a book, a movie, an advertising campaign, a consumer product, a computer program or even a new business – needs a strong structure in which to grow. We start out with a set of concepts, rules and requirements that we have to follow or else our creation becomes “something else” and fails to get us what we want.

Once you understand these structural constraints and rules, you are able to see the room for variation that will let you create something special. Sometimes there are wide open gaps where the sky is the limit (a fish can be any color or pattern and is still definitively a fish). Other times you can bend a rule a certain amount, or even break one if the others are adhered to strongly enough (these days, we often call this disruption).

Here’s a basic example from the world of films:

Structural Necessity: You need a sympathetic protagonist that the audience can care about.

Room for variation: You can kill off the protagonist, or “flip” them to be an antagonist part of the way through, as long as you have introduced a new protagonist for the audience to shift their interest to.

As the snowflakes fall and you make plans for 2014, remember that structure is the ally of creativity, not the enemy. Let your creative variations dance around the framework of structure and the results will be beautiful and unique.

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