Stranger Things, Dark, and the Secret Sauce of Hit Makers

Sep 2020 - Evergreen Thoughts


The sections of this issue are connected…


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1/ A Strange Coincidence

I recently started a Netflix show about a small town kid mysteriously disappearing. Lots of 80s nostalgia and paranormal activity.

I’m not talking about Stranger Things. I’m talking about Dark, a show that is eerily similar.

There were too many similarities for it to be by chance. I was convinced Dark was a Stranger Things knock off. However, as I started googling around I learned that Dark was written before Stranger Things came out. My theory was debunked.

I learned the creators of both shows grew up in the 80s and were Stephen King fans. Turns out they were both borrowing ideas. Not from each other, but from one of the greatest horror and supernatural fiction writers of our time.


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2/ Surprisingly Familiar

In Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson suggests a simple formula for producing a hit: create something that is surprisingly familiar.

It’s based on the idea that there is natural tension amongst our needs: “the love of the new versus the preference for the old; people’s need for stimulation versus their preference for what is understandable.”

Familiarity leads to fluency, which often leads to enjoyment. However, too much familiarity can be off putting: a movie with a predictable plot, a speaker regurgitating buzzwords, hearing the Baby Shark song for the 784th time, etc. Creating something familiar with a bit of surprise delicately balances these opposing forces.

Here Thompson brings the joy of a surprisingly familiar experience to life:

"Imagine you're in a room full of strangers. You look around for somebody you know but you cannot find a single recognizable face. And then suddenly there is a parting in the room, and through the crowd you see her -- your best friend. The warm feeling of relief and recognition bursts through the clouds of confusion. That is the ecstacy of sudden fluency, a moment of eureka."


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3/ Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable

Thompson is not the first person who noticed our favorite concepts tend to balance a yearning for the new with a comfort of the familiar. Raymond Loewy noticed this trend and incorporated it into his work almost 100 years ago. His work, which includes the Coca-Cola bottle, the Shell logo, and the USPS logo, was based on meeting users’ current preferences while also slightly pushing the boundary of their expectations via technology and design. He named this technique MAYA, which stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. In his own words:

"The adult public's taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm."

If you’re interesting in learning more about this topic here’s a great related article.


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4/ Out in the Wild

Dark and Stranger Things put a new spin on classic Stephen King ideas in a way that perfectly balances our yearning for the new with our comfort of the old. They are surprisingly familiar. Here are some other examples of this formula in action:

  • 🍩 Cronuts: Two classic pastries (familiar) mashed up into one (surprising)

  • 🎭 Hamilton: The American founding story (familiar) depicted by underrepresented actors through rap (surprising)

  • 🍨 : An ice cream-style shop (familiar) that serves cookie dough (surprising)

Surprisingly familiar is also one of the secret ingredients in Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists. They seed each playlist with 1-2 songs you know to balance the new with a sense of familiarity. As stated by Matt Ogle, who led the creation of it: “Having a little bit of familiarity is key to building trust. It can be exhausting to just listen to stuff you’ve never heard of before."

While the above ideas show the power of infusing novelty into existing ideas, Loewy’s MAYA concept reminds us that it’s a delicate balance. Apple’s Newton tablet, Google Glass, and the blockchain are good examples of products going too far towards the novelty end of the spectrum too quickly.


I hope these ideas help you better understand your preferences. Maybe they can even help you turn an ongoing project or idea into the next big hit.