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15 Tips to Work More Like Pixar: Creativity Inc. Book Review

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration tackles Pixar and Disney from the view of technology, individuality, and artistry. All while creating a viable business. As a graphic designer, we balance creativity and responsibility. Like Pixar, we’re in the business of bottling and selling our imaginations. Ed Catmull, the computer scientist who became president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, deals with this awesome collision of seemingly conflicted interests with sincerity right out of Wall-E.

I’m a huge pop culture fanatic: My friends would do trivia and one night they turned in a guess before I even heard the question figuring no one would know the answer. I felt shocked to learn that no one else knew who played Robin in the old Adam West version of Batman. It was Burt Ward, people. Burt Ward. Do people not know this?

So as you can imagine, I’ve laughed and cried with Pixar in the theatre over the years. Remember in Toy Story 3 when Woody and friends held hands and resigned themselves to incineration? You have no soul if that didn’t rock you to the core.

In the spirit of Pixar’s films, I have 15 tips on how you can apply Ed Catmull’s experiences at Pixar and Disney to your own life full of imagination and wonder:

Tip 1: Build trust

In business we all hear so much about positivity, though do we question what that means? For Ed, positivity is about putting people first. People want trust, hope, and faith. The book targets anyone who wants to be creative and says anyone can be creative. We want people to solve problems without feeling that they have to ask for permission.

“Trust doesn’t mean that you trust someone won’t screw up – it means you trust them even when they do screw up”
Ed Catmull

Tip 2: Respond well to failure

When we create an environment not driven by fear and failure, we develop the people around us and help them grow. To reduce the natural fear response of controlling and micromanaging, we have to make surprise more comfortable and not threatening. Trust can’t be created as quickly as fear.

Ed tells us that facing the fear of failure and forming trust happens when we avoid secrecy when it’s not necessary. Sharing “secrets” shows that employees are trusted. When given trust, people are more likely to keep secrets. As a company, Pixar is excellent at keeping secrets internal by treating employees as smart, trustworthy and capable partners.

“Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film. But we know. We trust our process. We don’t get scared and say, ‘Oh, no, this film isn’t working.’

Tip 3: Step back to see the big picture

Our view is the only perspective we really will ever know. Pixar views daily versions of each film to find problems. Ed describes “The Problem of the Beautifully Shaded Penny”, that if not aware of the big picture each employee will treat their piece as if it was the biggest piece. The penny metaphor describes how a motivated animator could create a very detailed penny if that’s the task given, even though in the actual film it would only be seen for a blink of the eye.

“Working at Pixar you learn the really honest, hard way of making a great movie, which is to surround yourself with people who are much smarter than you, much more talented than you, and incite constructive criticism; you’ll get a much better movie out of it.”
Andrew Stanton  

Ed reminds us that we can’t that assume creativity can’t be quantified as data. Creativity times time, it takes a quantifiable number of revisions, and we can compare time estimated versus real time. We can view the state of work at deadlines and the quality level at every transfer between departments.

Tip 4: Know your weaknesses

Ed acknowledges that sometimes we’re all really confident. Sometimes we’re not. The key reason to constructive and practical communication is letting others know it’s okay to make mistakes. How we deal with mistakes is what really counts. As a designer, I have to make revisions, corrections, and changes. Rather than leap to the idea that we should have known, remember this is part of the process.

Tip 5: Evaluate the process

Something as simple as the shape of a table can change the way we interact. A beautiful table at the Pixar office was impractical for work, setting up a hierarchy that left employees feeling too intimidated to speak. Remember how King Arthur brought his knights together at around table. This showed they were all equals.

In our personal and professional lives, encouraging proximity and equality in all situations benefits communication. The Pixar building was also designed to force employees from all departments to interact. Casual interactions between employees with no working relationships encouraged solutions that you’d never come to in a meeting while sitting around a table of any shape. This matches research about proximity and friendship.

How do we enable to solve problems and do things differently? Question the perceptions and assumptions that went into the current situation.

“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.”  David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Tip 6: Embrace the unknown

The best managers make room for what they don’t know. Loosen controls, accept risk, build trust. Engage with and pay attention to anything that creates fear.  The book’s subtitle, “Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”, is a great summary of this theme.

Ed reminds us that many of these forces may remain unseen and may not ever be visible. Employees may never want to discuss certain issues with their manager. The best managers, according to Ed, are the ones who don’t need all the information.

When Pixar employees attempted to become middlemen, Pixar reminded them that in their culture anyone can talk to anyone at any level. Communication structure shouldn’t mirror organizational structure. The role of a manager will always mean employees are less candid.

Tip 7: Show that you listen

Ed describes how the Japanese made manufacturing defied the conventions of American companies who only allowed the very highest levels of managers to stop the production line. Manufacturers in Japan shifted assembly lines away from quality control inspection after the fact.

Instead, every employee on the production line was responsible for product quality. While the American system gave each employee no say in how to make their own job more efficient, Japanese worker culture created pride as they felt encouraged to carry out even the smallest changes and not just accept their role in a robotic assembly line.

Silicon Valley, Pixar, and Apple brought these ideas to the United States building trust with each employee as an ally in making quality products.

Tip 8: Embrace humility

We tend to think success or failure is due to factors within our control. Often there are external forces and randomness. We must use care in not believe our own hype. We can’t account for the factors. The simplest explanation with less assumptions. Unforseen things happen that are not anyone’s fault.

Tip 9: Take risks

Don’t prevent risk, make it safe for others to take risk. The cost of preventing errors is often greater than fixing them. Pixar animators show characters moving before going forward to make movements predictable. Moving left for a split second makes the audience anticipate moving right. Leaving out these moments and ignoring the rule however, gives an element of surprise.

Tip 10: Acknowledge the challenge

General agreement won’t lead to change, it takes a lot of energy even when all agree. Success in creativity isn’t repeatable by process and pointless to try to recapture it exactly as it was. Steve Jobs predicted that Pixar would one day make a bad movie, it was inevitable. They had to be ready for disaster and look for other hidden problems. Accept that flaws exist. The most certain thing is that some problems will always be unpreventable.

“Our fate lies within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it. ”
Merida, Brave

Tip 11: Be decisive

Director Brad Bird learned to deal with stress by acknowledging he has stress and finding a coping mechanism. We all have feelings, it’s just about how we deal with them. Sometimes Brad’s coping method is simply to do nothing.

As Andrew Stanton said, “Hurry up and fail”. Decide to be decisive and forgive yourself. A director is like a ship captain. Commit to a destination and if your headed in the wrong direction, you can change course then.

“When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.”
Dory, Finding Nemo

Colleagues want committed decision-making and honesty about decisions that didn’t work. Make your best guess and hurry up about it, then simply change course. Collaboration creates complications.

When we have allies, the nature of alliance makes us a solver of problems. Letting others know about problems allows them to offer solutions as well. Be prepared and not irritated with challenges. Creatives know that when we’re sailing, we will face weather and waves.

Tip 12: Embrace team work

Movies don’t often emerge from a single visionary, even if it’s possible as a seed. Even a good idea needs to be excavated through effective collaboration. Ed tells us that bones you find may belong to several different dinosaurs. When working with Disney, they decided to move away from a notes system where people who did not have film experience and  did not know how to give constructive feedback.

“You and I are a team. There is nothing more important than our friendship.”
Mike, Monsters, Inc.

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As the new leaders at Disney, Ed and his team had to train employees at Disney first to have helpfulness in mind and to focus on positives as well as negatives. This balance helps everyone feel more comfortable with the truth. With their own truths, separate from those of Pixar, Ed helped the Disney as a modern studio to have its own personality reflecting the culture its own employees wanted. In graphic design, art, and in movies, creatives know that every team and every project is unique.

Tip 13: Expect Change

Creativity is complex and evolves. Small companies work differently than big ones. Things change and we have to keep changing. New employees didn’t know the history or reasons for processes and had new ideas for processes. At Pixar, as new employees joined the company that was now viewed as a modern legend, new challenges to the core values emerged.

“I can’t stop Andy from growing up… but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Woody, Toy Story 2

As a bigger company, Ed and his team created drawing, sculpting, and coding classes to teach about each others work. Classrooms are where mistakes happened. This also put all of them in social interactions outside of the work structure and set a tone for everyone to keep learning and be flexible.

“Protect the future, not the past”
Ed Catmull

Tip 15: Make it personal

At Pixar, the leaders would not only hand out bonuses. They would personally deliver them with a thank you. After the success of Tangled, they printed personal letters and give each them a dvd copy. In a creative business, we all know that there is a huge personal part.

“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”
Ed Catmull

Verdict

Creativity, Inc. uses the how to and self-help book format to tell the story of Pixar. When viewed as a story telling framework it is an effective and time-tested format for all kinds of content. Tina Fey told her story this way in Bossy Pants and Amy Poehler took the format self reflectively with Yes Please that seems more comparable here. Ed has some of the expected behind the scenes stories for the Pixar movies up to this point. Still, his focus remains on cultivating an environment of ideas.

We also get a look at Steve Jobs’s evolution and how his strength of views. His vision remained malleable and formed based on his reliance on building a good team of people. As a designer and artist, the idea of incorporating that feeling of creativity into sustainable living is definitely the end game. For the creatives at Pixar, Disney, and everywhere else the challenges of combining creativity, art, and business ultimately are what form our lives.

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of Funlooksfun.com, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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