Pixar's lessons in Design Thinking

 'Remy in the Kitchen' concept art by Robert Kondo (2007) (Pixar Studios).

'Remy in the Kitchen' concept art by Robert Kondo (2007) (Pixar Studios).

In the modern age of story-telling, Pixar are without doubt THE master craftsmen. While any company synonymous with Disney is bound to be blessed with more than a little magic, Pixar’s creativity is grounded in process and design thinking.

Research, iteration and collaboration are the foundations for creating characters that are both appealing and believable keeping billions enchanted for more three decades.  

Pixar’s design thinking process, unpacked;

Immerse yourself in research

Pixar's creative process kicks off with research by immersing the team into a particular place. For the film Cars, illustrators and technical designers went on a month long road trip to experience America’s oldest highways and collect photos and memorabilia along the way.

  Pastle sketch by   Bill Cone   during the research phase for Cars (2006)

Pastle sketch by Bill Cone during the research phase for Cars (2006)

This technique is similar to Ethnographic Field Studies in UX Design where research is used to help unearth new ways of seeing by being an active participant.

 Documenting the highway 'Cadillac Ranch' photograph by Bob Pauly (2006) (Pixar Studios)

Documenting the highway 'Cadillac Ranch' photograph by Bob Pauly (2006) (Pixar Studios)

Iterate, constantly

Once the initial mood has been explored, Pixar designers commit to quick and dirty sketches and prototypes to help viewers feel instant empathy with the story.

“We wanted Remy and Emile to be charming and immediately accessible, but we also wanted emphatically to say they are rats” (Sculptor Greg Dykstra).

The secret to nailing a character is in ensuring that it's believable.

“In all phases of our process we work from rough to fine. With a character like Woody, we start designing on paper and then move to refining his shape, first as a sculpture and then in the computer. Every step is crucial in ensuring the character looks appealing”. (Sharon Callahan, Director of Photography)
 Third iteration of Woody by  Bud Luckey    (1995) (Pixar Studios)

Third iteration of Woody by Bud Luckey (1995) (Pixar Studios)

This phase of characterisation is not dissimilar to persona development and storyboards in UX Design where research is used to unearth people's pains, desires, and emotions. The goal of which, is to create a product that satisfies a need and captures their attention.  

 Can a lamp have emotions? This Luxo Jr. storyboard by  John Lasseter    proves it true (1986) (Pixar)

Can a lamp have emotions? This Luxo Jr. storyboard by John Lasseter proves it true (1986) (Pixar)

This mode of ‘thinking with your hands’ via sketching isn’t only relevant for characterisation; it’s the quickest and most universal way to get an idea across.

In my experience, sketching in design workshops helps everyone to feel engaged in the process and breaks any fears around new ideas or ways of working.

The realisation of a character has also become quicker in the last decade due to introduction of 3D printing as a form of rapid prototyping.

3D printing enables designers to link form to traits such as Carl's stocky physique to his stubborn personality. This method of making also creates a more seamless transition between sketching and animation as the dimensions of a character have been expressed and resolved from every angle.

 A grumpy looking Carl from UP! Sculpture by  Greg Dykstra  (2009) (Pixar Studios)

A grumpy looking Carl from UP! Sculpture by Greg Dykstra (2009) (Pixar Studios)

Striving for ‘Simplexity’

One of the most profound elements of Pixar’s design thinking process is their use of selective detail or ‘simplexity’ to express a character’s fundamental emotional qualities.

‘Simplexity’; the art of simplifying an image down to its essence. 

 The art of Simplexity achieved by  Albert Lozano  in Inside Out (2015) (Pixar)

The art of Simplexity achieved by Albert Lozano in Inside Out (2015) (Pixar)

This concept drew my attention to Pixar’s appreciation for the psychology of line, form, colour and texture which is essential to the creation of emotionally rich characters.  

 Who knew a line could express so much emotion? Drawing by  Ricky Nierva  (2015) (Pixar)

Who knew a line could express so much emotion? Drawing by Ricky Nierva (2015) (Pixar)

Keep pushing the envelope with collaboration

Unsurprisingly, Pixar have access to the dream team of collaborators when working on a film. Industrial designers, sculptors, photographers, illustrators and model makers all bring a fresh perspective to the story using their skills to realise a character’s humanity.

 Industrial Designer  Jason Deamer  draws functional movements in WALL-E (2008) (Pixar)

Industrial Designer Jason Deamer draws functional movements in WALL-E (2008) (Pixar)

 Model maker  Bryn Imagire    realises form and texture for UP! (2009) (Pixar) 

Model maker Bryn Imagire realises form and texture for UP! (2009) (Pixar) 

While access to Pixar’s design resources are not necessary for success, an appreciation for the design process is. By taking the time to immerse yourself in research, iterate without fear and collaborate is the best way to achieve product-market fit.