Experience Design

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.   

Why your parents are better at Airbnb than you

Australians love to travel and they love to host. 

It’s this open, travel mindset that has paved for Australia to become a jewel in airbnb’s digital crown with more than 40,000 listings on the platform. Surprised? So was I.

Attending the host conference at the Sydney Opera House I was fascinated to look around and see a room bursting with baby boomers. I assumed our laggard parents, in full swing of retirement would have been attending the opera, rather than furiously note-taking, using pen and paper of course. Their hunger for knowledge and resourcefulness opened my eyes to huge opportunities amongst the grey economy by using technology to create connection.

The secret ingredient? Trust.  

Trust isn't something sold through advertising. It has to be built through interaction and great design. This got me thinking; what has Airbnb done to capture the minds and hearts of Australian baby boomers? More importantly, what lessons could we apply to other businesses?

Interaction builds community

At the heart of Airbnb's success is undoubtedly how they fuel community. While their ads do a stellar job of making us believe we can ‘belong anywhere’, it’s their online experience, designed for building trust and connection that makes us actually believe them.

One of these cues is confirmation signals such as green tick or smiley face to indicate progression encouraging users to fill out their profile and get comfortable with injecting their personality into their listing.

Airbnb’s comforting language peppered throughout the site like ‘welcome home’ cements these feelings of trust. This shifts it from faceless digital brand to a new friend. This is likely to be a radically different experience for baby boomers than their previous interactions with tech companies.

By participating in something, we change behaviour.

As a marketer, the hardest yet most important task is to encourage participation. Although Gen Y’s may have an active ‘social’ network, personal recommendations are really important to boomers. Airbnb has tapped into their behaviour by giving an incentive of $135 for a successful host referral. While that sort of money sounds insane for acquiring users, Airbnb has instilled trust in it’s hosts and are ready to reward them for recruiting active users.  

How can you delight me? 

Often it’s not obvious, but generosity and subsequent feelings of delight fuels connection. It’s all the seemingly little things your brand can do to make someone feel known, important and that they are getting so much more from having your product in their life.

Airbnb does a fabulous job with design and copy but brings it home with surprising freebies making the brand feel real. One of these features is their offer of professional photography free for every host. This takes the stress out of baby boomer’s minds that they won’t successfully upload beautiful photos and won’t get booked. 

Replacing moments of stress with joy is key to building a thriving business.

Another way Airbnb delights its users is by randomly selecting and featuring them as heroes in their campaigns. In the busiest streets of Australia and around the world, billboards featuring everyday stories of how hosting has helped them achieve their dreams through this unexpected income stream. While this brings a genuine face to the brand, it also builds morale amongst baby boomers who can relate to the faces and stories displayed around the city. 

Dreams stimulate demand

Granted, not all businesses operate in a category as sexy as travel.

However, pretty much every business can stimulate demand by tapping into dreams. One way Airbnb does this is by inventing weird and wacky categories and promoting them on the market. One example is seasonal discounts on all treehouses and tepees used stimulate demand in typically flatter periods. 

These wacky concepts make people curious and get them to think outside their normal holiday. This tactic works particularly well for baby boomers who have more time on their hands, higher dispensable income and a growing appetite for experiences that are out of the norm. It also is SEO gold as bizarre keywords can grab attention and drive traffic to your website for often quite reasonable prices.


I don’t know about you but ‘20% of tree houses’ perks my interest.

Another way to play with dreams is by being inventive with competitions. Airbnb have done a fabulous job with this by taking unthinkable locations and turning them into a home for the night. My personal favourite was the transformation of Fenway stadium, home of the Boston Red Sox into a liveable space for the night. The couple who won have been married for sixty plus years and were over joyed to spend the night in a place that means the world to them. 

What I’ve learned is that Australian baby boomers are not technophobes. If anything, digital brands need to work a harder to be more human; to create experiences that signal success through simple interactions and create a personality we can trust.