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 business should take note of the wellness boom


Wellness, or in simple terms living a healthy lifestyle is not cheap these days. From the ‘athleisure’ trend of wearing printed tights which are likely to set you back a cool $150, to the pressed juice which is around $13 a pop and a reformer Pilates class costing around $30 a session, this lifestyle racks up quite an expense. These purchases are symbols of the new luxury, consuming the middle class of society around the world through wellness.

So why are so many of us buying into it?

Scarcity rules the food chain

As humans it’s in our nature to want what is rare, and have ownership of it’s prized qualities. The wellness industry has reached new heights and is now worth almost 1.9 billion in Australia alone according to Ibis World. This is at least in part due to the invocation of the scarcity principle where hot demand has tipped supply by convincing the masses that ‘superfoods’ like chia and goji berries contain rich antioxidants not found elsewhere. While demand poses concerning ethical questions by shifting supply from under-developed nations such as Peru, it also sheds light on our inherent desire for things that are rare.

We want a quick fix, even though we know real work takes effort.

Being in on secret is a recipe for driving demand. Although the wellness industry has spruiked demand from fashion to superfoods, they are not the first to so. Apple is widely regarded as scarcity experts, managing to increase the price of each generation of iPhone by withholding supply and linking their technology to creativity and ideas of greater good.

While I’m no advocate of manipulation, it’s clear that scarcity motivates the products and services we purchase. Scarcity when used strategically, has power to shift the industries we engage with and the overall demand for your business as we all want what they’re having.

Affluence is all about experiences

Conspicuous consumption, as in buying and bragging about big ticket items ain’t cool. The new cool is all about leisure by showing off that you actually have time to take part in a yoga class and aren’t glued to your keyboard in an office block.

Fifty years ago it was a house, five years ago it was a Celine bag and now it’s a pressed juice.

The rise of social media in particular has shifted our notions of value. Instagram and Snapchat both offer in-the-moment updates of how we are spending our leisure time. Top ranking hashtags including #fitfam, #food and #yoga are testament to this, with millions of uploads featuring women (and men) hoping on the yoga mat or cooking up a chickpea and lentil feast to hungry, dewy-eyed Gen Y & X in pursuit of holistic health.

If we’re not richer then where is the money coming from?

Buying an apartment for most Australians is now so out of reach that most of us are only nearing a deposit in our mid to late thirties. This reality has shifted us from a culture of saving to a culture of spending on every-day luxuries. "It's definitely being used as a status symbol," confirms Professor Rohan Miller from University of Sydney Business School. "People are investing in themselves as a product. As well as having the flash outfit, they want to have the flash body that goes with it”. We want everyday wealth felt through experiences. Saving for decades is boring and doesn’t fulfil our need for instant gratification which has been amplified in a chaotic, competitive world of social media.  

To engage with the new affluent, the benefit of the experience had with your product or service must to be paramount and preferably promoted on social media. What’s on offer needs to be sharable and must tell a story of enhancement, in every sense.  

Minimalism is dead, essentialism is on the rise

We’re all operating in a state of overwhelm.

The internet is everywhere - it’s in our pockets and strapped to our wrists leaving us lost and confused. Design has responded to this state of mind by simplifying our choices through branding.

The wellness industry is showing us that we’re happy to pay a price for brands that will curate and clarify our choices and make us feel great in the process.

Simple is open, open is trustworthy.

This trend started with a return to minimalism where design was raw and stripped back. The wellness industry has taken this a step further by introducing essentialism which cultivates feelings of warmth and satiation. Across the board, packaging produced by wellness businesses is both high-end and vintage in look and feel.

Take Aesop, the beauty giant whose packaging is inspired by medicinal potions from the past. A smaller Australian brand, Pukka Teas is experiencing incredible growth by designing around keep-ability rather than disposability, so the pack of tea could proudly be left on the counter and shared online. This strategy works two-fold; it increases joy for the end-user and keeps it in-sight, resulting in more eye-balls on the product and more potential buyers.

At the heart of wellness is community

If there is one thing the wellness industry has absolutely nailed, it’s community.

Wellness gurus and their ‘tribes’ are almost reaching celebrity status, guiding their sticky customer base with daily doses of inspiration delivered via social media. Twenty-five-year-old Kayla Itsines and her 10 million strong community of ‘Bikini Body Girls’ across the globe is pretty impressive for a personal trainer from Adelaide.

Her success boils down to a feedback loop of inspiration, tracking and sharing of accomplishments which for the new affluent is totally OK to brag about.

Because improvement is commendable, it’s sharable.

Kayla’s relentless positivity and encouragement makes girls feel comfortable to share their progress and feel empowered to take part in her community. Getting the body, you want might be the end goal, but for some, membership alone might be enough. “Feeling like your part of an elite group—that’s a huge purchase motivator,” says Larry D. Compeau, professor of marketing and consumer psychology at Clarkson University. It’s the reason why American Express’ Black Card program has been such a success.

While millions of followers aren’t necessary for success, a tight-knit community powered by honesty, positivity and daily connection is. Find and promoting what’s scarce, by offering sharable experiences and using simple branding so your brand is the obvious choice.

Feeling good. That just might just be the ultimate luxury.