Creativity Lessons from Pixar

05.02.2013 in EnglishInspiration  by Katrin Mathis

On a recent visit to Hamburg, I used the opportunity to visit the exhibition "Pixar - 25 years of animation" at the "Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe." I found many similarities and inspiration related to my own work processes that I want to share today.


Watch the former dean of Pixar University Randy Nelson talk on the Collaborative Age:


Pixar had started as "The Graphics Group", a hardware computer division of Lucasfilm in 1979 selling the Pixar Image Computer to government agencies and medical companies, producing short animation sequences for demonstration purposes only. Because their hardware never became a success, they started to make computer-animated commercials and eventually signed a deal with Disney in 1991 to produce three computer animated feature films.


Build empathy and get the details right

Obviously lots of artists have laid the conceptual framework of a movie before the digital work starts. Around three fourth of the typically 36 months a Pixar movie takes to be released are invested in the story. More than 500 pieces of artwork showing work-in-progress of the last two and half decades at Pixar are on display in the exhibition. Sketches are evidence of thorough research and detail studies for example of rats in the making of "Ratatouille" or insect eyes for "A bug‘s life. "David Price even reports in his book "The Pixar Touch" that the producer and first director of "Ratatouille"worked as apprentices in an elite French restaurant to build empathy and to be able to make a realistic French kitchen. Collages allow experimenting with different materials, colorscripts frame the color spectrum of a movie and clay sculptures are part of character development. The great love of detail gives their movies credibility and are in my opinion what makes their movies a success.

Embrace contraints

While in creative projects "the brief is a set of mental contraints that gives the project team a framework from which to begin, benchmarks by which they can measure progress, and a set of objectives to be realized“ (Tim Brown: Change by Design. Harper Business, New York, 2009. Page 22) Pixar creates fantasy worlds that are unrestrained which risks "leaving the project team wandering about in a fog“ (Brown 2009, page 24). So it seems logical yet impressive that Pixar teams work with self-imposed constraints to boost their creativity.

Strive to "plus" ideas

With so many people from different fields working on a movie it is also always a tug-of-war between creativity and technological feasability. Without contraining artists too much prototypes allow the Pixar team visualizing the story and developing it further. Pixar applies are process called "Plussing." Instead of immediately turning ideas down it means accepting any idea and trying to suggest how to make it better for example by adding to it, coming up with an alternative solution or by viewing it from a different angle.

Look for t-shaped persons

In hiring people for something that has never been done before, Pixar looks for those who have failed and learned to overcome their failures instead of people who avoid failures. Similar to design thinking which works best in an interdisciplinary team with so called t-shaped skills, they embrace staff with mastery in as much as three or four fields, a breadth of knowledge, experience and interests and a high level of empathy. To broaden their minds, employees are free to take courses in the in-house Pixar university for up to four hours a week and in their free time. In a field where every animator can only produce a few seconds of movie material per day, even the best does not come far but communication and collaboration are essential.


In the past 25 years, Pixar has revolutionized animation films. "Toy Story" was in 1995 the first feature-length animated movie ever. Since then not one of their movies has flopped. Though Pixar characters foremost appeal to children their human traits and their adult-like problems make them equally adorable to kids and their parents. Seeing the difference between the first short films such as "The Adventures of André and Wally B."in 1984 and the detail-rich "Brave" 28 years later is amazing. I have ordered the book "Innovate the Pixar Way" to learn more about processes at Pixar and will certainly extend on this post when I'll be done reading. The exhibition can be seen in Hamburg until May 12. 


Katrin Mathis, UX Konzepterin und Service Designerin aus Freiburg

Katrin Mathis
MBA in Service Innovation & Design und BSc in OnlineMedien berät seit über 10 Jahren Unternehmen, die digitale Transformation zum Nutzen ihrer Kunden einzusetzen.