Pixar, IDEO, and Innovation

Here are detailed notes from Frans Johansson’s conversation with Ed Catmull of Pixar and Tim Brown of IDEO:


“The easiest way to make a movie is to do what worked in previous movies. But you won’t end up with an original result. The alternative is to go out into the world and learn from other industries.”

For Ratatouille, the Pixar team went to Paris to visit French restaurants, and did a 5-hour, 28-course tasting menu at the French Laundry.

“We like ideas that are unlikely. Because they’re unlikely, we have to protect them.”

“The original idea sucks. You can’t show it to marketing or the toy people, because they won’t get it. But you can’t protect it for too long; engaging with the world forces you to make the necessary decisions. There’s a lot of pressure on us to get the process right. ‘Hey, if you guys got it right up front, this would be a lot easier.’ Getting the process right is *not* the goal. (implied: The goal is to make something great)”

“You have to be able to work with other people. You can’t just piss everyone off.”

“You want to signal to everyone else that it’s okay to be unusual. ‘That guy is really pushing it, and he didn’t get in trouble, so I guess I can too.'”

“We want unusual things to happen. We can’t predict what will happen. At every level, things are going to not work. You can’t send the message that if you fail, something bad will happen.”

“Interesting stuff happens in the messy place in the middle. The director wants to make the best possible film. The art director wants to make the best looking film. The marketing people want to make sure they can sell the film. They’re all pulling in different directions. If any one of those groups wins, you lose.”

“We have had some films that failed. We didn’t release them. Toy Story 2 was a restart. Ratatouille, we kept one line from the original script. The first version of Up took place in a floating castle in the sky. The only thing left was the bird and the word ‘Up’. The next version, there was a house that floated up and landed on a lost Russian dirigible. The next version, the bird laid eggs that conferred long life. You can say that these were failures along the way. The things that don’t work right are just things that we tried. That’s learning. Why do we associate that with the word failure? We should associate it with the word ‘learning’?”

“Every 3-4 months, we have a screen of the reels. We have mockups, voices, music. The director has the final word. Nobody overrides the director. It’s important that everyone know that before they enter the room. All the focus is on how do we make this better; if people think their project is in danger, they’ll get defensive.”

Interesting story: “Steve was the once per movie external force to say articulately what had already been said, but because he said it, people listened. He didn’t come to the story meetings because he knew his words would carry too much weight.”

“We bet on the person, not the idea. We never start with the idea. We ask them to come up with three ideas so they aren’t stuck on a single idea.”


Tim Brown: “We look to extremes for insights.”

“People think we stand in a room with the product under a black drape, unveil it, and then have the client admire it. Usually, they look and scratch their heads. The art is bringing in people at the right time. Sometimes, we embed the client from the beginning, which is a pain, but effective.”

“There’s a tendency in business to want to search for the answer before you ask the question. That’s absurd.”

Less than 50% of IDEO employees have formal design training/education.

“We tried multiple times to bring in people with business thinking expertise. We did the obvious thing–brought in people from management consultancies. It was a disaster. They wanted specific, concrete, future plans. What finally worked was to bring in business people who were already creative, and could make that translation.”

“You have to balance passion and evidence. We try to have a culture where people ask the question, ‘Is there evidence that this is the right idea?’ Not did we get the idea right, not is someone going to tell us the right idea. If you only believe in passion, you get a lot of egos fighting it out, and the biggest ego will win. If you only believe in evidence, there will be no energy and spark.”

“You have to think, ‘I’m marketing my idea.’ I’m not selling my idea, I’m trying to connect my idea with the needs of the market.”

“Marketing is figuring out what people want and giving it to them.” –Peter Drucker

1 thought on “Pixar, IDEO, and Innovation

  1. tamarind

    brilliant. just, brilliant.

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