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Week 4

Page history last edited by Steven Dow 14 years, 3 months ago


Comment here on "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity"

Comments (17)

chigusa said

at 10:34 am on Apr 23, 2010

This paper has clearly stated how important to have a flat structure in creative workspace. Historically speaking, it has been worked out in many places, including technologically innovative groups such as legendary Xerox parc in the 1970s. In Pixar-Disney case, "postmortems" system is unique and something easily forgotten in many other places. The fact that this mechanism to "learn from past, especially from failure" has been working out is really a good lesson to any other groups.
As the author believes "creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization," the notion of "creativity" in this paper means something not from one brain, but from the proper function of the community of talented people. This is very important, and is true for any person who has a real experience in the creative activities as a group.
But all these strategies in this paper, including "publishing academic papers," "directors' peer culture," are easier said than done. It may be only achieved in a situation where most of the members are brilliant by themselves with the right space to publish the outcome and a fair amount of budget. At the same time, however, we should admit that not so many groups in such a wonderful situation could not establish Pixar-like circumstances. Because in such cases, someone tend to hold a hierarchical structure which is common to the well funded group.

Andrew Hershberger said

at 10:57 am on Apr 23, 2010

@Rob - this quote reminds me of an ongoing theme in your responses and inquiry about the culture at Stanford: "Getting people in different disciplines to treat one another as peers is just as important as getting people within disciplines to do so. But it's much harder." - page 9

I really appreciated the comments in the reading about how strong leadership is key to keeping the organization on track. It seems like it must be a difficult task to maintain high standards for how the organization functions and for finished products. I also agree with the emphasis on creative freedom. I am curious to discuss the interplay between strong leadership and creative freedom. In some ways they seem to be conflicting requirements, but at the same time it's clear that they are both serve unique roles. Is there overlap in the way the lead to a desired process and desired product outcome?

Nina Khosla said

at 12:27 pm on Apr 23, 2010

Wow, there's a lot in this piece of reading to dissect. The first thing I fell in love with was the idea of story telling. I enjoyed the story about making Woody's choice between Japan and home a believable one, because I believe that as designers, we have to do this for our clients, but also ourselves. We have to come to understand the world and really see what motivates and drives people, but also build our own connection to our new understanding.

This is related to something else that Catmull wrote at the end of the article - that many of the people in companies he had known and that had failed were not very introspective. I think that's interesting because as designers, we build a capacity for thought - the ability to see not just what is there, but what lies one level underneath the surface, or what isn't there. This ability is what turns needfinding into more than just a "bug list," and makes our work more meaningful. That capacity is important in designers: I believe that building passion for projects creates better design, and the best way to do that is to be introspective, and really listen to ourselves. In some ways, even the exercise of responding to these papers is about finding points of connection and passion within ourselves.

From a more practical point of view, I think the main thing that Pixar has managed to do is to admit that people are good at something, disseminating that understanding of what people are good at, and making it possible for them to use that talent (for other people to ask them for help). This is funny to me, because it seems like "company wide crowdsourcing," which is all about trying to harness the ideas and talent within a company.

Rob Ryan said

at 1:52 pm on Apr 23, 2010

@Andrew -- Yeah, this paper definitely responded at a high-level to my perennial concerns about organizational strife at Stanford. For the sake of completeness, I'll complete the quote: "There always seems to be one function that considers itself and is perceived by others to be the one the organization values the most. Then there's the different languages spoken by different disciplines and even the physical distances between offices."

He continues to speak more about leadership and introspection (topics covered above), but also communication. I was intrigued by his insistence that the structure of the building at Pixar caused excellent chance encounters between company members.

I imagined immediately how campus life emulates this "centrality" phenomenon a lot -- we all share a set of resources in a restricted area, and often times you run into highly interesting people, just walking across campus. Stanford is famous for having a melting-pot atmosphere, but maybe we've grown the center of campus a little too large. Soon, the extensive disjunct campuses (GSB, Med School, Engineering) are going to lessen the collaborative atmosphere of our school, I think -- soon, we'll share less.

Nina Khosla said

at 4:52 pm on Apr 24, 2010

@Rob That's an interesting idea, though I'd argue that there's not enough cross-over... We don't often have classes or activities in which people can meet people from other disciplines, so we don't have a reason to talk to each other, even if we do cross paths. I think the d.school has done at least a good job of helping you meet other people, but, there's only a limited number of people partaking in those classes.

Steven Dow said

at 2:05 pm on Apr 26, 2010

Reflecting on our visit from Ed Catmull, several points really stuck out. It was wonderful to hear first-hand stories from someone, who by all measures has been a creative success. So what’s Pixar’s secret sauce? I do not refute Catmull’s argument that it’s all about hiring creative people, but I would argue that reasons for success were probably more nuanced. Five points stick out:

Steven Dow said

at 2:07 pm on Apr 26, 2010

1. Pursuing ambition: Catmull said he had dreamed of making a feature-length animated film from a young age. Driven by this high aspiration, Ed and his core team (john, steve, etc.) were willing to work extremely hard (often at a significant cost—i.e., RSI, baby story) and to overcome any challenges that surfaced. This point that cannot be ignored: ambition and hard work can be as important (if not more important) than any specific process or “artistic” ability. The question is: what fuels ambition and can it be manufactured?
2. Iterating for quality: Catmull expects the first showing of any film to “suck” and that it takes iteration for a film to go from “suck” to “not suck.” This is not surprising given what we’ve learned about design, but there is something universally imperative: small steps (prototypes/sketches) lead to feedback (crits) leads to improvements (mostly). That said, iteration does get “stuck” (i.e., how to solve Woody’s motivation to go to Japan) and sketches do not always communicate what’s desired (ie., storyboards can be hard to “read”).
3. Building team: Solve team dynamics before worrying about the ideas that come out of a team. According to Catmull, solving team dynamics early is one strategy that none of the other movie studios have replicated (to their determent). In practice this seems difficult to operationalize. How do you know if a team dynamic is broken? What can be done to “fix” dynamics? Even if a good team dynamic exists, it may produce mediocre results (i.e., Toy Story 2).

Steven Dow said

at 2:07 pm on Apr 26, 2010

4. Embracing uncertainty: Catmull said “nothing ever stays the same,” to paint a state of organizations in a competitive industry. Organizations are unstable, they fear change, they do not deal well with randomness. Catmull wants to embrace uncertainty, because it allows for new ideas to emerge and for bad ideas to recede. Now that he made his first feature film, Catmull’s new goal is instilling this philosophy at an organizational level. At the heart of his strategy is the belief that it’s not good for a “genius” to be in total control.
5. Reflecting inward: One reason Catmull took time out of his busy schedule to visit Stanford is that he understands the value of reflection. Pixar’s postmortems are a chance for teams to learn about what worked and did not work during a process that’s often too hectic to look around. It remains an open research question to understand when and how to effectively reflect in design.

Steven Dow said

at 2:11 pm on Apr 26, 2010

@ Chigusa: I echo the points you raise, especially the notion that it's "easier said than done." How Catmull manages to create good team dynamics and to pull people on/off projects seems fraught with human relations issues. My hunch is that sometimes people get burned for the good of the final production.

Steven Dow said

at 2:15 pm on Apr 26, 2010

@Andrew: You raise an intriguing juxtaposition—the interplay between strong leadership and creative freedom—but could you articulate why these seem like contradictory requirements?

Steven Dow said

at 2:21 pm on Apr 26, 2010

@Nina: I like what you are saying about "finding points of connection and passion within ourselves." Perhaps reflection not only helps designers reevaluate what's being designed, but reaffirms what motivates them. As I state in my post, the designer's ambition must be a key distinguishing factor between good and bad design. Individual ambition helps designers overcome fear of uncertainty and to iterate/evolve with passion. What do you think makes good reflection in design?

Steven Dow said

at 2:31 pm on Apr 26, 2010

@Rob: Your comment on the physical layout of a creative place deserves discussion. Have you read anything by Christopher Alexander on design patterns? He describes a "tavern" pattern, much like Ed described the layout at Pixar. The open space in the center provides a place for serendipitous interactions, the pulse of a community. Away from the center one finds privacy and peace, places to get real work done.

Brie Bunge said

at 11:49 am on Apr 27, 2010

@Nina: I completely agree with you that the d.school provides an amazing point of interdisciplinary collaboration. Across the entire university, too, I feel like we have the incredible opportunity of being able to walk up to professors that are at the top of nearly every discipline and get their insights. This should probably be utilized more. If the whole world had that sort of cross-discipline openness, imagine what we could accomplish...

Andrew Hershberger said

at 10:06 am on Apr 30, 2010

@Steven: It sounds like the director/producer for a film have almost total creative freedom – the ability to create the story, to get the details just how they want them – but, they also exert strong leadership. In fact, Catmull noted that if you're artist at Pixar, most of your work will never make it into the final cut for the movie. So, for these artists, they do have lots of creative freedom because they are encouraged to experiment and try new things, but at the same time, they must also realize that only a small fraction of their work, and not necessarily what they think is their best or most creative work, will make it into the film. The problem is that when I think of creative freedom, I think of an artist who has influence over the final product. Maybe the directors/producers have the most creative freedom and as you move down the line, each team member has less and less? Is that a good way to run a design project?

Steven Dow said

at 12:06 pm on May 2, 2010

I suppose the scale and impact of Pixar films give artists the strong motivation they need, even if their artwork only serves the representational process of communicating the final product. In general, I believe designers should be tolerant to disposing artifacts (sketches, prototypes, etc.) created in service of a larger process. Prototypes can be beautiful and fascinating in their own right, but they belong in the "behind the product" dvd extra.

Nina Khosla said

at 4:12 pm on May 2, 2010

@stephen I think this question of reflection also ties nicely with the beginning of the project: I believe a crucial point of the empathy phase has to do with finding something we can be passionate about, or something we can be interested by, or something we can relate to (pick your wording as you choose). If that's the case, it seems like reflection is about how well we do this: do we know ourselves? Even, how has this project changed me? It relates nicely to resnick's work as well.

Poornimaw said

at 10:03 am on May 6, 2010

@ Steven - on "how to manufacture ambition" - I have personally been doing a lot of soul searching since we all hit this wall where - "we want to find the best fit for what we want to do in life and what we think is meaningful." Like in Catmull's case passion is what drives ambition and passion cannot be manufactured. I feel that it is an innate quality in us - part of our very nature and we will be drive to fulfill a goal that tallies with our values and principles and what we therefore find meaningful to ourselves (primarily) and for the people we care about ( This could be broadly defined to encompass any group for e.g - an activist would care abt the ppl affected by his/ her cause a designer by the users a creative artist by their audience) But at the end of the day passion is an intrinsic quality. There might be certain external factors that help to ignite it - like recognition - money etc.. but still their influence is not sustainable (I guess thats why people in high paying / responsible jobs burn out cos one day they wake up and realize that they don't find any real meaning or adequate meaning in what they are doing) So can ambition be manufactured - NO - because passion cannot be manufactured - passion needs to be discovered - nurtured and sustained. - Ed discovered his passion early and that helped him stick to it despite the twists and turns in his life - his passion always brought him back to what he really wanted to do - we always get derailed or keep seeking until we understand what our real passions are.
2) on inward reflection - self criticism is one of the hardest things to do - also when ur in a group - it gets even harder. How do you do a constructive postmortem without hurting anyone's feelings. Also each situation we encounter in life is a unique one. Upto what extent are our past learning applicable to these new situations? Would fear about failure or a mistake committed in the past prevent a designer from taking a risk at present?

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