Product lessons from Pixar

Posted 4 years ago

Recently I was in the United States and had time to visit the Science Behind Pixar exhibit at the California Science Center. Although the exhibit had loads of interactive games aimed at hyperactive kids, I found the behind-the-scenes interviews with artists and scientists super inspiring. Each department from storyboarding to model sculpting to material design to computational rendering were given a platform to demonstrate their expertise in great detail.

 

Everyone at Pixar is a filmmaker first

The biggest surprise from the interviews was learning that artists, technicians and scientists view themselves as filmmakers and storytellers before their designated role. The skillset they bring to the table is just another aspect of the filmmaking process. This theme was a constant thread through the exhibit and is undoubtedly core to Pixar’s success.

Here are a few quick examples that prove everyone at Pixar is a filmmaker first.

I realised that this thought process also applies to product design. Whether you are formulating the overall strategy, gathering requirements for functional specifications, pushing pixels or building code libraries, every member of a product team is creating the end-to-end experience. Realising that each person contributes to the “bigger picture” regardless of their expertise helps keep teams focused on building awesome products. Everyone on a product team is an experience designer just as everyone working on a Pixar film is a storyteller. This comparison isn’t anything groundbreaking but seeing how Pixar works firsthand made me see the similarities between our industries.

 

Art and science go hand-in-hand at Pixar

Every technology that comes into filmmaking is first a gimmick. It takes a while for filmmakers to understand how to use it.
— John Lasseter, CCO of Pixar

The exhibit showed me that even the most creative types at Pixar use maths and science to solve problems. For example, each character model in a film is rigged with thousands of movement controls. By manipulating XYZ co-ordinates of these controls in what looks like a gigantic spreadsheet, animators can meticulously breathe life into characters. As painstakingly dull as this process seems, it gives animators total control of the nuances and emotion they need to build the story.

Similarly in the digital product world, interaction designers are often required to use simple logic to develop working prototypes or code entirely functional interfaces for products. We design interactions to appeal to the emotions of our users and adjust the nuances to communicate better.

On a final note, I’ve read heaps of design articles inspired by Pixar’s approach to storytelling but I wanted this short piece to briefly touch on the fresh perspective the exhibit gave me on how project teams work together. Designers have a tendency to stay in their work silo, when they should be collaborating with others and soaring to new heights like Buzz Lightyear. Without teamwork, we’re just ‘falling with style’ (lmao).