Designers should strive to be better businessmen
I’m taking a break from my usual reference book reviews to bring you something a little different. I read this book about a year ago because I was interested in upping my managerial skills and a friend had recommended it to me.
Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull, is a peek into the gamble turned success that is Pixar Studios. Ed and his team fostered a creative culture which allowed them to create some of the most significant stories in animation over the last two decades. To create those now legendary narratives they had to build an environment which allowed for technological leaps, idealogical bounds, and, well, magic. Beyond just the story of a company being forged, Ed Catmull tells us about how the challenges were identified and overcome. He tells a captivating story for those fascinated with creativity and how it might be fostered within an organization.
Many of us are freelancers or small business owners and a few of us may even own medium to large sized studios with significant revenues. The lessons in Creativity, Inc. are general to us all and well worth listening to.
Doesn’t this make you tear up just a bit?
Building Creativity from the ground up
Ed Catmull begins by walking us through the early days of Pixar, first as part of Lucasfilm, and later through their partnership with Steve Jobs. That meteoric ascent blasts off to the present day where Pixar releases its movies in partnership with Disney into the anxious arms of their awaiting fans.
I wasn’t expecting it when I first cracked open the book, but there were so many things that I found to be profound insights. What I kept repeating to myself as I was reading was, “Yes, that’s what I want for me and my team.” If a Pixar movie can enchant you to the very end, and leave you walking away feeling wonderful, that’s nothing compared to this book.
The story of the fledgling company and its early success is really brought to a head with Toy Story 2 and its initial failure. I loved how honest Ed was in identifying that failure and accepting what needed to be done.
The Pixar Way
The real meat of the book is from chapter 5 onwards where Ed Catmull lays out his ideas about what challenges an organization. For those of us who have genuinely struggled to make teams work well together (and failed) it can be a particularly eye-opening read.
Honesty and Candor
There subtle difference between honesty and candor. Honesty, he says, carries a moral connotation while candor does not. He believes that candor and the ability to feel open to share one’s thoughts and ideas and criticisms is essential to maintaining a creative working environment. It allows for the evaluation and re-evaluation of the project and the opportunity to make iterative improvements throughout the project life.
Fear and Failure
While Pixar has been very fortunate to have had great successes they have also experienced their share of failures. Failure can be opportunity for growth and essential to learning. Iterative processes using trial and error, which frequently lead to failure, can help guide us to the best solution. Certainly, we should not seek out or become accepting of failure but it also should not be vilified to the point of creating a culture that avoids risk due to fear, stifling creativity and innovation.
The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby
Feeding the beast is what happens when a company enjoys some success and then has to churn out more of the same to justify its own existence. You have to constantly feed the frankenstein you’ve created and it is an impossible task. Eventually quality suffers and that is the death knell for any company based on creativity.
“The ugly baby” refers to an idea at conception that is very rough around the edges, but which has potential. These ideas are hard to look at honestly, and easy to throw aside. Ideas in this stage are exposed and need to be protected and cultivated to give them any chance of fulfilling that potential.
Change and Randomness
People’s fear of it and resistance to it, often perceiving change as an admission that what they’ve been doing isn’t really working. They don’t like the confusion, stress, or extra work that often accompanies change. However, change can be vital to growth and the creative process because it’s often necessary to evolve due to the changing conditions, business or otherwise, that surround you.
I’ll show you who’s an ugly baby!
Towards the End, The Light
Later in the book, Ed Catmull discusses methods in use at Pixar for fostering Creativity in answer to the challenges which may impede teamwork and harmonious inspiration.
Finally, our author makes the case that building a renewable creative culture is not only possible, but necessary from a business point of view. Without an honest understanding of what causes failure, there is no chance for continued non-random success.
- The writing style is brisk and enjoyable.
- You’ll love hearing about the early days at Pixar.
- The anecdotal encounters with Steve Jobs are great fun.
- Eventually the book ends and you’re left feeling both buoyed, and a bit sad that you aren’t part of a great story like Pixar.
- Trying to explain to your boss that he needs to read this book.
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