Insights | By Howard Tiersky

PIXAR AGREES 

Few companies can claim to have brought a new era of innovation to an entire industry the way that Pixar Animation Studios can. Their 1995 release of Toy Story, the first feature-length, 3d animated film, marked the beginning of a new era in animated entertainment, in which dozens of companies not only brought 3d films to market, but also leveraged a large number of Pixar’s unique innovations in terms of the filmmaking process and computer animation technology.

The corporate biography, Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, who has served as President of Pixar Animation Studios for much of its existence, shows how Pixar has been innovative in its work space as well as the works it produces.  The biography emphases on idea in particular that is one of the cornerstones of our Innovation philosophy here at FROM: physical environment plays a critical role in stimulating creativity and collaboration.

Catmull begins the introduction of the book with a description of the décor of the Pixar headquarters, stressing its inspiration and playful characteristics, as well as the facets that have been designed to foster a collaborative work environment.

“Every morning, as I walk into Pixar Animation Studios — past the twenty-foot-high sculpture of Luxo Jr., our friendly desk lamp mascot, through the double doors and into a spectacular glass-ceilinged atrium where a man-sized Buzz Lightyear and Woody, made entirely of Lego bricks, stand at attention, up the stairs past the sketches and paintings of the characters that have populated our fourteen films — I am struck by the unique culture that defines this place. Although I’ve made this walk thousands of times, it never gets old.”

The first chapter of the book begins with a story about a conference room where key creative meetings are held at Pixar. This conference room, Catmull described, has a long, stylish conference table (which was personally selected by Steve Jobs,) that creates a hierarchical dynamic in the room during meetings. Eventually, Catmull had it removed so he could reconfigure the space, resulting in more creative and collaborative meetings.

The creative décor and imaginative layout of Pixar’s offices has been widely documented, but the fact that Catmull places so much emphasis on the importance of physical workspace for creativity and collaboration at the very beginning of his book, , in fact, starting the entire book with the seemingly mundane story of redesigning a conference room to improve collaboration, is a striking observation.

At FROM, one of our distinct offerings is conducting workshops for our corporate clients. The environment in which we conduct them, plays a key role in their unremitting success. Whilst reading Creativity Inc. it doesn’t take long to identify the fact that our environmental design here at FROM mirrors the principles of collaboration that stretch throughout Pixar Studios. We have our own event space, The Innovation Loft in Manhattan NY, designated to permeate these principles in order to maximize the benefits they present. However, we also offer and conduct off-site workshops for many of our corporate clients. Regardless of where our workplaces take place the 4 principles below form the base of their success and, it seems, Pixar agrees. 

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Novelty

Visitors should experience a level of unfamiliarity when they enter the space. It should not be anything like environments in which they typically work or inhabit on a regular basis. Our belief is that one's environment sends powerful behavioral signals to the brain. For instance, people behave very differently at a football game vs. a conference room, or church. If you enter a space you haven’t been to before, your brain seeks to find the right “category” for that environment, so that it can calibrate your behavior appropriately. If you arrive for a meeting at a client’s conference room, you may never have been in that particular conference room before, but you know generally how conference rooms work, and what behavior to exhibit in them. You’d likely even begin searching for a place to plug in your laptop. It’s been our experience, however, that when people enter an environment that is truly unfamiliar, it puts their brain in a different mode – a mode where the brain says, “I don’t know this environment. I don’t know how I am supposed to behave here!” While it might create a mild amount of uncertainty or discomfort, it also turns on receptors in the brain that tune into signals that help us figure out how to be “successful” in this new environment. It forces you to “think outside the box”. Of course, for repeat visitors, this sense of novelty may wear off, but for these participants, unique décor and layout can serve as to trigger the behaviors of collaboration and creativity that they developed during prior sessions.

Collaboration

Visitors should experience a level of unfamiliarity when they enter the space. It should not be anything like environments in which they typically work or inhabit on a regular basis. Our belief is that one's environment sends powerful behavioral signals to the brain. For instance, people behave very differently at a football game vs. a conference room, or church. If you enter a space you haven’t been to before, your brain seeks to find the right “category” for that environment, so that it can calibrate your behavior appropriately. If you arrive for a meeting at a client’s conference room, you may never have been in that particular conference room before, but you know generally how conference rooms work, and what behavior to exhibit in them. You’d likely even begin searching for a place to plug in your laptop. It’s been our experience, however, that when people enter an environment that is truly unfamiliar, it puts their brain in a different mode – a mode where the brain says, “I don’t know this environment. I don’t know how I am supposed to behave here!” While it might create a mild amount of uncertainty or discomfort, it also turns on receptors in the brain that tune into signals that help us figure out how to be “successful” in this new environment. It forces you to “think outside the box”. Of course, for repeat visitors, this sense of novelty may wear off, but for these participants, unique décor and layout can serve as to trigger the behaviors of collaboration and creativity that they developed during prior sessions.

Stimuation

Pixar’s offices are filled with life-sized models of Pixar characters, Legos, and other inspiring objects. We place strong emphasis on having a bright and colorful environment. We’ve filled our Innovation Loft with books, puzzles and toys to evoke a spirit of playfulness and childlike wonder and we transport as many of these items to off-site locations as possible. 

Immersion

Pixar famously picks up on the practices of Walt Disney, including storyboarding its movies on 3×5 index cards. They post these storyboards with reference and inspirational material relating to the “world” of the movie they’re currently working on (be it insects, race cars or toys.) 

The aforementioned magnetic whiteboards, and flat panel T.V’s also allow us to create an immersive environment that permeates the subject matter at hand. Turning the entire environment into a gallery of facts and information about a particular topic truly gets the creative juices flowing and often leads to innovative resolutions.

We have huge respect and admiration of the success of Pixar, so we are pleased to discover that our principles of success are seemingly quite aligned with theirs. Catmull’s book came out shortly after the design and opening of our Innovation Loft and the parallels that can be found in it serve as a nice reinforcement of the idea that our environmental composition is in fact composed of principles that inspire collaboration and can be translated to many different spaces.


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