Pixar’s tens of thousands of ideas

Just finished an amazing piece, in the Harvard Business Review written by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, on managing collective creativity. It is one of the most intelligent, rigorous, yet straightforward summations of how great ideas come out of large organizations. Like most things that come from Pixar, the piece is magic! 

Its impossible to summarize in this blog the numorous insights he brings together, but here are my thoughts on a few.

ToyStoryCreativity is not a mysterious solo act.

As he says, “A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas. They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”

I love this image of a movie being the product of thousands of individual creative ideas, all feeding on each other. Any creative endeavor is a process of constant growth, one idea after another, with new ideas building on top of the previous thought.

Also, package design, and most industries that rely on creativity, are often identified with two stereotypical types of creative processes, either the brilliant loner (Karim Rashid), or the global creative juggernaut (Landor). His point is that at Pixar, they have found a way of defining creativity as neither a mysterious solo act or the product of a faceless worldwide organization.

Smart people are more important than good ideas

This may seem antithetical to many designers, but his point is that smart people are by nature incredibly creative. He uses an example of the struggles they had with Toy Story 2, and as he concludes “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.”

Power to the creatives

This may seem obvious, as we all know, but all too often the wrong people are charged with making creative decisions in large organizations.

As he says, “Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone.”

Support a culture of peers not competitors

Again, perhaps self evident, but part of the problem with too many creative organizations is the fostering of a competitive “ownership” culture, where ideas are protected and individual ownership of ideas is rewarded. I wonder if the sense of “healthy competition” starts in design school with students competing against each other while developing independent portfolios. Perhaps another blog entry.

Again he says, “Of great importance—and something that sets us apart from other studios—is the way people at all levels support one another. Everyone is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work. They really do feel that it’s all for one and one for all.”

These are just a few of the key points he makes in the piece. Subscribe to HBR. For anyone responsible for managing creativity, this article alone is worth the price. But there are many others.


Catmull, Ed. 2008. How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review. September 2008.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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One Response to Pixar’s tens of thousands of ideas

  1. Dad says:

    Speaking of artists who’ve been enlisted to help in the commercial realm, — I’m reminded of the time that Ford, prior to introducing a brand new model, asked Dame May Whittey (sp?), the late British poet, to suggest names for this brand new venture. There ensued a host of letters between the Dame and Ford management, suggesting the most poetic names one could imagine.

    The last letter in the series was from the Ford management to the Dame, informing her they’d decided to name the car the Edsell !!

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