Still shot from the upcoming Disney Pixar film Brave. Great to see Pixar braving new territory in the middle of sequels and planned prequels. I have to admit, I’ve always had a thing for redheads.
On October 21, 2011, Google doodled the life of Mary Blair on what would have been her 100th birthday. Blair worked as a Disney artist for much of her career, defining the look of many films and theme park attractions, most notably the style of the classic It’s a Small World.
Mary Blair had a unique way of telling a story through simple forms and odd color combinations, often bringing together a pallet that would have never worked for anyone but herself.
It is a testament to her unique talent that, out of all of the artists Walt Disney worked with, Mary Blair was his favorite.
This September we are headed to Walt Disney World in Orlando, a place I’ve visited a million times and will visit a million more. This time promises to be a little different, though, as I’ll be having lunch with an Imagineer, a member of the creative team responsible for designing and building Disney theme parks and themed attractions. We will be with a small group so it won’t be a one-on-one, but I’m still very excited about the experience.
I love the work they do, so the chance for a chat with an Imagineer has the potential to be alot of fun (not to mention very educational). Since I have no idea who the person will be or what their actual area of expertise is (Artist? Engineer? Project Manager? Researcher? Who knows….), I’m not really sure what to expect.
Not sure what to expect, and not sure what to ask. Since I would like to work with this group someday, I have the chance to get some real information on how to drive myself and my skill set right into the Imagineering lobby….
Peaceful day in Glendale, California. Someone in Imagineering headquarters says, “Does anyone else hear that noise? Sounds kinda like ‘One Little Spark’ from the Imagination ride at Epcot combined with a Ford engine about to explode.”
CRASH!! My car bursts through the glass, skids to a stop in front of reception just as my radio blares ‘IMAAAAA-GINAAATION!! IMAAAAA-GINAAATION!!’
I lower the volume. “Excuse me,” I say, leaning out the window. “I’d like to submit my resume and portfolio if that’s alright.” I hand off my material, rev the engine, turn up the radio and peel out of the building as the bewildered receptionist hears the final strains of Figment fading off into the distance…
‘A dream…can be…a dream come true! With just that spark…in me and you!’
That’s the way people usually apply for jobs right? Complete destruction of the building? On the plus side, maybe I could be part of the team that redesigns the building, so it’s a win-win, really.
So what should I ask this person? I guess I could start by asking if it’s ok if I apply for the position by crashing my car into the home office. Where do I go from there? What kind of stock do I put in the experience? Do I try to get specific or do I stay general? Maybe I’ll try to make an impression on this person in the hopes that they place a quick call to say, “We’ve got to hire this person, quick! Get him before he thinks about knocking over other buildings!!!!”
What would you talk about if you were talking to someone who does something amazing, something wonderful? What if you were talking to someone who had that one little spark, who makes dreams come true?
IMAAAAA-GINAAATION!! (that song is going to be stuck in my head all day)
Recently I sketched this doodle of a couple Disney characters.
One night in middle school I taught myself how to draw. Literally. I was watching The Little Mermaid on video and I suddenly thought, “OH! I get it!” and from that point on I could just draw.
Cartoons became my identity and when you are in a new school and are extremely self conscious you gotta have a hook. Drawing, specifically drawing Disney, was mine.
I put my Disney pencil down some time in high school but during that time my approach went through a little evolution. When I first started to draw I thought what, then I realized I needed to think how, and eventually moved on to why.
What? What lines do I need to draw? There’s a curved line here and a straight line there. Ok, another one around here. While my revelation that one night had to do with an understanding of light, I still needed to know how artists drew a figure so I copied their lines. Sometimes my drawing looked a bit like theirs, but there was always something a little off.
How? How do these lines interact with one another? There’s a curved line here, but it doesn’t curve past that straight line there. Certainly it’s wider than that one around here. The reason my drawing always looked a little wrong was because I was drawing the lines by themselves so they were completely out of synch. Once I realized the key to proportions was embedded in the drawing itself, my cartoons got a big boost.
The what and the how got me through just fine, but there was a problem. My drawings never had any life, they just kinda sat. You could never feel the character. I found out why…
Why? Why do these lines exist in the first place? Yes I need to know what the lines are and yes I need to know how they interact, but understanding their reason for being suddenly unlocks the whole form. There’s a curved line here because it represents a muscle. There’s a straight line there because it represents a bone. There’s another one around here because it represents hair and skin being stretched and pulled by the muscle across the bone.
Just like no event in history exists in a vacuum, no line exists on its own. What happens today is directly related to all the events that lead up to it. A line on a cartoon is a representation of all the things going on within the character, all the complex structures and functions that lead up to the form you are trying to draw. More than the physical, a line represents the essence of who that character is and the life they have lead. Fat, skinny, sleepy, energetic, every character trait has a backstory, a reason for being, and it is that story that comes together into a single line. Once you believe in what went on before that line got onto the page, you realize your figure couldn’t look any other way and the line practically draws itself.
I hadn’t really drawn any Disney cartoons in a long time, so as I drew recently the wave of excitement came back and I almost found myself looking for girls to show the thing off to (because, really, that was the whole point in middle school). I had friends who could produce amazing drawings of comic book warriors, swords and superheroes, but it was my drawings that got all the attention. Their lines were constricted, but mine flowed. If you are a young artist, try to remember that every line has a reason for being. Understanding this brings a drawing to life.
I decided that the girls could appreciate the vitality I brought to my drawings. Either that or girls don’t like skulls and blood.
10. Keep it up—Never underestimate the importance of cleanliness and routine maintenance, people expect to get a good show every time, people will comment more on broken and dirty stuff.
Of all of Mickey’s 10 Commandments, this one is probably the easiest to do, yet somehow is also the easiest to forget. Keep it up…fresh coat of paint, keep the place clean, change the sign out front, keep the phone greeting current, make sure the website is up to date…maintain. Not so hard, yet so very easy to make it difficult.
When Walt Disney began his venture into the world of amusement parks, all the veterans of the business thought he was crazy, particularly with regards to quality. Walt wanted his park to be an oasis, a work of perfection that would always be clean, safe and fun for the whole family. Everyone thought he was wasting his money by creating custom built rides that bratty kids would just trash anyway, and certainly the idea of keeping the park clean was a pipe dream.
What they didn’t realize was that, unlike the rest of the industry, Walt intended to maintain the quality of the park. He wasn’t going to hard once, he was going to work hard always and instill a culture that did the same. Those already in the amusement park industry had a very low opinion of people, thinking that everyone would naturally settle into a state of hooliganism, so why bother giving them nice things.
Walt understood that people respond to their environment and behave according to the information they receive (see the story of John Hench and the Stagecoach). If a place feels dirty and dingy and is left to decay, likely people are going to help that process along. However, if a place is finely crafted and meticulously maintained, people will take their cues from their surroundings and instinctively take better care of it.
Companies spend an enormous amount of time on big new initiatives. We need to rebuild the website, our old one is wildly out of date and we are just going to have to redo the entire thing—we need to get everybody onboard, let’s go people! Work work work until it’s done! People will drive themselves hard to do the best work they possibly can until, finally, the day comes that the site goes live. Everyone rejoices and then the website sits. Over time it gets a little older and a little older, things go without updates until, several years later someone says we need to rebuild the website, our old one is wildly out of date.
If the site had been properly maintained, it wouldn’t be necessary to devote resources to it’s destruction, but it could have evolved over time. Worse than having to rebuild the site is having to rebuild consumer confidence. Just as old information gets older, the customer’s opinion of the company gets lower based on the information they receive from the online offering. A business should grow with its customer base, but when it neglects proper maintenance, it must spend time either repairing degraded relationships or giving up entirely and starting from scratch to form new ones.
Just like keeping a house clean, it is so easy to maintain things your company creates over time, requiring only will and discipline. Just like with our houses, despite our best intentions to “never let this place get so bad again,” clothes start to pile up, dust settles, bathrooms change colors and suddenly we find ourselves needing to tear the whole place apart and devote all our resources to cleaning all over again. A website is just one example of something physical (as physical as a website may be) that needs to be kept up, however there are major intangibles that require maintenance as well.
If a company is to survive, it must maintain its business model. Wheels put into motion in the 1980s that go without proper updating are entirely inappropriate in a more modern business environment, however many companies trudge along with wildly out of date practices. A company that seems to be desperately clinging to old models will have trouble bringing in new customers and will have an equally difficult time bringing fresh talent to keep the wheels turning. If a company sends out the message that “This is how we do business…always have, always will. The end!” its employees will no longer see the former giant as an oasis, but rather as dirty and dingy and will do what they can to help its decay.
Walt Disney hated the fact that once he was done with a film he had no more opportunity to tweak it, update it and perfect it. While at the time he was concerned with trimming and resequencing, he would have been among the first to embrace digital film restoration (he may have even walked with George Lucas into that black abyss of “updating” his films—so we should probably be thankful that he didn’t get that opportunity). Disneyland gave him the opportunity to tweak, update and perfect, but it also gave him the chance to personally maintain and make sure that his offering always lived up to his guests’ expectations.
8. Avoid contradiction—Clear institutional identity helps give you the competitive edge. Public needs to know who you are what what differentiates you from other institutions they may have seen.
A photographer snapping promotional stills for the new Disneyland theme park decided he would have quicker access to the various areas within the park if he drove, so he stopped his car in Frontierland, hopped out and clicked away. Trains, boats, cowboys and indians. Click click click. Walt couldn’t believe his eyes, and neither could his guests. A cowboy has no place in the distant future and a car has no place in the distant past, and to muddle the theming was to contradict everything the Imagineers had worked so hard to create.
Contrast, not contradiction, is the key to good design and the heart of good storytelling. Methodically setting up a story, establishing the rules of the game and then pulling out contrasting elements (carefully selected of course) can be used to great effect. Stray too far into contradiction, however, and the entire thing falls apart.
Businesses, governments, speakers and artists contradict themselves all the time—thematically, graphically, contextually—and lose their audiences in the process. Once the contradictions become too absurd we either actively ignore the source or simply become confused and turn our attention elsewhere.
A prime lesson in contradiction is this blog. What in the world is it? Is it Disney? Is it business? There’s something about storytelling over there…is that it? But wait…music? And who in the world is Megan Amram???
This blog supplements the production company Yes, If… Productions and acts a place to talk about projects in the making and the thinking that informed upon their concepts. However, the cart has come before the horse (to use an incredibly modern and inescapably underused metaphor) and the blog exists without the production. There are bits of professional projects here and personal projects there, but for the most part it’s a catch all of randomness (as I write, I realize that’s perhaps the unfortunate definition of most blogs), and whether or not that is acceptable in the world of blogging (doubtful), it is entirely unacceptable if you are trying to communicate effectively as a business.
There is no clear message and so no clear reason why someone would make these pages part of their regular online rounds. Luckily corporate communication isn’t nearly so random. Or is it? Companies sabotage their own message all the time but don’t realize it. In a previous post about Guest Experience Directors, I mentioned the need to bring every aspect of your business that the customer interacts with under the watchful eye of one person who has the customers’ best interests at heart. The customer service may be stellar, marketing may be fantastic and the website may have received many design awards, but if there is no consistency between them, your business is a lumbering contradiction just waiting to fade away.
It’s disorienting to go from watching a company’s commercial to visiting their website and finding that the two seem to have nothing in common with one another. You might wonder if you entered the url correctly and try again. If you were looking for a financial institution or online store the inconsistency might lead you to believe the site had been hacked and was redirecting you to a thief’s online lair. You could call customer service, but if the marketing says, “HappyCorp: the company that cares” and the person answering the phone says, “Thanks for calling HappyCorp: F you,” you may take your business elsewhere.
The second portion of the commandment (as interpreted by ThemedAttraction.com) is frustratingly tricky for middling businesses. Companies must differentiate, but so many refer to themselves as “industry leading” and “best in class” that no one believes these statements anymore. Every business can’t be the best no matter how loudly they shout their claim, so when a consumer sees this kind of language, they may not be sure of much, but they are sure that the business doing all the yelling IS NOT the best. That’s not to say a business shouldn’t shout from the rooftops about how great it is, certainly the public needs to know, but it should make its claim in its own words with its own voice, otherwise it will sound like everybody else. To say you are the best in exactly the same way as everyone else is an instant contradiction.
Walt Disney told his stories with focus, understanding that contradictions distracted from the experience and lifted his guests right out of his carefully constructed kingdom. Perhaps I should get back to the idea of telling stories, great stories, industry leading stories. Yes, I’ll be doing that from now on. Actually no. Never mind. As Megan Amram likes to say:
Also, beggars can't be doctors—
Megan Amram (@meganamram) May 25, 2011
I recently had the chance to tell someone this story—it’s amazing where these types of things can crop up:
When Disneyland first opened, everything was learning by doing. Walt Disney and his band of designers had spent a great deal of time tromping all over the world, going from amusement parks to fairs to roadside attractions in an attempt to learn as much as they could, but the reality was there had never been anything like Disneyland. No model existed, so they had to make their own, and in so doing they were bound to make mistakes from time to time.
Not long after the grand opening, Walt was busy surveying his kingdom when one of the landscaping crew ran up to him with a problem. As guests had made their way across the park, they had worn a path right through the middle of a flowerbed. Nothing the landscaper had tried would keep them out and finally, totally exasperated, he insisted they put up a fence to ward off the offending feet.
“Pave it,” Walt replied. If people had chosen that as their path then likely that was the best path, so they should just pave over the flowerbed, end of story. The mistake was not failing to keep guests out, as the landscaper supposed, the mistake had been to put a flowerbed there in the first place. To ignore this kind of message is to ignore the best kind of advice a business will ever receive. Our guests have told us what to do. Why not do it?
Sometimes a company will make mistakes and continue making them, not even aware that a mistake has been made. Lean your head out of your office window for a moment and you’ll find your customers are telling you both about the mistakes you have made and, most importantly, how to fix them.
7. Tell one story at a time—If you have a lot of information, divide it into distinct, logical, organized stories, people can absorb and retain information more clearly if the path to the next concept is clear and logical.
Snow White, at the time called Disney’s Folly, was the first ever full length animated feature film. It was an extremely risky venture as it was a prohibitively expensive process, no one was sure an audience would tolerate a cartoon for so long, and no one knew if a group that had never produced anything longer than short subject could deliver. The film was a smash as audiences saw it again and again, weeping over the death of Snow White and cheering when one day her prince did indeed come.
Walt Disney delivered, an in his characteristic fashion he took his studio’s supposed weakness—the fact that it had only made short films—and turned it into the film’s primary strength. While Walt and his storymen worked tirelessly to mold the full story into a finished tale, the film unfolds in the form of several shorter pieces strung together one after the other as though it is a series of short films. Start a scene, communicate an idea, end the scene, move on to the next. The Disney Studio had a big story to tell, alot more information than it was used to dealing with, and an entirely new and experimental way to tell it, so the story was divided into clear segments that would be easy to follow. Simply brilliant.
Whether the company made the conscious choice to present their story in this fashion or if it was just a matter of not knowing how to do it any other way, Snow White’s success was buoyed by the fact that the 1930s audience wasn’t bombarded with more story than it could handle.
Sometimes businesses are headed in so many directions that they try to tell all their different stories at once rather than honing in one, leaving the consumer unsure of who they are dealing with. As a prime example of a company doing things the right way, take a look at Apple. Everything they do, every story they tell, is focused and comes in easy to swallow bits. Steve Jobs’ stage performances are highly crafted and very deliberate, giving a listener time to absorb and get excited before moving on. The website does the same thing. Click on a product and you find a piece of the larger story, but then drill down and you find more specific information, drill down further and you’ll find even more than that, all laid out in a very clear way leaving no confusion as to where you have been and where you are going. The key is, the chunks of story are clear and the way on to the next chunk is even more so.
To break the concept down even further, listen to some of Obama’s more successful speeches from the past. He builds his story with a carefully measured speech pattern, never giving the audience more than it can handle, even if it’s just a few words at a time. Heavy pauses dot his speeches…allowing you, the listener…to take in the full meaning…of the gravity…of the message.
Disney would go on to play with this concept in animation, live action and theme parks with varying results. Disneyfication, the nice sheen on every building and the happily ever after at the end of every film, was seen as an oversimplification of complex realities, but Disney’s was always a world of storytelling and fantasy. To hit everyone with every bit of information all at once wasn’t a good thing, it was numbing and just created background noise that would go entirely ignored. Walt understood that you must give the audience what it wants, but you can’t give it to them all at once.
4. Create a weenie—Lead visitors from one area to another by creating visual magnets and giving visitors rewards for making the journey.
“Wait, wait…you’re going to have to come back…I can’t believe I forgot the weenie!!”
At Walt Disney’s urging, the baffled representatives from General Electric who had come to view their new attraction left the room. What was Walt talking about, and what in the world did he mean by weenie? GE, sponsoring a pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, had commissioned Disney to build a centerpiece attraction to entertain the crowds learning about all their new products. Walt and the Imagineers at WED created The Carousel of Progress, a new type of stage show with a unique theater system that actually moved the audience around the Audio Animatronic figures on stage. A father figure would deliver a monologue about progress through the years, and each time the theater rotated, a new scene began—multiple scenes, multiple eras, all linked by the theme of progress and a catchy theme song.
The show mechanics functioned, the story and characters flowed and the song was a toe-tapper, but something was missing. What Walt realized for the first time while watching his show through the eyes of outsiders, was that there was nothing to pull the audience forward from one scene to the other. When a new scene began, there was nothing special and specific (specific being key) that the audience would search for and seek out that would make their minds forget the mechanics of what was going on around them, forget the amazing things his Imagineers had accomplished, and plant them into the story.
The GE representatives got the call a few weeks later and made their way to see Walt and his updated attraction. Everything was exactly as it had been the first time around, with one notable addition—a dog. In each scene, the audio animatronic family pet would lay somewhere near the feet of his master, wagging his tail, panting and occasionally reacting to the monologue; a relatively minor addition, yet each time the theater rotated to a new scene, the audience’s eyes and minds would be lead forward to find him. They would be drawn to the weenie.
The concept of the “weenie” comes from a classic sight gag from the earliest days of entertainment. A long stick would be tied to a dog’s head and a hot dog, or weenie, would dangle from the end, prompting the dog to keep moving forward. Walt loved the metaphor and referred to it often, understanding that people will move happily forward if they feel like they have something rewarding that they are moving towards. He didn’t want people in his park to have “museum feet,” trudging forward with no real sense of where they are going but only going to get it over with, so the Imagineers began to add large interesting objects, like a castle, at the ends of long walks to draw a guest forward. When a guest sets out across a Disney theme park, they can see something, a very specific promise, waiting for them at the other end and they are confident they will be rewarded for their effort.
Businesses can employ this same strategy, but often fail to recognize what motivates people to move forward. Many companies feel they have a fantastic product or service, and so they dole out what they think is important wrapped in a sales pitch and topped with a marketing bow, but often times, what is important to a business has nothing to do with what is important to its customers and is in fact not the slightest bit rewarding.
Some of Walt Disney Imagineering’s greatest technological achievements go largely unpromoted. For example, the technology behind the Tower of Terror attraction is amazing—an elevator comes out of its elevator shaft, cruises around the interior of a building only to reengage and travel upwards before it is literally thrown back to the ground at speeds faster than gravity can pull. Pretty fantastic, yet the explanation of what WDI accomplished is not on the marquee. Instead guests see a giant old building with a failing neon sign and they hear the screams of guests within the attraction making a person think, “Ok, I gotta go see what’s going on over there.”
What pulls someone forward in a Disney park is the visual and the emotional, the promise of a great experience and while people obviously have different expectations when dealing with normal businesses on a day to day basis, the basic principle is the same. If a business begins with the promise of what is important to it rather than what is important to the customer, or worse, begins with no real promise at all, it will lose potential customers before it even has the chance to say, “How are you?”
You may have done the hard work and gotten people onto your website, but now what? Now is the time to make a promise of something to be gained by heading over here or a reward for looking over there. What is the reward for going through the buying process other than not having to be on the phone with a customer service person anymore? What is it that pulls a person through a survey or eLearning course other than simply being done with it? Because a potential customer or client has no real investment, the vast majority will not take the time to click around and trudge through their museum feet, they will simply leave.
A business must take the time to dangle something important, special and specific in front of the customer, otherwise there is no reason for them to go forward. At the end of your company’s long road, make sure there’s a castle, or at least something to eat.
2. Wear your guests’ shoes—Insist that designers, staff and your board members experience your facility as visitors as often as possible.
How can you ever really know if what you are doing is working? Often times marketing people, creative department heads, directors and CEOs are insulated from the outside world and can’t understand why their great new idea isn’t catching on. The only way to truly get a handle on things is by experiencing your offering from your customer’s point of view.
Walt Disney insisted that the Imagineers responsible for creating his living, breathing story called Disneyland spend time in the park talking, eating, playing and just living the experience. They needed to do more than watch people move, they needed to move themselves. They needed to ride the rides, but they also needed to stand in line (without saying, “Do you know who I am?” and cutting ahead) and really try to get a sense of how the Disney experience was playing out.
If your company is built on providing an immersive experience for customers, then nothing else is more important than guest experience. In terms of more mainline businesses however, most might dismiss the idea as not applicable. Nothing could be further from the truth. This same thinking applies not only to guests in the Disney sense, but to employees, contractors, managers, VPs, and anyone along the line from the lowest rung to the highest that you depend on to keep the company moving. If we are to be better managers then we must remember that it is people we manage, not projects (no matter what the job title might say), and to understand people is to understand how to get the job done right.
We stand to learn far more looking back up the ladder than we ever will looking down. This is almost an impossibility, particularly with CEOs. Amid the reality TV downturn the networks began airing a show called Undercover Boss, the premise of which being interesting, but the practicalities being utterly absurd (why is there a film crew following around some old guy working for minimum wage?) A quick overview—the CEO of a major corporation dons the guise of a new employee in the lowest ranks of his own company, and (with film crew in tow) spends some time as an average Joe working the line where he learns alot about livin’ and a little ’bout love.
As with any reality TV show, the word reality resides deeply in quotes as the abundance of media in our lives has taught us how to act whenever there is a camera around (because you only get one chance to be the next Antoine Dodson), however the concept is sound. Likely most executives would see the chance to go incognito into the bowels of their company as a chance to expose flaws in the system, but the ones who know what really makes a business move would see it as a unique opportunity to learn how they themselves can better serve their people. By serving your people, you serve your company, and by serving your company you increase productivity and raise the bottom line.
Walt understood that if you want to know how something works, you talk with the people who work with it. You want to know how the experience works, you talk with a guest. You want to know how a ride works, you talk with the ride operator. You want to know how a ride vehicle works, you talk with the mechanics.
This is a difficult concept for important people to grasp, even within the Disney corporation. In an interview with legendary Imagineer Bob Gurr, the man singlehandedly responsible for practically every train, car or ride vehicle in Disneyland, he mentioned that he didn’t retire from Walt Disney Imagineering, but rather was fired. His offense? He challenged a major department head by saying if they wanted to get to the root of why a problem ride vehicle never operated correctly, they should talk to the mechanics who worked on the cars daily and they would discover the problem. The department head was incensed. No grease-monkey was going to tell his highly educated engineers how to do their job, and so Gurr, the man who made Disneyland move and who knew Walt personally, was dismissed from the company.
Walt Disney left a lasting impression on his Imagineers to look past the unimportant (such as diplomas that say an engineer knows better than a mechanic) and focus on what really matters. When John Hench was asked to develop a restaurant for Disneyland, he protested, telling Walt that he didn’t know anything about restaurants. Walt, in classic fashion, told Hench to quit talking to him and go find out. After much time spent at the source talking with people in restaurants and taking restaurant courses, John Hench had his answer. All it took was asking the right people.
The information is out there, but if we look to the person sitting next to us in the office for solutions, we’ve already missed the point. They are in the same situation we are. If we want to understand something, our best bet is to ask the person who knows the answer.