Monday, August 29, 2016

Walt's Creative Process

Two of the questions many people have about Walt is how he was able to be so creative and what was his recipe?  I'm not sure anyone has fully answered either yet. Part of the difficulty in doing so is that it's one thing to study creativity and another to practice it.  Some of the most famous designers have maintained that you can't do both; that you can study it or practice it, but not at the same time.

When I began researching the similarities between Imagineering and Design Thinking, I had the idea that comparing the lives of very creative people, to see if there were any common themes between them, might shed some light on it. That turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, not only because of the sheer volume of reading material, but also because Walt and his Imagineers didn't really talk much about their methods. Even when they did, their vocabularies were very different. Disney spoke in the context of telling stories and making movies and engineers talk like engineers (or maybe Yoda.) For a current example you can view a video of Bob Gurr speaking at Google at the end of this post.

Today we're going to look at a creative method that hasn't gotten much press. I'm talking about the idea of the Three Walts and The Three Rooms.

Ollie Johnston
Oliver Johnston was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Ca. His father was a professor at Stanford. "Ollie"was one of Disney's "Nine Old Men".  Many feel that the two most accomplished of the group were Ollie and his close friend Frank Thomas. The pair met at Stanford in the 1930s and were hired by Disney for $17 a week when the studio was expanding to produce full-length feature films.

Ollie once noted that he and Frank were bound to be thrown together  at Stanford, since they were two of only six students in the art department at the time. When not in class, they painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for food money.

Ollie observed that there were actually three Walts and that you never knew which one was coming to your meeting;
  • Walt the Dreamer.
  • Walt the Realist.
  • Walt the Critic. 
Not only were there three Walts, when ideas were being developed there were three different rooms which were used to investigate, discuss and refine them.
  • Room 1 was for brainstorming, where all ideas were presented - no naysaying allowed.
  • Room 2 was for storyboarding & sketches of potential characters for the story.
  • Room 3 was for putting the project under the microscope. 
Room 3 was called the Sweatbox.  Iwas there that the entire project was presented, not only to the team, but to Devil’s Advocates, the most famous one being Walt.  In these "Critic"meetings no one was personally attacked, but it was where ideas either became a reality or were sacked!


Here are some detailed descriptions of what happened in each phase and room:

DREAMER -  Dreamers spin innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches, bold and absurd ideas, without limits or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. Dreamers ask: If I could wave a magic wand  and do anything I want – what would I create? (Pixie Dust) How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive? Dream-storming in Room 1 was the space for asking "What if?" and "Why not?" This is the What and Why parts of the story are developed.

REALISTThe realist builds the dreamer’s ideas into something possible and feasible. They try to figure out how to make the ideas work and sort them into an executable plan. To be a realist, you ask: How can I make this happen? What are the main features and aspects of the idea? Can I build on ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? How can I use the essence of the idea to create a more realistic one? This is where the Who and How parts of the story are developed.

CRITIC -  The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to find flaws in them by playing the devil’s advocate. Critics, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best we can do? How can we make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A guest? Is it worth our time to work on this idea? This was also where Walt was when he suggested "plussing"things up. This is also a place to explore another from of Who, How and Why, only inverted.

For example; Suppose someone wanted a better way to water their garden.  The dreamer might suggest teaching the plants how to talk, so they can tell you when they are dry. The realist develops this into an animated bird that monitors the moisture content of the soil. The realist refines the idea by exploring various sensors, hardware and software. Finally, the critic evaluates the idea for all possible flaws and problems.

Organizing these into process steps you get;

Step 1 - “WHAT are we going to do?”

Dream big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project.

The Room Setup: Open, airy rooms with lots of light and high-ceilings are the best for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow.

Mindset: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it’s about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 - “HOW are we going to do it?”

Here the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this phase would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, (storytelling - df) and populating storyboards.

Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall which facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the planning process.

Mindset: This is where you roll up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn’t make sense, question it.

Goals: Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 - “WHY are we doing this?”

Ask “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking the hard questions. Is the plan really doable? Are there unwieldy aspects that need to be cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective? The process shifts from dream-storming, to subsequently practical. The environments in the various “rooms” prompt us to adopt the best mindset at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to ultimately be implemented.

Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people.

Mindset: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.  In considering How, you’re likely to get lost in the weeds. The Why? step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider the plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.

Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting, Imagineering, and Design Thinking, go deep: they are methodical, disciplined, and time-intensive up front.

Here are some ideas for Mascots for Walt's three rooms:

The Realist - Ludwig Von Drake is the analyst.
The Dreamer - Mickey has the vision, heart and empathy.
The Critic - Donald Duck has the eye for what's missing or just plain wrong.

By the way. Walt is generally credited for having invented another creative tool; the storyboard.

Realist, Dreamer and Critic




Bob Gurr at Google

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