Reflections on Walt Disney, innovator

Last week I visited the newly opened Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in SF, as part of my client’s UX Team offsite. What a remarkable visit it was– simply very inspiring for a team pursuing compelling, emotionally engaging innovation. To those fearing something overly sugary and smarmy–fear not! It’s quite understated in overall style and indeed, frankly “Un-Disney”, at least how Disney “the brand” is popularly conceived. Disney “the man”, however, was quite a character and pioneer, along the lines of Edwin Land (Poloroid), Henry Ford, or even Steve Jobs. Indeed a few of us wondered aloud afterwards–“Was Walt Disney the Steve Jobs of his day?” Hmm! Overall, highly recommend it for any designer or product/service innovator.

A few key takeaways:

** Circular process/organizational chart: There’s a fabulous chart of the Disney studios which starts with Walt at the top and a giant circular flow of inputs/outputs to “production” and “management”, ending with the “audience broadcast” at the bottom. But Walt is firmly the firestarter, the visionary, the driver.

** “It’s a nice film sequence but not essential to the story”: One of the film clips shown among the various monitors/TV screens throughout the museum relayed the story of someone laboring for over 8 MONTHS on an amazing little animated sequence which didn’t make the final cut b/c as Walt said, it didn’t fit the story. Sounds like a good director/brand manager/leader at work!

** Snow White was a make or break high risk achievement. And it worked. It was the first feature film of its kind and was a major risky adventure but again Walt stuck to the story and motivated the team to forge ahead, not go through a “death march” of feature cuts and so forth like in software. Sleeping Beauty apparently took 6 yrs and 6 million dollars (a massive amount back then) b/c it had to be done just right, including novel multi-plane camera systems, etc. Sound familiar? Kinda like Pixar’s film projects! Hmm…

** Lots of concept art: Tons of paintings, sketches, illustrations of characters, scenes, and especially facial expressions were done for each Disney studio production. The faces in particular are what make an animated character come to life, conveying emotions that we as viewers can resonate with and empathize, in support of a powerful yet simple story. But it all starts with sketches and explorations.

** Prototyping: Walt even coined a fancy acronym based upon the notion of a community dedicated to prototyping new technologies and futuristics, progressive lifestyles of life enhancement / enjoyment — EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). It was originally meant as a place for the big companies of the day (IBM, Xerox, GE, etc.) to continually invent new products and services, a living lab of sorts.

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