What we can learn from Disney’s artists for our design process

Last week I had the enormous pleasure to be part of a Dave Zaboski masterclass. Dave is former senior animator at Disney, where he worked on films like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Great guy, great energy and a true artist. He taught us the importance of truly looking and perceiving, before you start drawing. Funnily enough, in the agency/consultancy world, we have a similar principle: 80% listening, 20% talking (which is very hard for many people).
I want to discuss some the key takeaways from that course and make analogies with my daily work around design thinking.

“Resolute imagination is the beginning of all magical operations”
– Paracelsus, Astrologist and Alchemist

This quote — from early 1500’s — was a red thread throughout his class (notice the neat juxtaposition and contradictory wording). What is meant by this, is that any project at Disney started with imagination, creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking. There was no ‘right or wrong’ and people were free to let their imagination run wild. Then, when many character and story ideas were put on the table, it was time to make things concrete and convergence to consensus and a final storyline, so that the ‘magical operations’ could start.

Five things were of key importance for any animator/creative at Disney:

  1. Believe — expand your mind and free to be creative
  2. Collaborate — only by sharing ideas, they get better (‘+1 each other’)
  3. Iterate — learn & improve
  4. Risk — without risk, there is no new
  5. Complete — be careful no to end up with loose ends

Most of the items speak for itself, I just want to highlight a couple of things:

  • Most of these (decades old) principles are directly relatable to Design thinking:
    Believe (Discovery & Ideation), Collaborate (teamwork and team brainstorms), Iterate (prototyping), Risk (wanting to create a radical or disruptive new value proposition)
  • Moreover, it’s very interesting they put Complete as a key principle: the movie people are working on, has to be completed at one point — there will be final, hard deadline and once the movie leaves the studio, it’s out of the creatives’ hands. In Design Thinking, this principle is bit more ‘blurry’: often, iterations are used to improve a product, but it’s basically never really finished (especially for an digital product such as a website or app).

Another interesting analogy between Disney’s creative process and the Design process, is the notion of ‘spiraling’:

What this depiction means:

  • Not cultivated: often, the creative process is based on trial & error. We try, try and try until we hit the jackpot (if at all). This is mostly based on pure luck and waiting for a little miracle to happen.
  • Cultivated: in a cultivated environment, you work your way towards a goal (whatever that may be). You iterate and circle yourself aorund the final concept, visual or art piece. As such, we are aware of the fact that our actions are part of a process, and our iterations, changes and edits will have the desired results. The aforementioned 5 principles are key in achieving this cultivation.

And so we can conclude that the Design Thinking process and the Disney artistic process, are remarkably similar. They both display iterative processes of diverging and converging, focus on collaboration (or: ‘plussing each other’), hold a strong focus on the process and include risk as key requirement for becoming successful. Simba is the results of a well-developed, iterated MVP!

I hope you now too understand Paracelsus’ quote: yes, you have start with an open mind and let creativity run wild, yet be sure to follow a clear process of how you’re going to ‘land’ your vision into something that’s feasible, desirable and viable.

Simba is the result of a well-developed, iterated MVP!

Want to connect with Dave? View his LinkedIn profile

***Want to read more about design thinking and innovation? Please visit Frankly. for many more articles on these topics. ***

Dave (left) and me
Explanations about cultivating creativity
Some of the workshop sketch results

Strategy Director @Umvel. Love innovation, technology and creating better, user-centered experiences. See https://umvel.com