The Introduction to "The Imagineering Pyramid: Using Disney Theme Park Design Principles to Develop and Promote Your Creative Ideas"
I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a number of creative fields for much of my adult life. When I first went to college, I studied music composition, and in addition to my original music, I also wrote several arrangements for a small jazz ensemble. Later I worked for as a freelance game designer before getting a full-time position as a product line developer for a small game company. After leaving that job, I did more freelance game design work, then worked for nine years years as a technical writer and trainer. For the past six years, I’ve served as the manager of a team of technical writers and curriculum developers for a small business unit in a large enterprise software company.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking: “Music and game design are creative fields, but technical writing and training? Those don’t seem all that creative.” I disagree. I believe that there is a creative aspect to nearly everything we do. Even the most seemingly mundane of activities involves some level of creativity.
I’m not alone in this belief in the diverse nature of creativity. In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes: “Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for business people looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.” In their book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, authors Tom Kelley and David Kelly refer to the idea that creativity is something that applies only to some people as ‘the creativity myth’. It is a myth that far too many people share.” They also tell us: “Creativity is much broader and more universal than what people typically consider the ‘artistic’ fields. We think of creativity as using your imagination to create something new in the world. Creativity comes into play wherever you have the opportunity to generate new ideas, solutions, or approaches.”
Likewise, I believe everyone is creative, even the people who tell you that they “don’t have a creative bone in their body”. The challenge for many of us lies in finding the right model of how creativity and the creative process works so we can apply it in our own fields. This book is my attempt at providing just such a model. But before we get to that, let’s look at that word “creativity” a bit.
Creativity is a “magnetic” word for me. It draws my attention like a magnet.
You know when you buy a new car, suddenly you see that car everywhere? You may have never noticed it before, but now, everywhere you look there’s a car just like yours. Did all those people also just buy the same type of car? Most likely not. What’s happened is that your brain and perceptions have become more sensitive to that type of car because it’s important to you. This recently happened to my wife and I when we bought a new car. One or two days after buying that car, I started noticing it on the roads far more often than I ever had before.
A similar thing happens when we set goals. After we’ve set a goal and gotten specific about what we can do to accomplish that goal, we start noticing more things that can contribute to us accomplishing that goal. Our brain filters out input that doesn’t help us make progress on our goals, freeing us up to notice all those things that can help.
I have a similar experience with certain words, and I suspect the same is true for many of us. I think most of us have our own magnetic words, related to whatever it is that interests us, and those words capture our attention more than others. Some of my magnetic words include “Disney”, “Imagineering”, “imagination”, “creativity”, and “innovation”. When I stumble upon an online article, blog, or Facebook post about any one of these, it immediately captures my attention and I spend a few moments investigating. Most times I quickly scan the item to see if it’s something I want to devote more time to, and if so, I either make a note of it or spend a few minutes reading further. I also intentionally seek out online content about some of these words as well. I have Google Alerts set up for “Disney”, “Imagineering”, and “creativity”, among others, and get daily updates with links to various online sources related to each.
I said earlier that I suspect many of us have own set of magnetic words. Some of those may be unique, but many of us also share magnetic words with those who share common interests. For instance, I strongly suspect that I’m not alone in having “Disney” or “Imagineering” among my magnetic words. I would guess that many of you are reading this book because of your own interest in Disney and Imagineering. And while some words are magnetic to only a (relatively) small number of people, some are shared by so many that they become nearly universal. Creativity is one of the latter. Over the last several years, creativity has gained more and more attention, and has become a buzz word in business. In a blog post called “Creativity Creep” from September 2, 2014, on The New Yorker website, Joshua Rothman writes:
Every culture elects some central virtues, and creativity is one of ours. In fact, right now, we’re living through a creativity boom. Few qualities are more sought after, few skills more envied. Everyone wants to be more creative—how else, we think, can we become fully realized people?
Creativity is now a literary genre unto itself: every year, more and more creativity books promise to teach creativity to the uncreative. A tower of them has risen on my desk—Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s Creativity, Inc.; Philip Petit’s Creativity: The Perfect Crime—each aiming to “unleash”, “unblock”, or “start the flow” of creativity at home, in the arts, or at work. Work-based creativity, especially, is a growth area. In Creativity on Demand, one of the business-minded books, the creativity guru Michael Gelb reports on a 2010 survey conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Values, which asked fifteen hundred chief executives what they valued in their employees. “Although ‘execution’ and ‘engagement’ continue to be highly valued,” Gelb reports, “the CEOs had a new number-one priority: creativity,” which is now seen as “the key to successful leadership in an increasingly complex world.”
And so, if creativity is in such high demand, where can we turn to help us cultivate and develop our own creativity? Many of us turn to books. As Rothman notes, creativity has almost become its own literary genre, with dozens of books being published every year covering different aspects of creativity. Beyond books, the internet offers a seemingly endless array of online articles and blog posts focused on creativity as well, and nearly every day there are new items posted.
But even with all of the books and online content, I still think there’s something missing from the “creativity literature”. My observation is that the creativity literature seems focused on two main areas: 1) theory about creativity (traits of creative people, etc.) and 2) tips and techniques to help us “be more creative” or “generate new ideas”.
While these are both valuable and useful to people wanting to be more creative, from my point of view what’s missing is a model for the creative process—an example that we can look to for concepts and principles that can be applied across a variety of creative fields (and remember, there is a creative aspect to nearly everything we do).
Now. you might be asking, “Isn’t being more creative a good thing?” Well, I suppose, but what exactly does “being more creative” even mean? Isn’t it important to come up with new ideas? Again, I suppose it is, but the challenge here is this: ideas are easy—it’s execution that’s difficult. The real work is in taking those ideas and making them real. Put another way, generating ideas—sometimes also known as brainstorming or ideation—is not all there is to creativity. It’s important, to be sure, but it’s only a part of the challenge of employing our creativity. What’s equally (or perhaps more) important is how we follow through and develop and/or implement our creative ideas.
Related to this is another important aspect to creativity that is rarely found in the creativity literature, namely, promoting and communicating our creative ideas to others. If we don’t find ways to share our ideas and effectively communicate and promote them, they often go unrecognized, or worse, unrealized.
In his book, The Myths of Creativity, David Burkus outlines ten myths about creativity and explores the truths behinds those myths. This book is an excellent example of what I consider creativity theory, and should be in the library of anyone interested in creativity or in how we can be more creative. One of the myths explored in this book is the “Mousetrap Myth”, or the idea that “once you have a creative idea or innovative new product, getting others to see its value is the easy part, and that if you develop a great idea, the world will willingly embrace it.” The chapter on the Mousetrap Myth (the final chapter in the book) explores the flaws with the thinking behind this myth. The first is that, quite often, new creative ideas are seen as a challenge and/or a threat to the status quo, and are therefore either ignored or shunned. One of the best examples is Kodak ignoring the potential of digital photography (which they invented) because it challenged their market dominance in film and film processing. Burkus also explores the flawed idea that people with creative ideas often think the idea will speak for itself, and so don’t work at promoting and communicating their ideas. Failure to promote and communicate has led many creatives to watch their ideas either die in a drawer, or be developed and marketed by someone else. As Burkus notes, “We don’t just need more great ideas; we need to spread the great ideas we already have.”
I wrote earlier that I believe the challenge for many of us lies in finding the right model of how creativity and the creative process works so we can apply it in our own fields. I think there is an assumption that people can apply their own expertise or technical know-how to take their ideas to the next level. And while there may be some truth to that, examples and models of taking an idea and shepherding it through the process of turning it into a reality seem to be few and far between.
So where can we look for a model or example of the creative process, and developing and communicating our creative ideas? I think one of the best places to look is Disneyland and other Disney theme parks. More specifically, I believe one of the best models for creativity is found in the design and development of Disney theme parks, a practice better known as Imagineering.
As we’ll examine in more detail in the first part of this book, Imagineering was born from the blending of expertise from a number of fields. Just as the first Imagineers adopted techniques and practices from animation and movie-making to develop the craft of Imagineering, we can borrow (and steal) principles and practices from Imagineering and apply them to other creative endeavors.
In the foreword to Jeff Barnes’ The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth, Garner Holt and Bill Butler of Garner Holt Productions (the world’s largest maker of audio-animatronics) write: “Disneyland is still the ultimate expression of the creative arts: it is film, it is theater, it is fine art, it is architecture, it is history, it is music. Disneyland offers to us professionally (and to everyone who seeks it) a primer in bold imagination in nearly every genre imaginable.”
If you look at what goes into the design and construction of Disney theme parks and attractions, you discover that Imagineering combines several disciplines often associated with creativity (including illustration, art direction, writing, music and sound design, interior design, lighting design, and architecture) as well as disciplines not typically considered creative such as various engineering fields (structural, mechanical, electrical, and industrial), project management, research and development, and construction management. As a source of inspiration about creativity and the creative process, Imagineering has few peers.
In my search to learn as much as I could about how the Imagineers design and build Disney theme parks and attractions, I’ve identified a set of principles that I believe can serve as a model for the creative process in a variety of fields. I call this set of concepts theImagineering Pyramid, and it contains principles focused on developing and communicating our ideas. These principles can be applied to developing nearly any type of creative project, from a simple homework assignment to a fully immersive theme park attraction such as Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
The rest of this book is divided into three primary parts:
Part One: Pre-Show—Peeking over the Berm presents the origins of “Imagineering” and what the word means, as well as an overview of the Imagineering Pyramid. This will give us a foundation on which we can expand in later chapters. We’ll also look briefly at the idea of having a “vision” and how that fuels the creative process.
Part Two: The Imagineering Pyramid is the heart of the book, and examines fifteen techniques and practices used by Walt Disney Imagineering in the design and construction of Disney theme parks and attractions. Starting with a look at something called the art of the show, this section contains chapters devoted to each block in the Imagineering Pyramid. For each block, we’ll look at examples from the Disney parks, the principles behind each, and how each can be leveraged in other fields.
Part Three: Imagineering Beyond the Berm explores how to apply the principles of the Imagineering Pyramid to a number of specific fields, including game design, instructional design, and leadership and management.
Following Part Three is a “post-show” chapter in which I share some final thoughts and a pair of appendices. Appendix A contains a list of the books, DVDs, and other resources in my Imagineering library (as of this printing, anyway—it doesn’t stay the same for long). Appendix B contains a checklist of questions based on the principles of the Imagineering Pyramid that you can use when developing, evaluating, and promoting your creative ideas.