“For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room at Pixar that we call West One. Though it was beautiful, I grew to hate this table. It was long and skinny, like one of those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sits down for dinner—one person at either end, a candelabra in the middle—and has to shout to make conversation. The table had been chosen by a designer Steve Jobs liked, and it was elegant, all right—but it impeded our work.”
He had us at “table in a large conference room.”
From the very beginning of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration—the third book in our quarterly Business Book Club—Ed Catmull spoke our language.
In this unpretentious memoir, Catmull recounts the highs and lows along his journey from daydreaming childhood artist to founding Pixar Animation and eventually to assuming leadership over Disney Animation. And along the way, he takes us into the conference rooms and boardrooms where many of the brightest minds respectfully butted heads to create the animated masterpieces we love, like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Inside Out.
And as we discussed the book in late September, amidst the stacked casks at Cooper’s Hawk Winery, the Carson Design Associates family agreed it was an inspiring tale of how embracing humility and vulnerability can, as our President Julie Berry shared, “help us overcome our fears and open us up to deeper levels of creativity.”
It’s less a story about Pixar’s successes, and more a story about the failures that led to their successes. “Fail early and fail fast.” At Pixar, that’s more than a fancy maxim to slap on the office walls. It’s the core way of doing business because, for them, the sooner you fail the sooner you learn new lessons.
As Catmull explains:
“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality.)…Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration.”
Our book club agreed. But of course, truth on paper can be much easier to swallow than truth in practice. Our team talked at length about ways we can, like Andrew Stanton lives at Pixar, “fail early and fail fast.” And as Stacy Kennelly pointed out, in Carson Design’s world “the biggest failure can be giving clients only what they asked for. We should give them that, but also introduce things they didn’t even know existed.”
Amidst the myriad takeaways discussed, we specifically explored ways Carson Design could replicate Pixar’s Braintrust Meetings, which intentionally “put smart, passionate, people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another.”
How might a similar Braintrust Meeting look like at Carson Design? What’s the right size and purpose? Are there any current roadblocks that might impede candor in such meetings? These are just some of the questions we asked ourselves, with the last one specifically inciting some great discussion on how we can be even more honest in project reviews and accept the fact that we are not our designs. Critiques of our creations are not critiques of ourselves, so how do we allow more candid feedback to happen?
We also discussed Catmull’s chapter on “The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby.” As he outlines in the book, ugly babies are the hideous, undeveloped creations we first birth. In order for them to be truly beautiful and successful in serving our clients’ needs, they need time to nurture, grow, and develop into valuable solutions. They can’t be rushed. And yet, they also can’t stay in the infantile state forever. The hungry beast needs to be fed in order to keep the doors open.
At Pixar, Catmull leans more toward protecting the ugly babies until they’re fully ready, so as not to be prematurely judged. But as we discussed, Carson Design may need to strike a different balance that works for our clients and us. Over-protecting a baby can put our timelines and clients at risk. But under-protecting a baby can limit the potency of our creations.
Overall, we agreed that Creativity, Inc. was quite applicable to our professions as interior designers and helpful in challenging how we serve our clients. And we appreciated the focus on the team and how we work alongside each other. “Great work doesn’t happen in isolation,” Stacy concluded. “We’re only successful because of the team’s efforts.”
Next up, we’ll explore Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant.