Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull… the bottom line:
Looking for insights and tips on business and creativity development? Here is a book suggestion: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace).
Creativity, Inc. uses the story of Pixar as a practical case study. The book is very practical, in other words, and it explains to what extent creativity can become part of a company’s DNA.
All in all, I’d say that Creativity, Inc. was a little technical at times (to me). But it is nonetheless an interesting and challenging read. Totally worth your time anyway if creativity, business development or simply the history of Pixar are of interest to you for one reason or another.
Book Review: Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace.
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace is one of those books I bought because the cover was exciting and because the title was very promising.
I didn’t even look at the book’s description, to be honest. But tell me about Buzz Lightyear, make me dream with some creativity promises and I’m game!
So I read the book, guessing that the whole thing would most likely focus on how the guys at Pixar worked on making new things differently. And considering that I had just finished another book on creativity – Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant – I must admit that my expectations were very high.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Creativity, Inc. and found very interesting to learn how creators behind the best animation movies work.
The story went a little too technical to my taste, however. Why? Because Ed Catmull explains Pixar’s creation process in great depth and that was a little too much for me. I’m sure more tech-savvy readers will be interested in that, though. In any case, creativity is a fascinating topic, and this book was totally worth the time I spent reading it. Let me explain why!
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: a brief overview (for starters)
As usual on I’ll Make You Think SMART, let me start with a brief book review for starters. The more comprehensive review comes next.
Ed Catmull has a fascinating story to tell. Whilst he is described online as “an American computer scientist”, it would be fairer to present him as one of the pioneers of computer animation and story-telling. Oh, and of course, he is also a founder of Pixar, currently the President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studio.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Ed Catmull elaborates on what it means to be creative. A professional creative, I mean. Catmull explains why creativity is essential and what impact it had on Pixar over the years. This leads to explaining the operational aspects of the company that people hardly know about. Oh, and of course, this leads to tons of advice as to how you could inject some creativity into your own life and business.
The style is overall fairly easy to follow, but as mentioned previously I have found Creativity, Inc. a bit too technical at times. In my humble opinion, anyway.
Now, I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but to finish the brief overview here is what the book says:
Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: the comprehensive book review.
So, as the title suggests, Creativity, Inc. is a book for those interested in ‘overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration’. The book explores four main themes, starting with… ways to get started, the science and art of protecting new ideas, the difficulty of building and sustaining, and the complexity of testing. Keep reading for more on these themes!
Interestingly, the book starts with a very nice – practical – description of Pixar’s relationship to creativity. First, Ed Catmull introduces the idea that self-expression is in the DNA of Pixar. Second, he strongly ties creativity to the idea that of problem-solving. Third, he puts things in context by explaining that, perhaps, creativity could be a guiding principle in a Silicon Valley where many companies tend to burn because business becomes more important than values.
The book, in fact, focuses on one important question: how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture? Said differently, how to create a business culture that “outlasts” the founders, how to foster a long-lasting creative environment capable of resisting the pressure? Now, should we start digging?
The book in bullet points
Catmull explores these major themes:
- Creativity as a guiding principle
- Ways to initiate and sustain creativity
- Pixar’s path towards becoming Creativity, Inc.
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- What does it take to be creative?
- How did Pixar become Creativity, Inc?
- How can you ensure that creativity makes part of your business?
- Can creativity become a guiding principle, a business model or a business culture?
- How to get started with creative ideas and innovate?
- How to preserve creative ideas?
- To what extent do honesty and failure represent challenges to creativity?
- How to creative in a sustainable manner?
- Are we doomed by inflexible models?
- How to test creative ideas?
Creativity, Inc. – Theme #1: Getting Started.
The idea of getting started is explored in various ways in the Creativity, Inc. book.
Inventing the new as a basic principle
First, Ed Catmull sets the rule: creativity is about “inventing the new” as a basic principle. Why? Because using the existing is not a proper way to start something made to last.
Here, Catmull explains innovation in terms of movement, intention, and emotions. He explains his admiration for Walt Disney and explores his own drivers. Creating ways to animate (when computed animation did not exist), imagining new ways to create beyond what we already know, and the difficulty of making your own views on innovation accepted by those who currently represent the status quo.
Catmull also explains the notion of creativity in the first moments of computed animation, he writes about creating new languages, new verbs, new methods. A little bit of technicality here, as a matter of fact.
The difficulty of getting started
Second, Catmull looks at the difficulty of getting started. And he does that by telling the story of how Pixar actually started! From visionary thoughts to ambitious trials, from creating a team to managing it. For instance? What autonomy and freedom should you give to your team? Is freedom a danger or a source of progress? Should you value secrecy or foster open communication?
Again, the discussion tends to be somehow technical. But if you are interested in how Pixar or Lucas films (Star Wars!) considered innovation and production, there is a lot to read here. Creativity, Inc. asks more questions, though. How to push innovation when the end-user is not ready for it and sees no advantage in changing the status quo? Etc.
The issue of defining goals
Third, Catmull explores the ‘getting started’ topic by discussing the difficulty of defining goals. There, Creativity, Inc. gives tons of details as to how the pushy nature of Steve Jobs impacted the original projects behind Pixar. And, again, lots of questions are being explored. How to identify the market and sell? Or… how to foster creativity (and provocation) inside the company? How to hire, how to set your price, how to meet the client’ expectations?
This part of the book is very interesting. We would naturally see Pixar as a strongly established business, right? Well, the book pictures a constant struggle and search for a sustainable business model. In short, creativity requires setting goals, a format, an environment. And none of that is obvious.
The story of how Toy Story was built is taken as an example, alongside with the Steve Jobs adventure. In fact, when Catmull saw Toy Story as a movie, Jobs saw it as a visionary promise, as a revolution that would “change the field of animation”. As a way to reconsider a relationship with Disney, in sum, and as a way to get started… for real.
The point is interesting, because with new partnerships come different conceptions of creativity, different business models, different approaches to change the world a deal with the status quo… For more, get the book!
Creativity as a corporate culture
Fourth idea, creativity is inherently related to culture and requires building a strong identity.
>> On startup corporate culture, read also My Zero to One summary, or Smart takes on building Startups by Peter Thiel.
For Pixar the identity was based on story-building and on an ability to trust creatives, to empower them and let them build the future of the company. This obviously brings more creative questions! For instance, should you invest in the best ideas or in the best people? How do you adapt your model and priorities to match the skills and needs of those people? Unless you’d rather ask them to adapt to the structure… but for what results? Lots of ideas here.
Creativity, Inc. – Theme #2: Protecting new ideas.
There are many issues when it comes to nurturing, developing and protecting new ideas and innovative techniques.
The issue of honesty
Take honesty, for instance. How easy is it to obtain honest and reliable answers to whatever thoughts you might have? In fact, how can you even be sure that your staff will really tell you what they think of an idea you strongly believe into? Could self-preservation reflexes hinder creativity at work?
So, Catmull argues that if you want more creativity, you need to create specific mechanisms and environments built in order to make people feel free to share and criticize. Catmull calls this ”straight talk”, but the idea clearly is that creativity needs to be nurtured, fed, allowed.
The issue of failure
Take also the issue of fear, failure, and the fear of failure. To the many, the risk of failing blocks creativity. But to Catmull failure is a learning experience! Failure needs to be seen as an opportunity for growth, and the whole creative process needs to feed on failure, as one type of experience amongst others.
But how do you “create a fearless culture”? How to allow yourself to be wrong “as fast as you can”? Think about it… If failure can be expensive, what is the actual cost of preventing failure? What is the role of leadership towards failure perception?
Creativity as a mindset
The idea of protecting the new is also a matter of big vs small. Here, Catmull describes a major difference in mindsets. On the one hand, Disney, the beast which needs to be fed at all times and the pressure to create that it permanently produces on staffers. On the other hand, Pixar and its determination to help “greatness to emerge”, even if (or especially if) greatness initially comes in the shape of an ugly baby.
Preserving new ideas brings more questions, of course. For instance… How to deal with change and how to avoid randomness when change is inevitable? Or, how to deal with ambitions and delusions? Not to forget how to avoid believing in your own BS to avoid change? Lots of food for thought here… if you are interested, just get the book!
Creativity, Inc. – Theme #3: The challenge of building to last.
The third big theme in Creativity, Inc. refers to the issue of building something revolutionary in a sustainable way. I noted two main arguments here.
One argument is that in order to be creative you need to broaden your perspectives. The idea isn’t very surprising that’s for sure. But Catmull’s opinion is that our models are too distorted, too complex. They make us biased, inflexible, unable to react creatively. In fact, Catmull even writes about an” inexorable drift towards inflexibility”. He also provides tips as to how Pixar deals with the issue. Think research trips, experimentation without permanent justification”… In sum, problem-solving is at the heart of Pixar’s culture, but not an easy exercise.
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The other argument (as a reminder, we are talking about building, here) is that things never work as planned. Hence, accepting that the final outcome will not look like original thoughts is key to building creatively. This gives an interesting discussion and raises a variety of questions worth thinking about. For instance… Should you try ahead or sit and observe? Should you consider the problem as being part of the solution?
Creativity, Inc. – Theme #4: Testing.
The fourth theme explored in Creativity, Inc. discusses the complexity of testing.
Again there are various elements of answer here, the main of which relates to new challenges. For instance, how to test whether your model can adapt? How to “remodel”? Can you create trust with new partners while breaking outdated cycles of creation and production? How to revive creativity? Oh, and of course… how to ”embrace the new”?
The main conclusions
Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace come to the following conclusions.
- Creativity must become a mindset, a fundamental guiding principle at the core of business models.
- As far as Pixar is concerned, creativity was the basis, a goal, a culture, because the founders fought to make creativity a reality.
- Creativity is a way to manage inevitable change and to allow “greatness to emerge”.
Food for thought!
As usual, let me finish this book review of Creativity, Inc. with a little bit of food for thought.
As mentioned in my introduction, my overall feeling is that whilst Creativity, Inc. is at times technical and therefore difficult to follow, it is overall an interesting read for those interested in creativity in general, or in animation processes more specifically. My take is, there are many tips and ideas to borrow from reading Creativity, Inc.. Just give the book a try.
Now, there is another book I think you should absolutely read if you are interested in creativity, or if you are into questioning the status quo.
I mentioned my book review of Adam Grant’s Originals – How Non-Conformists Move the World at the beginning of this review of Creativity, Inc.. Why? Well, because Grant’s book actually formulates fairly similar arguments. For instance, it discusses the difficulty of challenging the status quo. It also talks about the difficulty of conducting productive group tests. And it elaborates on the importance of expressly making contestation a part of any creative process! In sum, both Creativity, Inc. and Adam Grant’s book Originals are very complementary reads. Just follow the links!
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Other books are also worth looking at if you are interested in the various topics I’ve mentioned in this book review. I’m particularly thinking about Rules for Revolutionaries by Guy Kawasaki, and about Zero to One by Peter Thiel too.
For more suggestions though, have a look at my book suggestions on how to create revolutionary products and at my book suggestions on entrepreneurship and startups. You’ll find interesting stuff for sure.
In my opinion...
An interesting book if you are looking for creativity tips, or if you are simply interested in learning more about how Pixar deals with creativity!
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That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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