5 Critical Design Lessons From Pixar

A surefire way to move your design career ahead is to learn from masters in their fields. And there’s no doubt that Pixar is one of the top animation studios in the world. By looking at how and why the studio is so successful, you can actually learn 5 design lessons.

It’s appropriate that design inspiration can be pulled from Pixar. After all, they’re visual and technological geniuses. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E – all were breakthroughs in animation. Yet it’s how Pixar actually operates and creates that yields the most useful lessons. Ones that can take your design career to infinity and beyond (yeah that’s right, Buzz Lightyear was quoted – wanna fight about it?).


Alright, let’s get to it. Here are 5 critical design lessons from Pixar:

1. Quality Over Quantity

Quality over quantity = a better design portfolio, attracting better clients, and making more money.

Many, many designers think building up a humongous portfolio to list on their website is what matters. But have you been to these sites? Design after design that’s terribly mediocre and looks just like the previous one. Sure, the quantity is big, but if you were a client, you wouldn’t be attracted to a designer like that. You’d just get a good-enough me-too design. You’re merely a number in their quest to rack up client work.

Don’t be that designer. Be like Pixar. Focus in quality over quantity.

Pixar releases one film every few years. That’s it. And boy is it worth it. Not only for us the audience, since we get to enjoy masterpiece after masterpiece, but for the studio as well: they simply rake in the dough with each release.

Why is this? Well for one, each film is really good. But just as importantly, the track record (ie. portfolio) becomes so impeccable that the audience anticipates that the next film will also be fantastic. No need to decide or wait for reviews. You go and you know you’ll enjoy a new Pixar film. So Pixar attracts better viewers – ones that are loyal.

Be that designer. Create less designs but make them better, build up the positive reputation and portfolio, and attract higher-paying loyal clients as a result. You’re happier for creating better art, your clients are happier for receiving better work and pay you more or more frequently.

2. Details Matter

If you analyze a Pixar film, you’ll find nary a flaw. Okay, each film is not 100% perfect, but for the most part, the animation, sound, script, characters, pacing, climax, resolution, lack of glitches – it’s all impeccable.

That’s a large part as to why Pixar succeeds: they care about details most other filmmakers and animation studios don’t (kinda sounds like Steve Jobs and Apple, huh – no surprise he originally bought and nurtured the studio back in the ’80s).

The same goes for your designs. Pay attention to the details that most other designers don’t care about. You’ll separate yourself from the pack this way. Clients and users might not even notice those details, but it’ll subconsciously register. Or they’ll come across it later and smile, further cementing their appreciate for your work.

Yeah, you can focus on the 20% that bring 80% of results for most things, including the non-artistic aspects of design. The business, lead generation (ie. finding clients), invoicing, accounting, and any other analytical aspects of your design career. But when it comes to your actual designs—the creative, artist part—you can’t skimp out on the details. Not if you want to be a Pixar in your field, rather than all those other 3D animation studios that most people can’t immediately recall by name.

3. Don’t Go At It Alone

A quality partner or team that complements what you lack is essential to effectively progressing with your design career. To move forward, you need to dedicate more of your own resources into what you do.

Since you have a limited amount of hours and energy in the day, you can’t do it all. Many have tried and failed.

Pixar isn’t John Lasseter or someone else doing all the work. It’s a team of people, each complementing each other. Sure, someone could attempt to do more than he or she normally does, but instead, each focuses on what he or she does best and delegates other tasks to people that do that task the best. Everyone wins.

It’s no different for your design work. Granted, designing a flyer or website isn’t the same as a multi-year-long 3D feature length film. But you can still partner with, hire or outsource to people the aspects that you’d rather not do. From simple things like all the business and accounting tasks, to more in-depth things like lead generation, finding and scheduling conference trips, expanding into other fields like animation or marketing for clients, and so forth. There’s a reason some designers start out solo, then create a team, and eventually form a firm or studio.

4. Have Soul

Add your human touch to your designs. Don’t just create designs that are simply technologically impressive and nothing else.

Sure, Pixar films are technical stunners. Each film one-ups the previous one (have you seen WALL-E or Up?). But even if you couldn’t care less about the technical wizardry (and most 5 year olds don’t), a Pixar film is still a pleasure to watch.

Why? It has soul.

Everything from the story, to the characters, and the voice cast oozes with a human touch. The 3D animation is simply a cool way to display it all. But if it were animated in a more traditional 2D style, the soul of each film would remain intact. Technology isn’t a crutch for Pixar, it’s simply another way to excel.

Be the same with your designs. Add your humorous/angsty/enigmatic/philosophical/angry/etc soul to your designs. The best visual designs—and heck, artwork—conveys the artist’s soul. Yeah yeah, it sounds all artsy and abstract, but it’s true. The strokes, the subject matter, the color or textural choices, it all oozes that artist’s personal self.

So sure, that futuristic flame effect or whatever looks wicked cool. But it’s a matter of time before everyone else figures out how to create it – and soon after you see the brush or preset for it being sold on a template site.

Just how even though other studios catch up to Pixar soon after their latest film, it’s the Pixar films that remain the most memorable and family favorites.

5. Have Fun

If you have fun making a design, chances are your clients or users will have fun using or seeing it. In other words, the more you enjoy creating, the more others will enjoy it too.

Fun is a very obvious thing that’s hard to hide – which is a good thing. Fun is also contagious – also good. So never, ever forget to have fun when you design.

If you feel overwhelmed or frustrated and just feel like phoning in your designs, step back and take a break. Reconnect with why you got into designing in the first place. Do whatever it takes to start having fun again. If you don’t, you’ll become like all the countless other designers that create mediocre work primarily for the paycheck. As soon as a client finds a faster/cheaper alternative, they’ll dump you like a hot Mr. Potato Head (here we go with the Toy Story references again).

Just like with lesson #4, Pixar simply has fun creating their films. Watch any making-of, behind-the-scenes footage, documentary, or interviews with members of the studio – they absolutely love working there. And that plays a huge role in making their films so enjoyable to watch. Much more than the many me-too 3D animation films that are made primarily for the money.

Fun is your secret weapon to really improve and grow in your design career. And the best part is it’s simple to pull off – simply, um, have fun when you design.

Conclusion – Your Turn Now

Pixar doesn’t only create 3D film masterpieces, they unknowingly dish out really useful design lessons as well. The fact that Pixar profitably creates visual content for others just makes the parallel between it and designers all the more clear.

Seeing how ridiculously popular yet critically acclaimed the studio’s body of work is, it’d be silly not to look up to it for inspiration.

Are there any other critical design lessons you’ve picked up either from Pixar or your favorite animation studio, film or show?


  1. Anonymous says

    Very cool article! I strongly agree on #3 and #5. Those also apply almost everywhere, even in blogging :)

  2. Timbomckay says

    Just to be that guy, there’s only been one year since Finding Nemo in 2003 that Pixar hasn’t had a movie, but that’s just because they’ve been able to hire multiple teams to work on 2 movies at a time since the rise of Pixar. I agree though, can learn a lot from the way Pixar, Blizzard or Hayao Miyazaki do work. Blizzard’s motto is “It’ll be ready when it’s ready.” Granted you can’t really tell a client that, but it enforces the “Don’t rush it out before it’s ready” rule. There’s also a reason why Dreamworks and other animation studio movies are talked about how close to “Pixar-quality” they’ve come. Or even in the Anime genre with being compared to Miyazaki. So I guess a good suggestion would be to look at some portfolio/sites that you look up to and see how close you are to “Spryestudios-quality”, or Webdesignerwall-quality, or Envato-quality, or what have you? Kind of depends on what category of design work you’re in. “Apple-quality” would be a good one, but that might be setting your standard a little high.

  3. Mike says

    Great post and good points. I have always loved Pixar in general. As an note for a multi-billion dollar company (Toy Story 3 alone has surpassed 1 billion dollars in movie sales worldwide) they have one of the lamest websites. From time to time I check back to see if they have upgraded it but it is the basic site and graphics for the most part that they have had for many, many years.

  4. says

    Such a great article. Beautifully structured and in depth – without missing the core points. It also helps that I love Pixar and their philosophy. Thank you!

  5. says

    Nice one with the Hayao Miyazaki example. Couldn’t agree more. He’s a genius and my favorite filmmaker of all time. Spirited Away is a bona fide masterpiece, as is Nausicaa and the others.

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