Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

A book review by: Peggy Barnwell
Buffalo State College


This book presents a non-fictional account of the humble beginnings of Pixar Animation Studios through the lens of it’s creator, and visionary, Ed Catmull. Printed in hardcover, the text is an autobiographical exploration into the barriers that hamper creative expression and the leadership necessary to produce an environment essential for creative output.

This is the riveting story of a partnership between Ed Catmull, John Lasseter and Steve Jobs that stresses the importance of understanding human interaction in order to “foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions … to find, develop, and support good people, (who) in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.” 

This is a story that emphasizes the key role creative leadership plays in the development of an inspired culture that unleashes creative potential.


A computer scientist, Ed Catmull always dreamed of being a filmmaker and wanted to tell stories through moving cartoon pictures. However, early experimentation with flipbooks made it obvious that his talents did not lie with animated drawing. Undaunted, he was convinced he could make superior 3D animated films and set his efforts upon realizing that dream. There was one paramount concern; there currently wasn’t the technology that made 3D animation possible, he would have to invent it.

Beginning in 1972, Catmull spent 10 weeks making a short film of his left hand in digitalized fashion. In 1974, he was hired to run a start up business known as the New York Institute of Technology, whose mission was to “bring computers into the animation process.” Ed soon realized that funds to buy equipment and hire innovators in the world of computer animation weren’t enough to make good films and tell believable stories. 

In 1977, George Lucas approached Catmull to head up a department at Lucasfilms developing special effects for upcoming projects. It’s during his tenure that he began to realize his hierarchal management model was not the best way to motivate creative individuals. He started to adopt the viewpoint of George Lucas himself and began believing the managerial process should be about “moving toward something – of having not yet arrived”. He began to understand how tolerances for ambiguity and openness to new experiences were necessary for good creative leadership. 

Creativity, Inc. is not a story of innovation in computer animation and story-telling, rather it’s a culmination of experiences and managerial experiments that led Ed Catmull on a path of discovery, to truly understand the effectiveness of creative leadership.

In 1986 Lucasfilms was sold to Steve Jobs and renamed Pixar Image Computer, a software
development company that was allowed to dabble in computer animation. It wasn’t until a 3-picture deal with Disney was negotiated that Pixar realized their true core values. They were a creative company, “a culture of candour and freedom and the kind of constructive self-criticism that allowed our people, and the movies they made, to evolve into their best selves.”

One of the key principles Pixar depended on was, “trust the process…. Pixar was a place that gave artists running room, that gave directors control, that trusted its people to solve problems.” The climate fostered by Catmull, and his team, firmly supported the development of people. He believed that the creation of a safe environment allowed people to make mistakes and from most mistakes came great solutions and better direction. Pixar trusted that giving employees the freedom to make errors helped them interpret failure as “a manifestation of learning and exploration.” 

He encouraged practices such as Braintrusts, Randomness and Notes Days that supported honesty, candour, brainstorming and constructive criticism, bringing Pixar closer to greater insights that would lead to better ideas.

Pixar believed in the creation of spaces that steered employees into “accidental mingling”, random spaces where anyone could run into anyone and share ideas. “Steve understood that creativity wasn’t linear.” He believed that creativity was not a solidary endeavour and he made sure the plan of the new Pixar building of the early 2000’s, “was designed to encourage people to mingle, meet, and communicate…” He realized the importance of the creative climate and planned meeting rooms, theatres, game areas, and eating spaces to stimulate “cross trafficking”, producing better opportunities for improved flow of communication between employees. In addition, employees were urged to decorate their office spaces to reflect their individuality and creative core. 


Catmull takes the reader on a true adventure of creativity summarizing the key principles, and creative language, that has been foremost in our creativity studies. Mindfulness, authenticity, openness, self-awareness, freedom to make mistakes, creative climate, tolerance for ambiguity and complexity are common themes shared throughout the book. The illustrations offered by the author demonstrate how these principles can be woven into the managerial fabric of highly successful corporations, while staying true to the company’s original philosophies and ideals. 

Although the creative product produced by Pixar could be argued as living in the “Arts” world, it’s profits and public shares immortalize it in the world of finance and accountability to shareholders. This book is an excellent illustration of the practicality of creative leadership and how adopting core creative principles can lead to true innovation and profits.


Peggy Barnwell is currently an Advertising Professor with the Pilon School of Business at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario Canada with a strong interest in building creativity into the teaching curriculum, and highlighting CPS in practical business applications. She spent the early part of her career in the advertising industry developing marketing communications campaigns for a variety of private sector and non-profit clients. Peggy is also a member of the National Consumer Response Panel for Advertising Standards Canada and is currently completing her Masters Degree in Creativity at Buffalo State College. 


Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, inc. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book Review: Creating Innovators

A book review by: Beverly Zapatka Weihz 
Buffalo State College

In his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner sets out to tackle the question so many are now asking, “How do we raise and educate the children who will take the United States forward as a viable contender in innovation?” In an age of high stakes testing based primarily on rote memorization, and very little creativity in classroom teaching due to the preparation for such tests, there is good reason to be concerned. Wagner seeks answers through a series of interviews with a variety of sources: established innovator Kirk Phelps, young STEM innovators, social innovators, parents, mentors and teachers of these innovators, and schools that are conscientiously trying to address the factors missing in most curriculums and classrooms. Through these interviews, themes begin to emerge; themes that certainly suggest what is working with the innovators featured and could work in creating new ones. Wagner concludes his findings in his final chapter, The Future of Innovation, followed by a call to action in his Epilogue: Letter to a Young Innovator. Wagner furthers the innovative theme by including video web links with each story. Readers get a deeper connection with the subjects of the book through short clips that help complete the picture through visual and audio technology.

Wagner begins his book by establishing the need for creating innovators in the United States. He cites examples of the decline in producing creative and innovative thinkers and discusses whether innovation can be taught and what elements are believed to strengthen innovative and creative thinking skills. He refers specifically to the work of Teresa Amabile of Harvard University, who lists three crucial elements in expanding the capacity for creativity or innovation: Expertise or knowledge, creative thinking skills and problem solving, and motivation. Wagner breaks motivation down into three parts: play, passion, and purpose, and proposes that it is how parents, teachers, mentors and employers encourage these three factors that make a difference in the lives of young innovators.

The bulk of Creating Innovators is spent on systematically interviewing young innovators, their parents, and their mentors or teachers, whom they named as making a difference. Wagner acknowledges that while most of these young innovators are what one would consider to be “gifted,” there is still much to be learned from their upbringings and experiences. First and foremost, the parents of those highlighted played a key role in their success, but not in the ways that one might expect. These parents did not overschedule their children and did not map out a perfect plan. Instead they acknowledged their children as individuals who have their own ideas and intrinsic interests. They encouraged and helped them to pursue these interests by providing learning opportunities outside of school when the school did not offer it and they were not hung up on grades or end results. They allowed their children to explore, play, and fail. Apple innovator, Kirk Phelps dropped out of school twice, once in high school and once in graduate school, both times with the support of his parents. They found that the schools were getting in the way of his learning: an unfortunate phenomenon that is also common amongst our featured innovators, except when a certain teacher or mentor made a difference.

Many of the featured innovators, in addition to having supportive parents, had a teacher or mentor who made a difference in their education and ultimate success. These teachers are outliers in their own right, both on the secondary high school level and in college, making choices that go against the prescribed way of teaching and focus, sometimes at a cost to the teacher. Like the parents, they understand the importance of allowing students to pursue their passions, to problem solve, to take risks, to experiment, to play, to fail and try again. They allow for students to make choices in their pursuits and to include a multitude of disciplines, making connections across curriculums. On the college level, these teachers acknowledge that because of their choices of student focus over research, they will never receive tenure. The educational systems whose primary purpose should be to produce the problem solvers of tomorrow are failing not only at this task, but also in seeing how some are actually succeeding. The teachers featured here get it: they know that their success and satisfaction is acknowledged through the students whose lives they inspire and change.

Wagner goes onto to discuss schools that are starting to implement change on a bigger level with a specific focus on Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts. Olin College is a small undergraduate engineering school that was created specifically to explore a different style of teaching and learning with a “more hands-on, multi-disciplinary approach that better supports the actual engineering practice.” The school places strong emphasis on collaboration, multi-disciplinary learning, creating things, intellectual risk taking, trial and error and student empowerment through intrinsic motivation and pursuit of passion. Olin College and the other schools mentioned serve as inspiring examples of the kind of teaching and learning we can aspire to.

Wagner ends essentially with a call to action, one that I as a parent and an educator, hear loud and clear. His book and research highlight and validate many of the same elements that I as a graduate student in the Creative Studies program at Buffalo State College have come to see as important in teaching for creativity and innovation. Although the book features essentially the lives and successes of “gifted” individuals, the information translates to teaching students of all abilities with specific attention to the motivation of these students by encouraging the pursuit of play, passion and purpose. The acknowledgement of the teachers, who made a difference in the lives of the featured innovators, as outliers, inspires for me a revolutionary approach; as if I am a member of a secret society of knowledge. And in fact, I am. Until the people who make the decisions see the value in this kind of teaching and learning, we are the revolutionaries and outliers. We must take the risks or we will continue to do things as they have always been done and nothing will, in fact, change.

About Beverly Zapatka Weihz: 
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is currently a student in Buffalo State College’s distance learning program, seeking her graduate degree in Creative Studies and Change Leadership. She lives on a small farm in northwestern New Jersey with her husband and children. She teaches art and media communications at Phillipsburg High School.