What ad agencies can learn from the Imagineers

The lessons learned from the amazing, diverse team of the Walt Disney Imagineers can be applied to design and development agencies trying to innovate in the modern age. Weather it's agile project development or the creation of digtal style guides (UI Patterns), this is one team who set the standard for cutting-edge design and collaboration.

By Mark Butt

Walt Disney Imagineering is the design and development arm of the Walt Disney Company, responsible for the creation and construction of Disney theme parks worldwide. Founded by Walt Disney in 1952 to oversee the production of Disneyland Park, it was originally known as WED Enterprises, from the initials Walter Elias Disney.

The term Imagineering, a portmanteau, was popularized in the 1940s by Alcoa to describe its blending of imagination and engineering, and adopted by Walt Disney a decade later to describe the skill set embodied by the employees of WDI, known as Imagineers.

Imagineering is responsible for designing and building Disney theme parks, resorts, cruise ships, and other entertainment venues at all levels of project development. Imagineers possess a broad range of skills and talents, and thus over 140 different job titles fall under the banner of Imagineering, including illustrators, architects, engineers, lighting designers, show writers, graphic designers, and many more.

I think its safe to stay that Disney has a pretty good gig going on. Interactive, multimedia, rides, real talking robots, and the deepest pockets a mouse has ever seen. There is no doubt about it, Disney productions have captured billions & billions of views over the past half a century. Any advertising agency would be fantastically successful with a fraction of their views. You don’t have to build your own theme park to apply some of these hard-earned lessons in interaction / experience design. The following principles are derived from Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real, written by The Imagineers.

Storytelling is everything

Colour, check. Motion in frame, check. Balanced forms, check. But in the end, even the abstract section of Fantasia told little stories. Compare this Do’s & Don’t list of Disney storytelling against your own agencies recent ads. Does your work fit in the Disney mould, and if not, why not?

  • DO choose length wisely (and inform your graphic recorder *wink*).
  • DO be careful about claiming someone else’s story as your own.
  • DO use inclusive language (be careful of acronyms).
  • DO use plain-speak.
  • DO practice (If you say you will make 3 points, you want to remember to state all 3).
  • DON’T begin with “I want to tell you a story.”
  • DON’T characterize the story as “This is a really funny story.” The audience can decide.
  • DON’T muddle the point by fussing with statistics. It just matters that action happened.


The official definition of “eyewash” is “Graphics and set work that add atmosphere to an area but do not draw too much attention; for instance, the labelling on crates in Tom Sawyer Island.” It’s close to the visual equivalent of “back story” in acting. The performance is enhanced by thousands of little details the audience may never be aware of. Take the time to make your work believable, even if it means you have to believe in it yourself.

Maintain a modular approach to design and code

You work all night, make your pitch, and the client hates it. Is all that time wasted? It doesn’t have to be. Nature reuses everything, and Disney isn’t far behind. Take a look through this video of movements recycled on different character frames. Sure it saves money, but the underlying message is: Trust yourself. Your creative engine produces quality if you can just process it through the right design.


The idea behind interactive design is that passive visuals activate one region of the brain, while moving sights and sounds fire off neurons all across the mindscape. There are three more senses to go, and Disney works them all. You don’t need restaurants and guys in Goofy suits, you need to bring as much sensory data to the limitations of your media. Try to get across how a smell looks or a sound feels. A design studio in Brazil found a way to create a touchable logo for the Paralympic Games. In this case, it is perfect way to communicate accessibility.

Recursive ornamentation

This builds on the first two principles. Excessive ornamentation is gaudy. Recursive means going back into the design and telling more stories by elaborating on finer details. Disney films are not for kids. That’s where the imitation animation studios got it wrong. Disney is known for its attention to details & diversity, for different age groups, for higher levels of understanding, alternate for alternate focus. Apprentice imagineers are commonly instructed to widen their knowledge base so they can bring it all into play.

No matter what Disney says, it’s not magic. These are carefully honed strategies & tactics designed to achieve specific outcomes. That doesn’t make the productions any less magical, but it never hurts to remind yourself that in the end it’s all a show and that entertainment itself is the ultimate measure of a campaign’s success.

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