The Field Research Behind Zootopia

This weekend, my little humans watched Zootopia for the ump-teenth time. After the film, we watched the bonus feature, “Research: A True-Life Adventure.”

It tells the story about how the directors and creative team dove into animal research before making the film. As explained by Director, Byron Howard:

[John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar] said if you guys are gonna do an animated animal film you really have to go and become experts on all of these subjects. You have to find out about how animals behave. You have to find out how to build cities. How would animals live in that city. How would they design it. What kind of animals would even live there. You have to figure out what’s going to be unique about this world. So he said don’t think about story right now; just go off and do research.

First, the team visited Walt Disney Animal Kingdom theme park. They spoke with animal experts at the park and captured data on animal personalities and their physical movements.

Next they flew over the pond to dig deeper:

So as we’re figuring out what is specific to each animal, John [Lasseter] said “that’s all great but you guys really need to go where their world really is. You guys are going to go to Africa.”

– Byron Howard, Director

It was fascinating to learn that during the research in Africa they grew the plot of Zootopia. They refined and adapted the story. They developed characters and the Zootopia world. They cultivated creative and art direction.

The directors concluded the feature with these two comments:

People ask why we go on these research trips, and it’s those ideas, things you would’ve never thought of if you hadn’t been there in person with those animals.

– Byron Howard, Director


And that’s what’s great about these research trips, when you’re kind of seeing these new things, and you don’t know how they’re gonna really apply to the movie at first.

  • Rich Moore, Director

It’s hard to imagine what Zootopia could have been if they didn’t conduct such immersive research.

This feature nicely captured the value of getting out of the building and conducing discovery for your product.

Check it out:

Eames: Never Delegate Understanding

I recently watched a film on Charles & Ray Eames. It tells the story of their continuing influence in design. Scattered throughout the film were fascinating glimpses of their design process.

I don’t think I could summarize their processes better than this:

Perhaps more enduring than some of their designs was the method by which the team created: later dubbed the “Eames design process,” an intentionally cultivated unfamiliarity toward the problem at hand was regarded as the only way to begin work. Operating by the conviction to “never delegate understanding,” teams would approach assignments Socratically by asking fundamental questions that manufacturers had lost sense of. They did their own research and testing, ceaselessly iterating to adapt products for those who actually used them, and for how they used them. By so doing, they kept a powerfully creative tension between intellectual and artistic discipline and childlike curiosity which would become the permeating characteristic in all of their work.

– Brandon Dorn

How the film inspired me

Learning and researching can sometimes feel purely academic and heady. “I will understand this problem after I sit and listen and interview and watch.”

Watching the Eameses think through problems while experimenting reminded me of the value of learning that comes from building and testing. Much more can be learned of a problem when you try to solve for it.

Additionally, I was reminded to not just build and assume any first idea is on-point. I must learn; I must test. I must not pass on opportunities to deeply understand problems. Either at the outset when discovery is needed. Or through learning via experimentation.


Sellable Shirts

The quality control (QC) process of inspecting a shirt has one main function. It ensures that the shirt was constructed according to the specifications of the shirt designer.

Does the shirt have two equal sleeves? Yes, it does.

Are the buttons sewed on firmly? Yes, quite firm.

Are there holes for the collar-stays? Yes, there are.

Are the threads trimmed? Yes, they are.

A majestic QC sticker is placed in the most precarious spot of the shirt when it passes the QC process. Congratulations, shirt!

QC 16

Now consider this:

Would it be right to conclude that every shirt which appropriately earned a QC sticker is a sellable shirt?

Silly, no.

The QC process doesn’t verify that the shirt color is ugly as sin. It doesn’t ensure that the moisture-wicking technology is superior. It doesn’t verify that the shirt fits excellently for a size. It doesn’t determine that the price is right.

Guess what a shirt designer does when he wants to know if his shirt is sized well. Or if the color is pleasant. Or if the moisture-wicking technology functions right. Or if the price-point is appropriate.

He does research and prototype testing.

He talks to people about the color. He works with a fit model. He has adventurers test out the moisture-wicking. He tests his ideas of price-point.

In doing so, he avoids the costly risk of making shirts that no one wants.

Who Owns the Product Experience?

Whose throne is the driver’s seat of the Ford Mustang? Who feels the grip and glide of the steering wheel? Who moves with the pull of a sharp turn? Who commands the windshield wiper intervals during the sputtering rain?

Who wields the OXO whisk? Who clutches the soft, rigid handle? Whose wrists sweep into each pancake batter morsel? Who stuffs the whisk into the crammed dishwasher?

Who sinks their teeth into a Wendy’s hamburger? Who remembers the first and last bite? Onto whose lap slips the mustard-laced sliced pickle?


It’s the customer. They feel the nuances of a product. The customer experiences the product in all its glory … or shame. They own the experience of whatever product they are using or consuming.

Companies don’t own their customers experiences, nor can they design them. But, they certainly influence those experiences.