22 Lessons Pixar's Storytelling Rules Can Teach About Design

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An ultimate dream of mine would be to work for Pixar Animation. I absolutely love their movies and storytelling style. Their stories cross all ages in application; no matter how old you are, Pixar movies can teach you something. Pixar's storytelling rules outline the formula that they follow in creating their movies, but these rules can also be applied to design. I adapted the rules to be used as design rules.  

Pixar's storytelling rules outline the formula that they follow in creating their movies, but these rules can also be applied to design.

Pixar’s Rules for Designers

  1. Pixar: “You admire a character more for trying than for their successes” Design: “You will admire yourself more for trying than for your successes.” Sometimes you have to fight for your dream. It makes you a stronger person and builds confidence. Keep putting your work out there and be passionate about it. People will take notice.
  2. Pixar: “Keep in mind what’s interesting to an audience not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.” Design: “Keep in mind what’s interesting for a consumer to see, not what’s fun to do a a designer. They can be very different.” 

    If you do design work for a client, you have to keep their brand and message in mind when designing. The design has to convey their message, not yours.

  3. Pixar: “Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.” Design: “Trying for a theme is important, but you won’t see the whole message the design conveys until you finish it. Now redesign.” 

    Sometimes when you finish a design idea, you realize the message got lost somewhere along the way. Analyze your design and then redesign.

  4. Pixar: “Once upon a time there was ______. Every day _____. One day ______. Because of that, ______.  Because of that, ______. Until finally _______.” Design: “Sketch thumbnails. Refine. Add color. Make changes. Final design.” 

    Pixar has a story formula, just like designers have a design process. Experiment and find your process. Steps may be added or taken away depending on you and the design.

  5. Pixar: “Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.” Design: “Simplify. Focus. Combine elements. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.” 

    When you finish a design, try taking away elements and see if it takes away from the message. Each element in a design should have a purpose. If an element doesn’t, it isn’t necessary. Make the message conveyance as simple as possible.

  6. Pixar: “What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?” Design: “What are you, as a designer, good it, comfortable with? Try the polar opposite. Challenge yourself. How do you feel about it?” 

    Trying new things can be a huge inspiration. Focusing on a project that is just for fun allows your mind to wander and that’s when inspiration can strike. Just do things because you enjoy them to set your mind free.

  7. Pixar: “Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.” Design: “Come up with a sketch of your design before you figure out all the details like color and font. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours sketched out up front.” 

    Making sure your design works in its simplest form is the best place to start. Have the size and scale part of visual hierarchy set before you add other elements. If it is a logo, knowing it works in black & white is important because many times it will need to be used in that format. Designs can’t always rely on color.”

  8. Pixar: “Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.” Design: “Finish your design, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.” 

    This rule doesn’t change from storytelling to design. It applies the same way. Done is better than perfect so just finish it and then put it aside. You will get better with practice so your next try will be better.

  9. Pixar: “When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next...lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.” Design: “When you’re stuck on a design, make a list of elements or principles you wouldn’t use for the design...lots of times the element or principle you should use will show up.” 

    When I was trying to flip this rule around, I wasn’t sure if it would work, but thinking through all the things you don’t want to do, can sometimes open up the box and give you an idea of what you do want to do. Worth a try if you get stuck!

  10. Pixar: “Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.” Design: “Pull apart the designs you like. What you like in them is a part of you, you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.” 

    As Austin Kleon says, you have to steal like an artist. Don’t take an entire design and claim it as your own, but take elements you like from different places to create your own style. Experiment with different elements and see what sticks.

  11. Pixar: “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.” Design: “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.” 

    This is another rule that is easily applicable to design without any change. Get your design ideas on paper (carry a notebook everywhere) so you can get to work on it and share it.

  12. Pixar: “Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th--get the obvious out-of-the-way. Surprise yourself.” Design: “Discount the 1st design that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th--get the obvious out-of-the-way. Surprise yourself.” 

    Another rule that easily translates to design. Get your first few ideas out of your system so you can get to unexpected designs.

  13. Pixar: “Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.” Design: “Have an opinion. Passive/malleable might seem likable, but it’s poison for your design.” 

    Having an opinion is one of James Victore’s rules for designers and artists. Your opinions mold your personal design style and process. They get reflected in your designs.

  14. Pixar: “Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning with you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it?” Design: “Why must you design this idea? What’s the passion burning with you that your design feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” 

    Understanding the why behind what you do can really fuel your design. Find your passion, find your why, and get to heart of what you do.

  15. Pixar: “If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.” Design: “If you were the audience, looking at your design, what do you feel? Understanding lends credibility to your design’s message” 

    This rule was a hard one to flip since it has to do with the feelings of a character. Since designs don’t have feelings, only convey them, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a person seeing your design: What do they see first? What does the design make them feel? Is that what the design is supposed to make them feel?

  16. Pixar: “What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.” Design: “What is the message for the design? Give us a reason to root for the cause. What happens if the message isn’t conveyed? Make sure the message is conveyed simply and concisely.” 

    The Pixar rule is basically about a character’s motivations for what they want to do. So I thought about the motivation behind a design. All designs have a message, and a lot of designs are trying to motivate a viewer to do something (think ads, event posters, etc.). If the design needs to motivate an action, test the design with friends to see if that message is conveyed.

  17. Pixar: “No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on--it’ll come back around to be useful later.” Design: “No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on--it’ll come back around to be useful later.” 

    This rule is similar to #8. If the design isn’t working, put it aside and work on something else. You may come back to the design and find a solution or take elements from that design for another design.

  18. Pixar: “You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing not refining.” Design: “You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Design takes experimentation before refining.” 

    At the beginning of the design process, don’t get caught up in the little details. Experiment and decide the overall layout of the work before focusing on colors, textures, and other design elements. Let yourself experiment and try things that you didn’t think would look good. You never know how it could turn out.

  19. Pixar: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” Design: “Don’t take shortcuts in creating a design. Create original work.” 

    It’s a bit of a stretch, but this is an important design rule. Don’t use other people’s work and claim it as your own. Create work you can be proud of because you designed it yourself. Be original.

  20. Pixar: “Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How do you rearrange them into what you do like?” Design: “Exercise: take the building blocks of a design you dislike. How do you rearrange them into a design you do like.” 

    This is a great design exercise. Find some designs that you don’t necessarily like and rearrange the elements into a better design. This is a good exercise for beginning designers, but also a good way to experiment with q new design or ideas.

  21. Pixar: “You have to identify with your situation and characters. You can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make you act that way?” Design: “You have to identify with your viewer. You can’t just say that the element looks cool. What would make you react the way you want your viewer to react?” 

    Keep the viewer of your design in mind when deciding elements and ideas to use. Have a good reason for every element that you include in the design and make sure that it causes the same reaction out of you that you want your viewer to have.

  22. Pixar: “What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.” Design: “What’s the essence of your design? Most efficient design? If you know that, you can build out from there.” 

    Start with the most basic design that conveys the message you want to convey. Then you can add elements and build up the design.


Use these design rules to help you make your next design as good as a Pixar movie! lol :P Would you change any of the flipped Pixar rules? Comment below.