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What I learned from Walt Disney about Digital Product Design

Digital product design inherently spans multiple disciplines.


Product design is ubiquitous

Digital product design, by its nature, spans a multidisciplinary field. When contemplating how a website or app can integrate into people's lives or meet the needs of businesses, it's crucial to recognize that our product is part of a larger ecosystem where technological factors are just as significant as psychological, social, and economic ones. Metaphors and analogies from various domains assist us in positioning our digital artifact to be better understood and appreciated by people.

Looking beyond the strictly technical framework also allows us to continually reevaluate our role as digital designers, drawing inspiration from challenges and successes in other areas of communication and technology. For instance, I've recently found many thought-provoking ideas in Neal Gabler's book "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination", a detailed biography of the renowned "father" of Mickey Mouse.

AND EMILI specializes in development and strategic consulting for digital channels.

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Elevating the product through design

When Walt Disney entered the animation world upon his return from World War I, cartoons were a novelty to the audience, a "trick" whose role was to amuse through paradoxical situations strung together seamlessly for a few minutes' duration. Animation studios, in fact, operated improvisationally: as the animator concocted gags, they were immediately drawn and transferred to film.

Walt Disney was not satisfied with these outcomes; he harbored a much more ambitious vision. He believed that animation could evoke emotions and allow viewers to identify with stories and characters through greater psychological depth and narrative richness. From the late 1920s, he revolutionized the workflow of animation studios: the focus shifted to design and prototyping, which became key to enhancing the quality of animated products.

During the 1930s, the Walt Disney Studio introduced innovations that would become pillars of modern animation:

  • The department of storymen specialized in story ideation: they introduced storyboarding to visualize the narrative in its embryonic stage;
  • Story meetings: narratives and dialogues were performed on a stage (often by Disney himself) to discuss the project and engage the entire team;
  • Pencil tests: before inking and coloring the drawings, animators tested sequences by stringing together pencil drawings on inexpensive film to find the right comedic or dramatic effect;
  • Sweatbox sessions: the team periodically gathered to watch pencil test footage on a Moviola machine to identify problems and areas for improvement;
  • The division between animators, tasked with characters, and layout artists specialized in backgrounds and settings.

Thanks to these innovations, Disney achieved the creation of the first feature-length animated film in history (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937) and an unprecedented success of animation as an expressive medium, surpassing limits others had taken for granted.

puffo-brontolonePencil test by Bill Tytla for the character Grumpy — © Disney

disney- e- i- suoi -animatori -durante- una -sweatbox- sessionDisney and his animators during a sweatbox session


From Snow White to digital design

There are many parallels between the process introduced by Disney Studios and the evolution of digital product design over the past 20 years. We started with "webmasters," true one-man bands (like the early animators) who handled all aspects of a website, from graphic design to back-end programming to systems management. The website was the "wonder" to showcase to clients and competitors: technology was the focus.

Over time, we learned that it was necessary to have a holistic view of the digital product that went beyond mere technological data. Thanks to the "Walt Disneys" of digital design, such as Don Norman, we began to design sites and apps with the users in mind: their needs, expectations, timing, and places of use; we started thinking about User Experience. We can say that UX in digital product design is what viewer identification with the story was for Walt Disney: the empathetic connection that allows for engagement with the user, satisfying real needs and aspirations.

Therefore, digital product design has increasingly focused on design, discussion, and listening. The process has been revolutionized through the introduction of new roles and phases, just as Disney had done for animation:

  • Information architecture allows us to organize content into structures that are understandable and navigable for users;
  • Workshops with clients and stakeholders enable us to uncover opportunities and critical issues to focus on;
  • Wireframes allow us to review and discuss layout and interactivity before entering the development phase;
  • Low and medium fidelity prototyping enables us to test our product's behavior before a single line of code is written;
  • The separation of UX professionals, focused on understanding and describing users, from UI designers, specialized in graphic design, ensures that each phase of research, ideation and implementation receives the necessary attention.

Indeed, it's rare to witness epochal leaps and cultural impacts like what Walt Disney imprinted on the 20th-century imagination. However, as digital professionals, we know our work is constantly changing because the ways people work, communicate, and entertain themselves change with technology. Looking back at the greats of the past and the challenges they faced can inspire us in our next process or paradigm shift. It reminds us that our job title is written in pencil, and reinventing our work is part of the job itself.

AND EMILI specializes in development and strategic consulting for digital channels.

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