Disney design exec touts good ol' pen and paper

Imagineering honcho says old-fashioned tools are as important as modern technology in creating virtual worlds.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
2 min read
Designers and animators should learn more about the real world before sitting down to create a fake one.

That's the message from Joe Rohde, executive designer and vice president with Walt Disney Imagineering. Rohde delivered a keynote address Tuesday at Siggraph 2006, the leading conference for the computer graphics industry, and he said designers need to take time away from their keyboards and tablets to get out and talk to people and to sketch their surroundings.

Rohde said computer graphics specialists could improve their craft by employing some of the same techniques Disney has used for years to create its own "virtual realities" for visitors to its theme parks.

Photo of Joe Rohde
Joe Rohde

"Instead of uniting with words, we unite with the objects we're seeing," Rohde said of both kinds of virtual world creators. Members of the computer graphics community need to see themselves as storytellers and think of story structure in a nonlinear way. As a result, each object within a virtual world must convey the overall theme of a work. Rohde also emphasized that not all visitors to a space are created equal. Designers need to create for those who enjoy the challenge of inference as well as those who need themes spelled out for them.

Rohde oversees the design and development of Disney's Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. To prepare for the design of the Expedition Everest thrill ride, Rohde took a team of designers and scientists to study the Himalayan region. In addition to examining the animal species and plants, the teams went from village to village in the surrounding areas and talked to Tibetan and Nepalese people.

During his speech, Rohde stressed that pen and paper can be as important as modern graphics technology as a way to achieve authenticity. In the past, he said, technological constraints were constructive in some ways because they forced people to be both creative and collaborative, as in elaborate medieval theater. Now we have increased our ability to create and for individuals to have the power to do small things really well on their own, but we are losing the ability to do big things together, he said.

"Sketching helps remember the holistic experience. The act of sketching fuels memory and will help when you go into final art direction," Rohde said. Collaboration and real-world experience will add authenticity. "It will help you tell the 'why'--the thing that drives your story," he said.