Inside Disney’s iD8 Innovation Studios

By Scott Kirsner |  December 11, 2013

Few 90-year-old businesses have been as consistently innovative over such a long stretch as the Walt Disney Company, founded in 1923. Based in Burbank, California, Disney is the largest media conglomerate in the world by revenue ($42 billion in 2012), and its profits last year set a new company record ($5.7 billion.) Disney has about 166,000 employees, or “cast members,” to use the term the company prefers.

We spoke recently with one cast member, Christopher Chapman, Disney’s global creativity and innovation director, to understand how Disney creates digital and physical spaces for innovation and teamwork. Chapman, who was previously an art director and designer at Disney, also shared some exclusive photos of Disney’s new iD8 Studios in Orlando and Anaheim. You can follow him on Twitter: @ChapmanCatalyst.

Where We Fit in The Organization

Our team, Disney Creative Inc., lives within the Disney Parks & Resorts global marketing group. Although we reside in that business unit, we are an internal creativity and innovation agency that can be used by any division within the entire organization. Disney Creative Inc. has ten Cast Members. Creative Inc. started roughly ten years ago, and it is headed by my boss and our Vice President, Duncan Wardle.

What We Do

We are a group of internal consultants who train and practice a design thinking process developed in collaboration with a cross-discipline group of experts and organizations. In addition to our innovation efforts, we bring in speakers, support an internal ideation website, and develop physical workplace environments. We’ve done two of those recently, called iD8, first in Orlando and then in Anaheim. [See pictures below.]

The Disney Creative Lab

Our website for ideation and collaboration, the Creative Lab, is a virtual destination for employees to perform open-source ideation and report on industry trends. We also have an event called Creative Couch, during which we collect the most popular ideas and trends from the Creative Lab and present them in a company-wide forum. The goal of Creative Couch is for people to share ideas, inspire each other with conversation, contribute to ideas, and muse over which of the ideas and trends may best support or stimulate new thinking in his or her respective divisions.

We built the Creative Lab from the ground up with an outside vendor who did the developer execution. We’re currently refining the site and evolving it to the next level. The Disney Creative Lab site has three components: Buzz, Ideas, and Brainstorms. Buzz is anything you’ve seen, heard, read, or experienced recently that you want to post about — most are digital experiences. It could be a new technology, a marketing campaign, even an interesting product. Buzz is about sharing trends, posting interesting things, and facilitating an online conversation about what is posted. A piece of Buzz can potentially become an idea.

The Ideas and Brainstorms sections are about discussing the right place to use any idea, and the right strategy for implementation. The site has been up for about two-and-a half-years, and there are all sorts of ideas that have been directly implemented, or products or services that have been tangentially inspired, ranging from merchandise, sales, marketing, and more. Just about every discipline has been affected from the work on the site, from merchandise to dining to entertainment to sales and HR.

Space for Creativity

We also consult with groups on their workspace and collaboration space. Your desk is a place where you execute, not the best place to come up with ideas. Our collaboration spaces — iD8 in Florida and California are two examples — are places for people to hold innovation sessions, do presentations or get hands-on work. To further the engagement, we put a coffee location into iD8. The space has a garage door and white walls, a library, an interactive whiteboard, modular furniture, and projectors that splash graphics on the wall. There’s also a tech room to showcase new technologies and create digital engagements. It feels like a highly-energized student union when you walk in. We felt we needed to have a place for collaboration, presentation, and contemplation. (Top-notch snacks, left, are also key.)

There is a reason that the best startups happen in garages, apartments, and dorm rooms. Those small spaces give us a sense of intimacy, purpose, and fun. Spaces don’t need to feel so serious. That’s what we tried to accomplish with iD8. We have created one in Florida, one that just opened in the Anaheim Disneyland offices. Those are in addition to the other spaces that we have consulted on.The iD8 spaces are open to absolutely anybody, but they need to be used for something related to creativity and innovation. You can’t book a weekly team meeting download in these spaces. We also block out time to socialize, or even participate in some unplanned collaboration. 

Design Thinking

Edward de Bono is a creativity researcher who talks about a notion he calls rivers of thinking and how we often get stuck in them. Staying in the same kind of thinking creates a kind of “river.” That river comprises of all of our knowledge focus areas. Rivers of thinking are good for tasks or challenges that require information. But sometimes companies rely on those same rivers to repeat past successes without innovating. So it’s very important to have tools that deliberately and momentarily take us outside of those rivers of thinking so we can be more creative.

Disney Creative Inc. developed a process that is part Design Thinking, part Creative Problem Solving. The first part of our process is all about setting a vision, aligning people around it, inspiring them to think big, and reach beyond their metaphorical grasp. The next stage, explore, is all about research and pulling insights from the world in which we live. We then create challenges from the hypothesis we gain from those insights. The next phase is all about creating ideas inspired from our insights and other research. The final stage is all about making sure that the ideas are analyzed correctly for evaluation.

That last phase is also about nurturing ideas further, utilizing expansionist thinking to ensure those idea have the potential to move forward and be implemented with excellence.We do two-day training sessions using this process to help infuse the creativity and innovation into every aspect of our working and even personal lives. We also train groups on the psychology of creativity in the work place. We recently worked with a cross-disciplinary team of 17 people in Hong Kong. We trained the team in the process for the first two days, and went right into a three-month innovation project using that same process.There is no better way to infuse learnings than some hands-on work and play.

How We View Innovation

Innovation is something that is both new and useful, which generates a return on investment. The return can be financial, but it can also be emotional. If a guest spends time with Disney or our products, making them happy in the process, that is a kind of ROI. So our definition of ROI is multi-faceted.

Why We Exist

Somebody has to be waking, living, breathing, and dreaming all of this stuff. I guide, inspire, come up with ideas, collaborate, educate, and nudge people in the right direction. But my job isn’t mostly about the ideas I have. It’s fundamentally about helping others self-actualize, recognize their creative abilities, and be emotionally invested in their work.


We don’t have an active measurement for our group. But one thing we look at is how many people are reaching out to work with us. And the proof is in the pudding. Our output isn’t only concrete — it includes provoking different thinking. It’s also about the journey to develop something new and solve problems. Was there less pain? Was it more efficient? Did we really, truly innovate? In addition to measuring ourselves, we also measure projects by seeing if the output matches the vision we established in the beginning of the project. This measurement is critical to achieving what we set out to do in the first place on any given assignment.

On Leadership

Leaders protect, inspire, improve, and guide. People like Walt Disney or Steve Jobs set a vision that was aspirational, and both knew how to protect their teams from all the things that could derail them. Both leaders knew how to inspire people, send them in the right direction, and give them enough autonomy.

Walt did a great job of protecting people from having to worry about financial concerns, but it was a much smaller company back then. Now, we’re bringing all different disciplines to our creative process early instead of going to them when a concept is ready for market. In doing so, many disciplines are brought in to give perspective. And that perspective includes designers, lawyers, engineers, salespeople, finance representatives, and more. The process humanizes everyone by having different functions working together, instead of passing the baton from one department to another and staying in our respective silos. But even though you’re doing it collaboratively, you need to allow people to go off and do what they do best. The finance guy can contribute to the logo, but he’s not the one doing it from start to finish.

Ideas Aren’t Enough

Ideas are easy. The hard part is pulling together the right minds and insights to ensure that the end user is going to be happy, and you’re going to be able to execute on the vision.