15 Design tips to learn from apple

There is no shortage of companies that follow popular design trends to appeal to a mass market. Much more rare is the breed of company that actually sets design trends. Today we’ll examine the techniques of a company that occupies the top of the design food chain: Apple.

Below you’ll find 15 practical ways to follow Apple’s example in creating beautiful interfaces.


#1: Keep it Simple


Take a look at Apple’s homepage and don’t think about what you see, but what you don’t see. I’ll give you a hint, it’s all over this site (no not this very site, click the link silly). The answer of course is visual clutter. A homepage is supposed to tell users everything about your company, to communicate all your product categories in detail, to list endless features, and to showcase your logo as big as possible. Right? According to Apple: wrong.

Apple’s homepage simply shows off their most recent work and provides you with a few easily understood categories to help you get to the information you want to see. Granted, odds are you aren’t designing for a remarkably ubiquitous company that needs no introduction. However, you can still use minimal but attractive design to increase usability.

Imagine you’re driving up to an airport. As you drive along you are simultaneously hit with five or six signs containing maps with the locations for everything from terminals right down to handicap accessible restrooms. The argument the map designer would make is that he gave you all the information you needed to get anywhere you wanted to go. You would no doubt quip back that his fault was in giving it to you all at once as you were driving by at 20 mph. Now imagine you are at Sky Harbor, Phoenix Arizona’s remarkably easy-to-navigate airport. As you pull in you see a sign that says “Hello, welcome to Sky Harbor. There are three terminals”. Then as you drive along, you reach more signs, each with a brief description of what airlines fly into each terminal and where to go for arrivals or departures. The feeling you get as you drive into Sky Harbor is “Wow, this is easy!”

Apple takes the same approach to interface design. Rather than hitting you with everything they’ve got in the name of usability, they use smaller bits of information to lead you to the place that holds the content you’re really after. Look at the site you’re working on and consider how you can break the complex information up into smaller pieces that the user won’t find overwhelming.

#2: Use Amazing Product Shots


One of Apple’s principle reasons for cutting back on superfluous graphics on their site is to really showcase what’s important: their products. Just look at the shots they use; it’s nearly impossible to look at a page on the Apple site and not have your eyes focus on the products for seconds on end.

There are several things that make these products look so incredible. The first is that they are obviously pristine. Chalk this one up to digital imaging experts. I haven’t seen exactly how they do it, but the combination is likely a mixture of photography, 3D modeling (take your pick: Modo, Lightwave, Maya, etc.), and of course, Photoshop.

The next thing they do is to make them take up a huge portion of the page. If you spend hours making a beautiful package shot and then size it down to a thumbnail, it’s simply not as overwhelmingly impressive. Notice that Apple also frequently includes multiple products arranged in an attractive way as in the picture above.

The lesson here is to not just take a photo of your product and call it a day. Spend the time to make it look fantastic. Whether it’s a can of refried beans or a Lexus, do your best to make a great hero shot.


Don’t believe that you can make your non-tech product look as good as Apple stuff? Check out We Shoot Cansas proof that a talented artist can make any product look good.

#3: Contrast is Key


Another thing that makes those Apple product shots look so darn great is the simple environment they drop them into. The human brain loves contrast. It’s the reason we stare at mountain ranges and the horizon over the ocean. It’s also the reason we say “oooooohhhh” when we see a black shiny iPhone on a flat white background. You should seek to apply selective contrast in every single design you create. Look for opportunities to use contrast with color, size, font thickness and anything else you have to work with.

Apple doesn’t just apply contrast to their product shots. Take a look at the pic above and think about what jumps out at you. It’s probably the big blue download button. Cruise around Apple’s site and you’ll see that nearly every time they want you to do something (buy, download, etc), they use a bright blue button to grab your attention.

#4: Sweat the Small Stuff


Apple is all about attention to detail. Every little piece of their site is finessed into perfection. Never fall into the trap of saying “no one will notice” or “good enough.” It is often the margin of time spent on the tiniest details that separate the good designers from the great ones.

Don’t buy into the small stuff argument? Check out the social media logos on the Microsoft Office homepage and tell me that they don’t make you cringe.


I personally possess vector files of each of these logos. Now if I can do it, don’t you think the Microsoft designers could’ve taken the time to track down better versions of these logos to avoid the sloppy Photoshop Magic Wand selection they’ve got going on? I challenge you to find something this poorly done anywhere on Apple’s site, much less on the landing page of one of their most popular pieces of software.

#5: Avoid Flash


I’ve never been one to join in with the Flash hater crowd, but the fact is, that crowd is growing. Leading the masses is none other than Apple CEO and world-renowned technology clairvoyant Steve Jobs. Check out this excerpt from a recent Wired article:

“About Adobe: They are lazy, Jobs says. They have all this potential to do interesting things but they just refuse to do it. They don’t do anything with the approaches that Apple is taking, like Carbon. Apple does not support Flash because it is so buggy, he says. Whenever a Mac crashes more often than not it’s because of Flash. No one will be using Flash, he says. The world is moving to HTML5.” (Source)

Those are strong words from a man revered for leadership in the tech world. To be honest, much of what he says rings true. Online Flash content certainly isn’t the most reliable technology out there and is highly dependent upon extra software and up-to-date plugins that the user may or may not have. Further, HTML5 and CSS3 are glimpse into a future where you can accomplish a richly interactive multimedia experience with with simple, standards compliant code.

As a developer, if you join Apple in their virtual Flash boycott, you probably won’t regret it. You don’t even have to take an active stance against Flash so much as simply avoid using wherever possible. You’re pretty much guaranteed to have a lot less headaches from users who can’t view your content.

#6: Make It Friendly


For years, Apple was branded as a cult that was anything but friendly. They’ve really sought to purge this idea in recent years by restructuring their image to be more approachable. The most noticeable place you see this is in the “Get a Mac” ads. The Mac is portrayed as an every day kind of guy while the PC is the “out there” business man who’s always up to no good. Subliminally, these commercials are saying that Apple is really an open community and anyone from teenagers to grandmas will fit right in.

Another thing they’ve done is improved their formerly abysmal tech support record. Now anyone in a major city can just make an appointment at the Apple store for a free one-on-one consultation to address any problems and/or questions customers might have.

All of these techniques are reinforced by graphics of friendly, smiling faces. Currently the Apple store near me has about a dozen cardboard cutouts of Apple employees in the window as if to say “come on in, we’re happy to help.” You can also spot these smiling employees in a few places on the Apple website as shown in the pic above.

What Apple is doing is forming a balance between amazing but non-personable technology-based design and approachable smiling faces. No matter what you’re selling, consider whether it’s appropriate to make it look more friendly and think about what you can do to get it there. Even a simple “Hello” in a headline can go a long way.

#7: Use a Strong Grid


The picture above speaks for itself. Every page on Apple’s site adheres to a strict grid structure; whether simple or complicated, it’s there. The purpose? Check out how much information they’re throwing at you on the page above. There is simply a ton going on, but it somehow seems attractive instead of overwhelming.

Breaking sporadic information up into manageable cells drastically reduces visual clutter and confusion. Notice that each cell also contains a visual reference to accompany the text description. These visual references all look very similar and fit into the overall Apple theme. Even if you’re using stock images, try to maintain a similar theme so there’s no visual disparity in the pictures scattered all over the page.

#8: Create Instructional Aids


To reinforce the message that the top of the mouse is actually a multi-touch surface, Apple created the above illustration. Even without the headline, nearly anyone would be able to comprehend what’s happening in the picture and consequently understand how to use a brand new piece of technology that they’re completely unfamiliar with.

Apple goes even further than illustrations though. Nearly every piece of hardware and software on their site has an accompanying video that shows you how it works. This goes a long way to reduce tech support questions. I frequently refer my friends (who have all converted to Mac because of me and therefore see me as free tech support) to these videos because they provide a much richer and easier to understand experience than a phone conversation ever could. Check out Apple’s library of instructional videos to see how great they are for yourself.

#9: Be Consistent


The pic above is a screenshot of the iTunes store. Look familiar? If you’re thinking it looks a lot like Apple.com, you’re right. Now have a look around Mac OS X, specifically in the Finder. Again we see strong grid-based design, lots of white, metallic textures, and blue as an attention grabber (in selections). And finally, have a look at the full Apple line of hardware to see these textures and design elements brought into the real world.

Apple’s general look or “brand essence” is applied across every single thing they design. It’s quite stunning when you realize how much their software actually looks like their hardware. How much more integrated can you get? If you’re ever tasked with the job of developing a brand, look at every aspect of the company from televised ads and websites on down to the products themselves. Consider how you can integrate all of these disparate elements to look like individual pieces of a cohesive whole.

#10: Not Just a Big Store


Apple is a great case study in a successful e-commerce site. Notice that the entire site is bent on influencing you to buy, and educating you about, their products. However, the site doesn’t feel like one big store.

What I mean by this is illustrated in the screenshots above. The top shot is the dedicated Time Capsule page. Apple loves making beautiful product pages with clever headlines informing you of how great their products are. Notice that this technically isn’t the “store.” If you click the buy button, you are then taken to the page in the second screen: the actual online store. Here Apple has completely stripped down the visual appeal and focused on usability. They give you the information you need without distractions and make it easy to purchase an item in a few clicks.

If you’re making a online store, your first idea will probably be to do just that: build a store. If you have the time, budget, freedom, etc., consider building a website to showcase the items in the store in a way that simply wouldn’t be efficient in the store itself. Create beautiful dedicated pages that really boost your product and include a “buy now” link that takes customers to the visually boring but highly practical store section of the site.

#11: Be Confident


Let’s face it, Apple products are pretty amazing. Click around Apple’s site for a few minutes and you’ll find they aren’t exactly humble about this. Their headlines are filled with adjectives like beautiful, powerful, fun, revolutionary, easy-to-use and advanced. Their product descriptions inform you that the item is the best thing available in its category. If you overanalyze it, this may sound a bit haughty. However, as a casual visitor, you would probably just be impressed.

Whether your website is advertising a product, service, or simply an idea, don’t sell yourself short. Never use the word “good” when you can say “great,” never say “attractive” when you can say “beautiful.” If you are confident in your product, really strive to communicate it to your visitors. You’ll find that it will rub off on them and that they will generally have a much more positive first impression if everything on your site is focused on convincing them how great you are.

Like anything, there is of course a breaking point. Have someone not involved with the site read over your copy to make sure you aren’t pouring on the self-praise so thick that it becomes an annoyance.

#12: Put Legal Copy in it Place


This one is small but important. If you’re working for a company big enough to have a legal department, you know that the people in legal departments work really hard to prove that they aren’t worthless. Usually what this means is that you as a designer create something, send it to the legal department and get back a 500 word document full of extra content you are required by law to include. Inevitably, cursing ensues.

What you do with this content is important. Consider whether or not it’s information that the user actually wants to know or if it’s just an evil necessity that no one will ever read. If it’s the latter, take a page out of Apple’s book (a bite out of the Apple so to speak) and throw it at the very bottom of the page in a small but readable font that doesn’t contrast with the background too much. Your primary goal as an employee should be to make this content accessible, findable and readable. However, your goal as a designer is to make sure it doesn’t screw up your design by filling it with unimportant clutter.

#13: Comprehensive Footer Site Navigation


Check out the footer in the screenshot above. Apple has transformed the bottom of each page into an extremely helpful navigation tool. This is a great way to reduce the difficulty of navigating a large site. Rather than filling their primary navigation with a link to every section on the site, they’ve reserved it for general categories. Within a category, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page you find a much more comprehensive site map in the footer.

Notice they haven’t gone out of their way to make it stick out. It’s enough that you can spot it if you’re looking for something but subtle enough that you don’t give it a second glance if you don’t need help with navigation.

#14: Create Beautiful Custom Icons


With the introduction of OS X, Apple brought icons into a whole new realm. Since then stunning icon design has flooded operating systems and spilled over onto the web. However, there are a few free icon sets online that have reached such fame that they’ve become cliché.

So before you go downloading a set of icons that looks like everything else on the web, give it a go yourself. Fire up Photoshop and/or Illustrator, dust off those drawing skills and make yourself some great custom icons. In the end they’ll really polish off your site designs. As you master the art of good icon design you’ll notice that you are a lot less dependent on third party art to produce amazing sites (which is a really good thing). If anything, you’ll save those crazies in the legal department from trying to figure out the legal restrictions on all those “free” icons.

#15: Interactive & Dynamic Content


Nearly every page of Apple’s site contains an automatic slideshow, an animated accordion menu, a video, or an interactive photo gallery. The goal here is to keep the attention of the user. Static content can be a little on the boring side and can cause a user to vacate the site in search of something more interesting. Apple keeps your attention by giving you lots of pages with constantly changing content or bits of interactive features.

This kind of content should be approached with extreme caution for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s easy to leave over half of your visitors behind if you’re programming in features that require a special plugin. Try to stick to widely supported technologies that work across multiple browsers. Also, it’s really easy to get carried away with dynamic content. There’s an extremely fine line between eye-catching and annoying and you absolutely must learn where that line falls. Otherwise you give visitors a headache in place of the good impression you were going for.

One More Thing…

To sum up, Apple Inc. is pretty much synonymous with classy design. There’s a lot we can learn from observing these great designers at work that goes way beyond just ripping off the cool reflections they put on everything. The tips above are meant to be generally applied to your own work in a unique way. Use them as inspiration to blaze your own path in great site design.

Any time someone mentions Apple there’s bound do be evangelists and haters, eager to share their undying love or profound hatred of Apple’s design methods. Use the comments below to tell us which one you are. Are you all for minimalism mixed with glossy icons or are you sick of the web looking like a bunch of Apple wannabes? We want to hear your thoughts.

How to develop a visual langurage

Giving your design work a consistent look and feel will give it authority and integrity. Anna Wray explains how to go about creating your own visual language.

However good your design and illustration skills are, it’s difficult to get recognition in a competitive industry. One thing that can help you stand out is to develop your own visual language, so that your designs become easily recognisable as yours. But how do you go about it? Follow this five-step guide and you’ll soon be on your way to create your own signature style…

01. Step away from the sceen

It’s great that we’re so digitally connected these days, and it means we get to see an awful lot of our fellow creatives’ work on the web. But this inevitably leads to a lot of design and illustration tending to look the same, both in terms of style and subject matter.

Don’t just look at work that is being created now: look back in history and look at the real world all around us, our immediate surroundings, people, second hand book shops, found photographs, car booties, your granny’s loft, anything! Resist the urge to just look online for inspiration and influence.

02. Be inventive with materials

Lord Whitney is not the first to craft illustrations from everyday objects – but he’s created a style all of his own. See more at http://lordwhitney.co.uk

If you draw something with a pencil, then draw the same thing with a brush and ink, it will change the feel of your work entirely. So the materials you use have enormous importance.

Some materials loosen your work up and create happy accidents, others lead you to work in a cleaner, more precise way. So experiment with mixed media, printmaking and a wide range of drawing materials. Paint with a twig and see what happens. Don’t be scared of working on a large scale. Be as inventive as you can be in terms of materials and mark making.

03. Use technology to your advantage

You shouldn’t let the computer dictate your work – but that doesn’t mean you should be a technophobe either. I wouldn’t be without my Adobe Creative Suite tools, but I don’t let the various tools and ways of image making dictate the way I illustrate.

To get the balance right, it’s usually best to start your work with real materials away from the computer first, then scan the images in and edit, combine and compose. Be very wary of any brushes and effects that attempt to assimilate spontaneous and hand drawn mark making. It’s infinitely better to scan in drawings, images textures etc and use this as the raw material. Using technology in this way will stop your work from looking generic and generated.

04. Find out who you are

Rebecca Palmer’s illustrations for children have a distinctive style that’s easily recognisable. See more at http://beckypalmer.co.uk

To create your own personal style, you first need to work out what kind of creative you want to be. Ask yourself: what would be your dream job? It’s important to create work that genuinely interests you. As with anything in life, if you know what you want, you stick at it and work hard then you will get there in the end.

For instance, if you want to be a children’s book illustrator, create a portfolio focused primary on children’s book illustrations, that way publishers will believe you. There will be space for little deviations in your career but if you keep your portfolio specialised then you have a much greater chance of success.

05. Be consistent

Julia Konieczna has taken a unique approach to etching and made the medium her own. See more at www.juliakonieczna.com

Finally and most importantly, the golden rule; be consistent (even if inconsistency is your consistent theme!).

Once you’ve found a way of working through months or years of experimentation, research, hard work and focus, always approach your creations with the same visual language. Too many conflicting ways of image making will make your work look indecisive and unclear.

Like any spoken language, you’ll need to create rules – and stick to them – if you’re going to achieve visual consistency. That may mean three specific ways you draw eyes; always combining two specific materials, or whatever. The rules will probably be both complex and appropriate to your work. If your language is clear, your work will have authority and integrity.

Words: Anna Wray

Anna Wray is an illustrator/author and a visiting lecturer on the Ba(Hons) Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. Check out her work and writing on her website.

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Do you have any illustration tips you’d like to share? Give back to the community in the comments below!

Monsters University: what’s it like to work at Pixar?

Pixar’s films have won 26 Oscars and taken $8 billion. But are their films as much fun to work on as they are to watch? As Monsters University is released, Chris Bell visits the company’s California HQ to find out.

Pixar's cafeteria: there are 45,000 applicants for every job

Pixar Cafeteria Photo: Pixar

Deep, deep inside the vast buildings that house Pixar Animation Studios lies a dark secret. It’s heavily disguised – a small room hidden among the furry life-size statues of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. But inside is something that runs so contrary to the Pixar philosophy, that chafes so coarsely against its child-friendly aura, that employees will only talk about it off the record, and with a furtive glance over their shoulder.

It’s a bar. A real, alcoholic bar. Situated behind the locked door of an oversized safe, which is hidden behind a huge fireplace, it’s only accessible using a passkey entry system. But if you manage to get inside, you’ll find beer, wine, even some spirits. It’s a place where, after a long day making films, tired animators and production managers can – gasp! – get blind drunk, right under the benign gaze of Woody and Buzz themselves.

This, sadly, does not form part of the official tour of Pixar’s headquarters – a series of low-rise, modern hangars in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Which is a shame, as it’s a rare example of a human vice in an otherwise eerily perfect working environment. One that, at times, feels either like a youth club or a well-funded cult.

Monsters University Director Dan Scanlon meeting with Script Supervisor Amanda Jones and Producer Kori Rae in the atrium

For example, we’ve already enjoyed the free, 24-hour staff Cereal Bar, boasting 14 kinds of breakfast cereal from Frosties to Lucky Charms, and an endless supply of milk. There is a Pizza Room, offering free slices for those working late. There is even a “Breathing Room” – although we’re assured this is actually for yogic meditation, rather than the only location where basic respiration is permitted.

Elsewhere the “Smile Squad”, a yellow T-shirted group of guides, patrol the atrium like a perpetually cheerful cult, offering help to visitors. On one wall a giant plasma TV announces the day’s activities – from special live performances of Pixar film soundtracks, to “Lengthen and Strengthen” aerobics sessions on the campus sports field, to endless self-improvement classes for staff members. Wednesday lunchtimes, for example, means “Drop-In Improv for Shy People!” – where employees can enjoy a “fun, low pressure introduction to the joys of improvisation – no prior experience necessary!”Somehow it seems like the best and, simultaneously, the worst place to work on earth.

And yet. And yet, well, they must be doing something right. Because at the other end of the atrium, in a glass cabinet, sits the proof. Twenty six Academy Awards, five Golden Globes and three Grammys. Not bad considering that, in 1991, Pixar was a high-end computer hardware company with just 42 employees, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. So as their newest release Monsters University hits cinemas, you have to wonder: what is their secret?

Character figurines in the Pixar atrium (Pixar)

You see, everyone loves Pixar and the films they make. The riotous, clever, benchmark-setting Toy Story canon made their name, of course – and Toy Story 3 is now the highest-grossing animated film of all time. But their vertiginous success story has continued ever since. From fun, brash actioners like The Incredibles and Cars, to the quirky weirdness of Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille, they’ve stood head-and-shoulders above the fart gags and wisecracking donkeys of Dreamworks, their nearest rival. Not forgetting, or course, their award-winning animated shorts – such as Tin Toy, Geri’s Game and last year’s La Luna.

But then add in their infamous “who-the-hell-greenlit-this?” output – from the mechanical, metaphysical loneliness of Wall-E, to the heart-rending four minutes of miscarriage and elderly death that introduces Up. Judged on this basis, the Pixar team is on an artistic par with the likes of Japanese animators Studio Ghibli, responsible for the likes of Spirited Away, and My Neighbour Totoro. And they’re hitting emotional highs that most live-action directors would kill for.

True, maintaining their unprecedented 15-year rise, bookended by Toy Story and Toy Story 3, has not been easy. They’re no longer the maverick outsider, nimbly taunting the big studios with their indie credibility; since being bought by Disney for $7.4 billion in 2006, Pixar is now most definitely the mainstream – just one judged on a perilously steep curve.

Cars 2, for example, released in 2011, was a low point – slated as a bland, superficial sequel that spent far too little time on storytelling (earning a paltry 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and far too much time selling plastic toys to children. 2012s Brave was also critically savaged for its watered-down feminism, despite winning an Oscar.

And new film Monsters University has encountered similar invective ever since it was announced three years ago. A prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., it chronicles when furry blue Sulley (John Goodman) and monocular testicle Mike (Billy Crystal) started out in college as mortal enemies. It has already lead to accusations that Pixar is retreading old ground.

But none of this critical tutting has stopped each new release becoming that most envied Hollywood product: a cinematic “event”. None have grossed less than half a billion dollars since Cars in 2006. And at the time of writing, Monsters University has already made $82 million, the second biggest Disney/Pixar opening weekend ever, and looks set to their total sales to well over $8 billion.

Sulley and Mike in an early Monsters University design (Pixar)

In a blaze of primary colours, goggle-eyed slapstick and aching pathos, they’ve managed to corner the market in state-of-the-art children’s entertainment that just happens to hit the adult sweet spot too. And created a true worldwide destination employer – one which thousands of skilled animators, lighting experts and programmers across the world apply for a job every year.

Of course this leaves an obvious question dangling in the air, like the house from Up: now the whole process has become a multi-billion-dollar production line, can they maintain the spirit that made the company? What is this magical formula that keeps enthusiasm and inspiration bubbling throughout the four years it takes to make a Pixar movie? Why does almost nobody from the 1,200 staff ever leave?

Certainly, the headquarters itself has to be responsible for much of the attraction. Indeed, it’s a mark of Pixar’s status that even cynical film hacks are moved to childish wonder at the prospect of a visit to the site (with one comparing it to winning Willy Wonka’s golden ticket). And for films fans, it’s like a theme park. Pixar characters are everywhere – from the huge Luxo Jr standard lamp outside, bringing to mind a Brobdingnagian branch of Habitat, to the fullsized figures of Sulley and Mike from Monsters University in the foyer.

Space to relax inside the Pixar offices

There are metallic silhouettes of Pixar characters imprinted on the ground. Each toilet is designated with the silhouettes of Woody and Jessie, while atop the recently-built Brooklyn Building annex, you can spot a Finding Nemo seagull. At one point they even requested that each rivet in the steel structure be stamped with an image of Flik, the ant from A Bug’s Life (the idea was abandoned due to cost).

But the building boasts more than just decoration. When Steve Jobstook over the company in the late Eighties, during his hiatus from Apple, the design of the building itself became a personal fascination. Working with architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson – famous for designing Bill Gates’ $1bn Washington residential compound – Jobs gave them a simple brief: to design headquarters that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations”.

Thus, the atrium of what’s now posthumously called the Steve Jobs Building is the centre of all things Pixar – housing focal points like the cafe, foosball tables, and a fitness centre. Rather cruelly, Jobs also insisted at the time that it would also contain the only toilets on the entire 22-acre site – to ensure that introverts would be forced into conversations, even if they took place while washing their hands.

This kind of design was revolutionary. In the late 1990s, film studios were still housing their employees in drab office blocks. But here, on the banks of the San Francisco bay, was a workplace offering its staff use of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, volleyball court, jogging trail, football field and basketball court. As well as an organic vegetable garden used by Pixar’s chefs, flower cutting gardens and even a wildflower meadow.

Inside, too, there was freedom. There are no set working times – instead, the offices are open 24 hours a day for those who prefer to work in the small hours.

Gone too was the cubicle, that perennial American worker hutch. Instead, staff were encouraged to build and personalise their own offices – with varying results. These include sheds, Tiki rooms, Western saloons, and, in the case of one technician, a downed aircraft fuselage that has been painstakingly “junglised” with fake tree lianas.

It was a model that Apple, Google and hundreds of Silicon Valley start-ups would later copy – one where a job became a lifestyle in itself. Keep employees happy with free sustenance and diversions in a youth club atmosphere, the theory goes, and they’ll never feel any need to leave. The corollary being, of course, that it tears down that necessary work/life separation, and everyone starts behaving like a slavish sect. But still – it’s this freestyling atmosphere that many employees attribute to Pixar’s success.

Phil Shoebottom can offer some homegrown perspective. Originally from Wakefield in Yorkshire, the 31-year-old lighting technical director has been working for Pixar for three years. “I remember when I started thinking it was the strangest place I’d ever seen,” he says. “One morning there was a half naked guy stood on a table in the cafeteria, playing the saxophone. Or you’d leave to go to your car in the evening, and there’d be a ballroom dancing class in the atrium. At the start you feel British about it, but you can’t help but get sucked in.”

Paul Oakley had a similar experience. Originally from Essex, the 38-year-old, also a lighting technical director, worked in several London production houses before joining Pixar four years ago. “There’s something different every day,” he says. “When we started working on Monsters University, everyone had to join a fraternity. My hazing process involved me dressing up as Mrs Doubtfire for the day. I had to go to a director review in full makeup. But someone else was dressed as Tinky Winky from Teletubbies, so that was ok.”

Monsters University director Dan Scanlon, left (Pixar)

It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that the interview process is harsh. With an estimated 45,000 applications received for each new position, only a chosen few make it. Shoebottom applied four times before finally getting the call from Pixar. “My interview lasted eight hours,” he recalls. “They want to get as many people to see you as possible – just to make sure everyone is comfortable with your personality, how you hold yourself, if you fit in.”

Oakley was similarly grilled for a full day. “And if you look around you see why,” he says. “Most people never leave here. So you want to make sure you can work with someone for the next ten years. You’re in for the long haul.”

Once through that process, however, employees are given almost total free rein. The Pixar in-house theory is simple: mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so it’s far better if you pile in and start making them quickly. John Lasseter, the garrulous chief creative officer at Pixar, confirms this: “Every Pixar film was, at one time or another, the worst motion picture ever made,” he once said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Oakley agrees: “It’s a mentality,” he says. “You’re responsible for your mistakes, but there’s no blame culture. As a freelancer in London, I knew that if I’d made a critical error, I’d be out of a job. Here, they’d say you have to learn from it, and strive to do better. It’s the most grown up place I’ve ever worked in that regard. It’s all about ownership.”

Dan Scanlon, the director of Monsters University, can testify to this. A former storyboard artist on Cars, he’s risen up the ranks and now shepherded MU through what he describes as “the best collaborative system in the world”.

“A lot of ideas come from a lot of different places,” he says. “You can affect a movie as much as you want here – no matter what your title is, you have a voice in this place. But you can’t be too attached to anything, either. To work here you either have to have a bullet-proof ego – or no ego at all.”

Especially ruthless is the Brain Trust – the notorious senate of directors and producers, lead by John Lasseter and Pixar president Ed Catmull, who review each project every couple of months. “We met the Trust in early 2009,” recalls Dan. “And while it can be tough, it’s essential for every film. You get great notes and they make sure the movie appeals to the widest audience possible.

An early Monsters University sketch (Pixar)

“It means when we put a film out into the world, the whole studio is behind it,” he says. “Which is why every single person who works at the studio is in the credits – from the animators to the people who send out our paycheques in accounts. Because everyone makes it happen.”

And it looks like this ethos is about to bear fruit again. As if determined to silence their critics once and for all, Pixar’s release slate over the next few years looks purposefully innovative. The Good Dinosaur, set for release next May, asks what the world would be like if dinosaurs never became extinct. The year after sees Inside Out, entirely based inside the mind of a little girl. And after Finding Dory, a sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, Pixar are set for even odder themes with Día de los Muertos, based on the Mexican Day Of The Dead celebrations.

For our two Brits, currently working on The Good Dinosaur, the prospect is tantalising. “In other jobs – those outside of film too – the constraints are always about time and money,” says Oakley. “Here, it’s all about the end product. And that’s what I loved when I first arrived – simply having the time and space to create something truly of a high standard.”

So you don’t feel you have to drink the Pixar Kool-Aid to fit in? “Not at all,” says Phil Shoebottom. “Everyone here is good at their job, so you just fall into step. You just have to love your work.

“People are weird here, yes. But I’m all for weird. You learn to embrace the weird. And you’re better for it.”

Monsters University is released on July 12

5 Ways to Perfect Your Digital Paintings

Planning the Focus Point

The best way to make your painting stand out is to make sure your audience sees what you want them to see. So one of the most important thing you can do is to establish a focus point. One painting can contain multiple focus points, so it is important to establish a flow that guides your audience through your painting.

A good flow can keep your audience looking at your painting for a few moments longer than they might have if you did not establish one. Tonal values in paintings are the most effective way to indicate focus points. Elements in the paintings such as rocks, rubble, trees, or machinery can also help establish a focus point, these techniques are also known as compositing. Let’s take a look at the following images, as an example.

In the first image, you can see how I have established top-down lighting onto the subject and used only one light source, the bright reflections on the helmet also help to bring out the focus point.

The second focus point would be the cigarette. Take note of how I helped accentuate the cigarette using the guns. All of this helps the viewer look at this painting from the top to the bottom.

1New Document
Gabriel – LMS Fanart

In the next example, I’ve used the ships to make a pathway to my subject, and I’ve also made the chest of the character the brightest part in the painting so naturally it would be the main focus point.

Sea Golem

Interesting Subjects and Storytelling

While composition helps to bring out a focus point, a painting that contains interesting subjects or elements can also make someone look at it for a few more moments. A strong back-story of a painting is definitely a plus, as long as you’re giving your audience some space to let their imagination run wild.

Different people see different stories, think of it as a cliffhanger from a movie or television show, our brains take care of the storytelling. Imagination is a valuable tool to make sure your painting reads well. Below are some examples of that contain good storytelling. As you can see, each painting allows you to see whatever your imagination can dream up.

Another midnight sketch
Flash, Thunder

Balancing the Painting

A good painting is a balanced painting, meaning that the painting works when it’s flipped both ways. One of the advantages of painting digitally is that there are a lot of tools in Photoshop that allow you to work more effectively.

While painting, try flipping your artwork horizontally by going to ‘Image > Image Rotation > Flip Canvas Horizontal’, make sure that your painting looks good even when it’s flipped, if it looks unbalanced or your focus point is out of focus, repaint those areas while the painting is flipped, and try to flip the canvas back and forth during painting as well. Also, applying a black and white filter on top can also help to pin point odd areas. This works because you’re not distracted by the colors and you only judge the painting from its values.

Sketch #41

Depth of Field

As mentioned above, working digitally has a lot of advantages that allow for a more efficient workflow. If you want your painting to be more photo realistic, the filters in Photoshop are your best friend. Ensuring that your painting has a sense of depth is the first step in capturing your audience’s eye. It doesn’t necessarily have to be painted to the finest detail to achieve it, sometimes it works the opposite.

Think about photography, some photographers like to include foreground elements in the shot, the foreground elements are always blurred and are darker in values, this is a very effective way to create a stronger focus point, and it increases the depth of field. By doing something similar in the painting it can have the same effect, it doesn’t have to be very detailed, just a simple silhouette with a blur filter works great (as shown below).

While foreground elements enhance the depth, the same can apply to the background, as well. By painting something simple with believable lighting, the lens blur filter or the ‘Gaussian Blur’ filter on that layer would be sufficient enough to greatly enhance the depth of field. Also, the blurred background will be less distracting and it helps to bring out the focus point even more.

Tip: Using ‘Gaussian Blur’ works the same as ‘Lens Blur’, but it is not as fine and realistic compared to ‘Lens Blur’. ‘Lens Blur’ takes up a lot of processing so it’s better to use it when you’re painting something that isn’t that big.

In this example, you can see both the blurred background and foreground doesn’t take away attention and it does the opposite instead, by strengthening the focus point.

Sketch #41

For the piece below, both the foreground and background are not blurred, but the bright light source in the background helps to form a focus point just on top of the subject, and the darker foreground forms a frame to the subject as well.


Using Filters

Lastly, every artist has their own particular way of adding finishing touches to their paintings. Here I’m going to share a few of my favorite tips for applying the finishing touches to a painting.

When your painting is finished, applying some sharpening can help bring out some of the details. There are various types of sharpen in Photoshop, ‘Unsharp Mask’ is more preferable as it makes the strokes more obvious and keeps the painterly feel. ‘Lens Correction’ is another great filter. It gives the painting a chromatic aberration effect, which gives it a photo realistic look.

Tip: ‘Unsharp Mask’ works better when it’s minimal enough to not get noticed, and sharp enough to enhance the strokes.

The slight red and green offset effect is the result of the ‘Lens Correction’ filter. There’s no right number for how much you should slide the RGB sliders, use trial and error.

Sketch #39
Sketch #40


Knowing your tools and making good use of them is essential for producing better artwork, it takes a lot of trial and error before you can understand them, so make sure you spend some time trying them all out. Work smart and take advantage of the tools that Photoshop provides. Study other artists, keep practicing, but most of all, have fun!