Imagination is ageless.
Joe has created some of the most memorable and popular theme parks in the world. He is also extraordinarily humble. As he told me, “I don’t self promote. I prefer to make things.” In Joe’s case, really spectacularly huge things that have a lasting impact on the people who visit them.
As we often say here, we are only limited by our imagination of what is possible. Coming out of Disney animation before moving into huge physical projects, Joe’s idea of what is possible is bigger than most of ours. It is one thing to dream up something amazing, it is a whole other thing to get it built. This is what the special Joe Lanzisero does. At 64, Joe is busier than ever, fully engaged in the global world of digital culture, and with no plans to stop doing what he does best: imagine it and build it.
“Drawing, designing, and making music still bring me the same joy as when I was a child”
Hi, Joe. How old are you?
I’m 64 years old. Which means I’ll be eligible for Medicare this coming year, which is a crazy thought. I still feel like a kid. I’ve remained very young at heart by still enjoying those things that I did in my youth. Drawing, designing, and making music still bring me the same joy as when I was a child.
My favorite quote of yours is “All art is one.” Help me here: What do you mean by that?
For me, art is about communicating an idea with deep emotional connection. It doesn’t matter what the delivery device might be — it could be a musical instrument, it could be a painting, it could be the written word, it could be a sculpture — but in all cases, there should be an idea behind it and you should be presenting that idea in a way that will get people to think or laugh or cry or be angry, etc.
“I believe I graduated on a Thursday and on the following Monday found myself in the apprentice room Walt Disney Feature Animation”
You went to school with some pretty impressive people: John Lasseter, Tim Burton, John Musker and others. Then you were hired right out of school to work at Disney. What was that like?
Yeah, when I look at my fellow classmates, and what they went on to achieve, it makes me feel like a bit of an underachiever. It was great being in the same class with these incredibly talented people. I feel like we learned as much from each other as we did from the professors. That’s not to say we didn’t have incredible professors — they were all artists that worked directly with Walt Disney. We were very fortunate to be the first to get handed down knowledge directly from these brilliantly talented people who worked directly with Walt Disney. Yes, I got hired by Disney Animation directly out of CalArts. In fact, believe I graduated on a Thursday and on the following Monday found myself in the apprentice room Walt Disney Feature Animation. It was a childhood dream fulfilled.
What sort of work were you doing in animation at Disney?
There was an apprenticeship-type program at Disney animation. Mostly everyone started out as a lowly “inbetweener” then you worked your way up the ranks. I ultimately made it up to animator and was even directing by time I decided to move on to Disney Imagineering.
Imagineering and “creating experiences that connect with human beings”
Then, after 8 years you left and went to Disney Imagineering. What did you do there?
Imagineering is the division of the Walt Disney Company that designs all the theme parks, resorts, hotels, crew ships, and any other physical experience. I started there as a show designer coming up with designs and story gags for various projects in the works at that time. I was brought over to Imagineering because they saw in my work something that was kind of missing at that time. I brought my sense of animation storytelling that added a kind of humor and a human touch to some of the things that they were doing.
How does animation storytelling relate to making physical properties? What was the transition like?
The key to Walt Disney’s success in animation was his ability to tap into real human emotions and infuse his stories with them. Disney said, “Behind every smile, there’s a tear, and behind every tear, there’s a smile.” This understanding of the human experience made what he did universal. That’s why his product did, and continues to still, resonate around the world. I took that understanding and tried to apply it to the design of physical worlds, thinking about how I could make an experience connect emotionally with the people experiencing it. In that regard, it was actually a pretty seamless transition from what I was doing in animation to what I ultimately ended up doing at Imagineering. It was applying the same kind of thinking, just in a different medium — the idea of creating experiences that connect with human beings.
You recently left what would seem to be that incredible job at Imagineering. Why did you do that?
I had an incredible journey at Imagineering. I was there for almost 30 years and had some amazing opportunities. At one point I was in charge of all the Parks and Resorts in Asia and at the same time was leading the design of the two new cruise ships that were being built in Germany. However, the company changed quite a bit over the 30 years that I was there, becoming increasingly more corporate and less the “first name” company that I remembered when I started there. Unfortunately, I don’t think I changed with the times and the ways of the complicated corporate world and found myself way beyond my expiration date when I finally decided to move on. I left knowing I had accomplished quite a bit and left a pretty significant legacy and body of work. I don’t regret a single decision or experience I had while there, because they were all fueled by the passion to make great experiences for the guests.
From Disney to UX
What are you doing now, and how does it follow on from your earlier work? Was that a big adjustment for you?
When I left Disney I knew there would be plenty of opportunities for more theme park-related work, and there was. At first, I did a couple of major theme park projects, the largest being an entire resort and theme park development in Korea. But I really felt like I wanted to expand into other areas where I could use the expertise I gained during the many years at Imagineering and apply it in some new areas. Through a series of circumstances I was introduced to the world of UX, and have become very active there as a consultant and a speaker. I find myself using my knowledge of storytelling and creating emotionally-based human experiences in the real world and applying it for large companies like Macy’s department stores, Whirlpool Corporation, and others.
“It seems like I’m always growing, learning, and being pushed to grow because of the great people around me”
Do you work with a team?
Well, I do a lot of my current work as a consultant on my own, but what I really enjoy is working with the teams. Yes, I love the dynamic that happens when you get a lot of smart, talented people together and you let the ideas fly and see where it all goes. I spent a lot of my time at Disney leading large teams and I learned to appreciate and embrace the various disciplines and all different kinds of people and talents that came with them. I learned early on I was only as good as the people I surrounded myself with. King Solomon said, as “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” I really felt that to be true because it seems like I’m always growing, learning, and being pushed to grow because of the great people around me.
How do you choose the people on your team?
As for choosing people on my team, as I mentioned, I always look for people smarter and more talented than myself. But I also like to study and understand the challenges of any particular project and then look to cast it with the right talents that will best meet those challenges. After 30 years in the business, you could get a pretty big Rolodex (do people know what that is anymore?) of people’s names that you can reach out to. I’m a real “people person” and I have to say one of the best parts of what I do is getting to work with interesting, smart, talented, and, in some cases, eccentric people.
How do you choose who your clients are?
After 30 years at Disney I built a pretty big, good reputation for myself, and name in the industry, and now because of my involvement in the UX world most of my clients come to me. I pretty much get to choose which ones I want to work on.
How Macy’s Is Like Disney
You mentioned that Macy’s is like Disney, how is that?
Both Disney and Macy’s have a history that’s based on nostalgia and some connection to a well-known past. They are both American institutions. It’s been said that Walt Disney had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. The foot in the past recognized the knowledge of the core attributes of the brand. In Disney’s case, it was great storytelling and emotional connection to the human experience. But he also had one foot in the future. This foot was always looking for the new technology and what new device that he could use to present his stories in the most modern way possible. Macy’s has the latter, a deep understanding of their brand and history, but it’s been slow to catch up yet with the ever-changing and very challenging world of retail in the age of Amazon.
How is storytelling related to user experience? When I think of it, storytelling is almost a definition of what a brand is. Does that sound right?
Story informs the user experience by giving it form, connection, and engagement to human emotions. People more readily remember things that are connected to an experience. All good self-aware brands know that they have a story at their core, and the really good companies know how that story brand taps into people’s psyche.
The Future of User Experience
You are most certainly a visionary who works with other talented visionaries. What do you and the people you speak with see as the future of user experience?
Some things don’t change, such as the desire to have an emotionally connected experience. Whatever experiences we create must connect with people on a human level. Through the experience, you hope that they might think differently about something, or laugh, or cry or were entertained in some manner. All this creating some deeper emotional connection with the experience. However, the way we deliver these experiences, and the pace of its delivery has changed. People have a much higher rate of visual literacy. They digest information faster, and their attention span is shorter. As a designer, you have to acknowledge that and ensure that the information is clear and concise. I try to get down to the core of the experience and strip away all the excess. I try to make it as simple as it can be and then go back and add in the nuances and details to support the core experience, without slowing it down. That is what has changed. The core storytelling and emotions should be constants; it is just how you deliver it.
I hope the trend is a continuing growing awareness of the user, and that the designers continue to remember the human condition, and bring humanity to what we do, and truly care about the user in a way that what we are delivering fulfills and satisfies the users at all levels, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
How long have you been a musician, drummer?
I started banging on things as a child but seriously took up drumming as a musical endeavor when I was about 10 or 11, so I’ve been pretty much doing it most of my life. It’s been great therapy and I think it complements my other artistic endeavors.
Do you play with others, in a band or a group of friends?
Yes, I still find myself playing in a number of musical situations. I have quite a network of musicians that I enjoy playing with in a number of different genres: jazz, blues, and pop music. I believe playing in a band helps to develop the same skills you need when working with a team: understanding that you’re one part of a bigger whole and how the role you’re playing works in that whole. As a drummer I know I’m there to support the band and to listen hard to what the other musicians are doing and to be there to support them.
Dividing Time Between Madrid and LA
You now have a place in Madrid that, assuming the immigration authorities allow it, you will be going to soon. Why Madrid?
Oh yes, I’ve been working diligently with the authorities to gain entrance into Spain during this crazy pandemic. Why Madrid? Well, I’m married to this most amazing woman Monika Gerber (who was profiled in AGEIST), and she happens to be from Germany. We wanted to have a home base both in America, close to my family, and one in Europe, close to her family. After sampling a number of countries in Europe we fell in love with the Spanish lifestyle and the wonderful climate there. It’s also a great jumping-off point for adventures around the continent.
What are you doing in Madrid? Will you still be working?
Our intention is to split our time between Madrid and Los Angeles. We are blessed with a wonderful network of friends and family in both places. Our goal is to enjoy life as much as possible and to continue our work endeavors. Much of my business now happens over the internet and virtually, so other than dealing with different time zones I’m able to get the same work done while in Madrid as in LA but with great wine, tapas, an afternoon siesta, and plenty of nightlife.