One Little Spark! Mickey’s Ten Commandments and The Road to Imagineering
by Marty Sklar with introductions by Richard M. Sherman and Glen Keane
Marty Sklar was hired by Walt Disney in 1955, prior to the opening of Disneyland. He rose through the ranks to president of Imagineering, the group responsible for Disney’s theme parks worldwide. He retired in 2009 after a 54-year career with the company.
The first part of the book explains Mickey’s Ten Commandments, guiding principles developed by Sklar in 1983. The second half of the book consists of career advice from 75 Imagineers. The most prominent recurring theme in this book is storytelling.
Mickey’s Ten Commandments are:
- Know Your Audience. “I can’t imagine beginning any assignment without knowing the prime audience for your story or product. How you communicate, what you communicate, is totally influenced by who you identify as your target audience.”
- Wear Your Guests’ Shoes. “Walt Disney decreed that every designer was to go to the park at least every other week and stand in the lines (we call them queues) to understand what our guests were experiencing… Always lead with the guest experience in mind.”
- Organize the Flow of People and Ideas. Joe Rohde explains a failed design of Animal Kingdom: “We wanted the park to feel adventurous. One of our techniques was to obscure the destination at the end of a pathway so that you’d have to walk forward to reveal [it]… From an industrial engineering point of view, it was enough to clog the pathways as crowds backed up behind people who were confused.” Bottlenecks can also result from choice overload. John Hench says, “When we come to a point in the park that we know is a decision point, we put two choices. We try not to give them seven or eight.”
- Create a Wienie (Visual Magnet). This refers to “visual targets that lead visitors clearly through an experience.” John Hench advised the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on its King Tut layout. “They had placed one of the exhibit’s true treasures… at the very beginning of the exhibition. John told me he immediately saw its location as a showstopper that would impede movement into the exhibition; so he moved it to the very end of the show—making it the [visual magnet] that helped move the audience into and through the presentation.”
- Communicate with Visual Literacy. “We make use of nonverbal ways to communicate: color, shape, form, texture.”
- Avoid Overload—Create Turn-Ons. “Your first task on any new project is to learn as much as you can about the subject of your story or assignment. Your second task is to become a great editor. Resist the temptation to overload your audience with everything you have learned, with too much information and too many objects.”
- Tell One Story at a Time. “Good stories are clear, logical, and consistent… Storyboards are a must in our work, as a way to develop our story sequences. The objective is to create a story line that holds together from the first sketch to the last…A storyboard review can help reveal a key point or a weak character than can be reworked without tossing out all the good material the creators have developed.”
- Avoid Contradictions—Maintain Identity. On Main Street in the Magic Kingdoms, “no color in any building shouts at you louder than any of its neighbors. All the graphics seem to be equal in stature. As a visitor, you know where you are, and every detail reinforces the time period and the experience.”
- For Every Ounce of Treatment, Provide a Ton of Treat. “As Walt Disney told us, we can educate—but in a Disney park, we don’t label it; we let you discover… First and foremost we do everything we can do make it fun.”
- Keep it Up (Maintain it). “For Disney, it’s not just the cleanliness of the streets and walkways. It’s thousands and thousands of things that work every hour of every day… The cardinal principle is this: when things do not work, your experience as a guest is negatively impacted. Poor maintenance is poor show. And poor show is unacceptable in the Disney experience.”
For the second half of the book, Sklar reached out to current and former Imagineers for their input about “what you now know that will help young people who think they want careers in your field.” He received 75 responses, which he divided into the following ten categories: Story, Passion, Mentor, Collaboration, Disney Park Experience, Education—Never Stop Learning, Be Curious, Take a Chance/Think Differently, Become the Best, and Imaginations. One interesting point is that Imagineers comprise 140 different disciplines.
Sklar previously wrote a memoir called Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms. Other books mentioned throughout the text include:
- Designing Disney—Imagineering and the Art of the Show by John Hench
- Disney U by Doug Lipp
- Disneyland: Inside Story by Randy Bright
- Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman
Sklar, Marty. One Little Spark!: Mickey’s Ten Commandments and The Road to Imagineering. Glendale, California: Disney Editions, 2015. Buy from Amazon.com.