Why Apple’s new HQ is shaped like a spaceship

Steve Jobs had a theory, worked out at Pixar, about how building design can shape office culture.

Ed Catmull, CEO of Steve Jobs’ other company, tells the story in Creativity, Inc.

In the mid-1990s, it became clear that Pixar, long housed in a few cramped, tilt-up buildings in Point Richmond, California, was going to need a new home. The time had come to establish a proper headquarters—a place of our own, suited to our needs. Steve threw himself into designing it, and the magnificent main building that we occupy today is the outgrowth of all that work. But it didn’t come easily.

Steve’s first pass at a design was based on some peculiar ideas he had about how to force interaction among people. At an off-site staff meeting to discuss these plans in 1998, several people rose to complain about his intent to build a single women’s and a single men’s restroom. Steve relented, but he was clearly frustrated that people didn’t understand what he was trying to do: Bring people together out of necessity. At first, Steve struggled to find the best way to enable that mutual experience.

Next, he envisioned a separate building for each movie under production—the idea being that each crew would benefit from having its own contained space, free of distraction. I wasn’t so sure about that, so I asked him to go on a road trip.

Showing, not telling, worked best with Steve, which is why I coaxed him south to Burbank for a tour of the four-story glazed-glass-and-aluminum building on Thornton Avenue known as Northside. Disney Animation had taken it over in 1997, using it to house the crew for its first 3D animated movie, Dinosaur, among other projects.

But the building was more famous for what it had housed in the 1940s: Lockheed’s top-secret Skunk Works division, which designed jet fighters, spy planes, and at least one stealth fighter. I loved that bit of history—and the fact that the name Skunk Works itself had been borrowed from Al Capp’s newspaper comic strip Li’l Abner. In that strip, there was a running joke about a mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the “Skonk Works” where a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes, and other strange ingredients.

Steve knew that my purpose that day wasn’t to discuss comic strips or aviation history but to show him the building—a welcoming space where several hundred animators worked on multiple projects simultaneously, under a single roof. I liked the feel of the wide-open hallways. I recall Steve being critical of numerous facets of the building’s layout, but after an hour or so wandering around the place, I could tell he was getting the message: Creating separate buildings for each film would be isolating. He saw firsthand the way that the Disney people took advantage of the open floor plan, sharing information and brainstorming.

Steve was a big believer in the power of accidental mingling; he knew that creativity was not a solitary endeavor. But our trip to Northside helped clarify that thinking. In a creative company, separating your people into distinct silos—Project A over here, Project B over there—can be counterproductive.

After that trip, he met again with his architects and laid out the principles for a single building. He took the creation of a new Pixar headquarters as a personal responsibility.

Pixar HQ. Bohlin Cywiniski Jackson, architects. Click to enlarge. 

You’ve heard the saying “Your employees are your most important asset.” For most executives, these are just words you trot out to make people feel good—while they may be accepted as true, few leaders alter their behavior or make decisions based upon them. But Steve did, taking that principle and building our headquarters around it. Everything about the place was designed to encourage people to mingle, meet, and communicate, to support our filmmaking by enhancing our ability to work together.

In the end, Steve presided over every detail of our new building’s construction, from the arched steel bridges that straddle the central atrium to the type of chairs in our screening rooms. He didn’t want perceived barriers, so the stairs were open and inviting. He wanted a single entrance to the building so that we saw each other as we entered. We had meeting rooms, restrooms, a mailroom, three theaters, a game area, and an eating area all at the center in our atrium (where to this day, everyone gathers to eat, play ping pong, or be briefed by Pixar’s leaders on the company’s goings on). This all resulted in cross-traffic—people encountered each other all day long, inadvertently, which meant a better flow of communication and increased the possibility of chance encounters. You felt the energy in the building. Steve had thought all this through with the metalogic of a philosopher and the meticulousness of a craftsman. He believed in simple materials, masterfully constructed. He wanted all the steel exposed, not painted. He wanted glass doors to be flush with the walls. No wonder that when it opened in the fall of 2000, after four years of planning and construction, Pixar’s people—who typically worked for four years on each film—took to calling the building “Steve’s movie.”

I admit that there were moments when I worried that Pixar would fall prey to the “edifice complex,” wherein companies build shiny headquarters that are mere extensions of executive ego. But that worry proved unfounded. From the day we moved in, on Thanksgiving weekend of 2000, the building became an extraordinary and fertile home. Moreover, in our employees’ minds, it transformed Steve—always our external defender—into an integral part of our internal culture. The environment was so exemplary and so clearly attributed to Steve that everyone could appreciate his singular contribution to—and understanding of—the way we worked.

Excerpted From: Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc.

That’s more than fair use permits. So please, go buy the book. You’ll can learn a lot from Ed Catmull. Steve Jobs did.


  1. David Emery said:

    The Pentagon was originally designed to provide ‘minimum walking time’ between two offices. It works pretty well for that (I know from experience, working there just around the turn of the millennium.) Additionally, there’s an attempt to introduce natural light with the light ‘rings’, and the desire to minimize the amount of steel (substituting concrete ramps for stairs). The inner courtyard, “Ground Zero” and its cafe was actually a fun place for lunch or just walking around when the weather was nice. I think some of those ideas have made it into the Apple spaceship (but not the need to save on war materiel 🙂 )

    April 18, 2017
  2. Ken Cheng said:

    So, basically “form follows function”, with the key function being random intermingling of staff and ideas in the central atrium. So, what does the form of ApplePark tell us about function? It seems designed for efficiency, and it also reminds me of the bicycle wheel, which is an image that Steve would use when talking about how the computer is a bicycle for the mind. But, I think the key function is to replicate the random intermingling at Pixar, and have staff use the central open space in haphazard ways. The function will be more obvious when all the trees are in and it’s landscaped. Right now, it looks barren and a hot place to walk across. When it’s done, it’ll be a lush orchard, cool, shaded, more like a college campus, with lots of inviting spots to sit, take a break, hold an impromptu meeting, throw a frisbee, etc.

    April 18, 2017

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