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Conference recap: Joe Rohde on the power of story and theme

October 19, 2011

“Making magical things happen is a process,” said Joe Rohde, senior vice president and creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, at yesterday’s morning keynote General Session at the 2011 PRSA International Conference in Orlando, Fla.

He used examples from his work at Walt Disney World Resort’s Animal Kingdom theme park to further explain the importance of theme and story. Rohde led the team that conceptualized, designed and built Animal Kingdom, which veered away from the traditional structure of a theme park and focused more on nature.

“Story is human nature at the very essence,” he said. “There are rules of order that say how we structure stories and how we conceptualize time. Both of these are so key to how are brains perceive the world, that in general, what is happening to us at any moment in our life is that we are telling ourselves a story — we’re translating everything that happens into story as it happens in front of us.

“Story is a kind of fractal structure,” he continued. “It has a kind of self-similarity to it. It returns again and again to its own structure, looks back to its own arc and it tries to re-express that again in different layers of structure.”
You should be prepared to address threats and opportunities concerning your story, he said. “What makes a story interesting is the contrast between the pattern — which should be predictable enough that you can recognize it as a pattern — and the interruptions in this pattern, which are surprising enough that you keep looking to see where is this going and what is going to happen,” he said. “Stories should be predictable enough to be [recognizable and familiar], yet different enough to hold your attention. Theme is the core basis of story.”

Before a designer begins to work, he or she needs to create a statement of purpose and a plan regarding the chosen theme, Rohde said. Theme guides the design process and guides you through crisis.

You need to ask yourself questions about your project such as, “Is it sustaining my plot? Is it sustaining my theme?” he said. You have to first articulate the plot and then remove or reduce things — reducing things can tell a better story.

“You are far better off cutting, but retaining a sense of what you’re trying to say than you are reducing and losing altogether what you want to say,” Rohde said. “Theme defines context in which these things can be seen.

“Theme modifies mission,” he continued. “It leads you off of the metrics. In general, smart people with access to numbers will reach the same conclusion. Numbers represent facts, smart people look at them, and they all head to the same place. It makes for extremely stiff competition in a narrow margin on a narrow playing field if you follow metrics to their logical conclusion. When you apply theme to metrics, it causes you to diverge because you have another factor in the equation over and above the metrics. You have this desire to express something.”

Are you creative enough to add a theme? he asked the audience. When you apply the metrics, you have to open the playing field and use contrast to reinforce themes and stories.

New opportunities

Rohde also discussed the Hawaiian resort Aulani that he has been working on and it’s theme of the intrinsic value of nature, while also stressing the importance of research and culture immersion. He is responsible for the creative design and content at Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa, at Ko Olina, Oahu, Hawaii, which opened this past August. “The ideas drove us into a relationship and that relationship drove us into a product that is remarkably distinctive to the average product that’s out there by its dedication and focus on these ideas,” he said. “And those ideas express themselves in various levels of literalness and abstraction.”

It’s important to figure out what the essence of your journey is, Rohde said. Often the mission will have every possibility of killing the values of your theme, like a thrill ride in a nature-themed park. “Theme expands opportunity,” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘what is it about our mission that drives it into unique territory?’”

We use stories to construct information. “Every day, when we look out at the world, there’s all this input coming in and we are constructing it into little boxes of ideas so that we can say, ‘this day was about this,’ or ‘this place was about this,’ or ‘this is why I’m here and this is what I’m doing.’ A place that has been constructed in that way is constructed as a mirror of your own comprehension — of your own consciousness.”

Rohde noted the importance of building your business or enterprise this way too, with people thinking in terms of stories. “It allows the ensemble of people working on the story to work together in a very clear and coordinated way because they’re working inside of a story, and they know what their place in the story is,” he said.

Also, when you strip away unnecessary information and present an understandable proposal to the viewer, they will come to a unified end result. “Those two things together work with people in this harmonious way that produces almost a musical resonance,” he said.

“That’s the power that comes from treating any enterprise as if it was a story,” he said.  “Humans live inside of story anyway, so by doing this, you have tremendous power, vitality and momentum to human action that allows you to propel yourself out of the usual territory and into this unoccupied territory that is out there — free for the taking — for anyone who chooses to go. But that choice is a conscious choice that is driven by story and storytelling."

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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