Of Kratos and Coco: The Power of Research Trips

Creativity is one of the most valued, yet enigmatic traits in human history. It’s impossible to measure, but immediately recognizable. It can come from anywhere, yet has the ability to be absent when you need it the most. Perhaps it’s for this reason that we hail those with the ability to consistently deliver on creativity as geniuses. Members of society operating on a level of limitless inspiration with an incomprehensibly different view of the world. 

All in all, these factors come together to paint a rather romantic portrait of creativity. They also add up to create a rather large problem for us non-geniuses: how do we create an environment in which creativity can be consistently delivered? Of course, there will never be one catch-all solution, but there are techniques we can learn from studying the best in the business. Of these, one of the most interesting cases is the power of research trips as exemplified by the creative minds at Pixar and Santa Monica Studio.


In Creativity, Inc. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull describes the challenge of creativity without context by saying “When filmmakers, industrial designer, software designers, or people in any other creative profession merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but is craft without art.”

The book goes on to describe countless example of the teams at Pixar going to extreme lengths to inspire creativity. A two-week trip to France to dine in Michelin-starred restaurants. An ostrich that was brought to the Pixar headquarters. A visit to a San Francisco sewage treatment plant to confirm that it is possible for a fish to get from a drain to the ocean. The list goes on.

In his words “research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.”

Santa Monica Studio

Jumping down the California coast to a completely different industry, the incredible documentary Raising Kratos gives us a front row seat to the game development process of Sony's Santa Monica Studio. Early in the documentary we're taken along with the team as they travel to Iceland to gather research and inspiration for their Norse mythology themed game, God of War. The trip included a cross-functional team of producers, artists and developers all focused on capturing the realism of the region to help bring the creative vision of the game to life.

During the segment, an unidentified team member reflects on the trip saying “As I was looking around at the beauty of Iceland for the first time, it really hit me that the path that we were on was the right path. I could see the game for the first time, truly in my heart.”

God of War went on to receive universal acclaim, numerous perfect score ratings and was awarded 2018’s Game of the Year. Despite operating in vastly different industries, it’s fascinating to see the same fundamental steps being taken by both Santa Monica Studio and Pixar in their award-winning creative process.  

So What?

In a world where creativity has become a product, it’s easy for us to let go of the fundamentals that inspire truly moving work. For us in the agency business, it’s even harder to go deep when teams are balancing different clients, projects and tight deadlines. However, I do believe that there are three simple steps that can help foster a culture of creativity by putting research trips at the forefront of an organizational approach to work.

  1. Analysis: Is your team equipped to handle the upcoming project without a research trip?
  2. Scale: If a research trip is required, what is the appropriate scale? If you’re producing a multi-million-dollar game focused on Norse mythology, a trip to Iceland makes sense. In smaller cases, a trip to your local Nordic museum should be just fine.
  3. Execution: Outlining a clear objective for the trip is an essential part of getting return on investment. Team members should have a clear understanding of why they’re going, what they should be looking for and be encouraged to systematically collect notes and discuss their experience upon return.