Part Two with Eddie Sotto: Experiential Design & Learning from the Legends

Eddie Sotto is a thinker, a visionary and a Disney Imagineer. One of the world’s most respected creative consultants and theme park attraction designers, Eddie is CEO of Sotto Studios in Los Angeles. Join us now for part two of our latest interview with Eddie Sotto.
“Passion is the “secret weapon” of design. It separates art from technique. It drives the details, takes us beyond ourselves, and is the fire that refines great ideas to their essence. The power within something executed from obsession is practically divine as the guest never sees the effort, only the final perfected result. Passion “detonates” when the details come together seamlessly and the years of sweat become condensed into a stunning instant when the guest emotionally experiences the work. The fallout is addictive.  If we succeed, they’ll tell their friends it’s “magic”.  – Eddie SottoNN: Tell us about Sotto Studios. What are you doing doing currently?
We are currently having fun running a broad based experiential design studio, Sotto Studios, here in Los Angeles. We only take on a few select projects a year. If there was one thing I learned from guys like John Hench and Herb Ryman, it was how they approached places as emotional “experiences” and not just themed environments. I gathered from them that the most important aspect is “form follows feeling”.
NN: “Form follows feeling”. That’s quite an interesting departure from the traditional modern architects’ view “Form Follows Fuction.”
You mentioned the term experiential design. Why is this term special to you?
Entertainment Design exists to emotionally move the audience; so it makes sense that what you do comes as a result of what you want the guest to feel. That is why we call ourselves “experiential designers”. This broad approach to design has led us into fields we did not originally anticipate. It led us into creating new television formats, reinventing the car showroom, creating new themed restaurants, and developing some very extreme residential designs. So with that “creative solution” based mantra, we get to work in areas we would otherwise miss out on if we didn’t have a studio like ours.
NN: You speak quite often about the Disney Imagineering legends Herb Ryman and John Hench.  There is a special bond there it seems between you and them, it seems. Will you explain what they mean to you, personally?
Eddie Sotto: Herb Ryman taught me how to work and how to think. Herbie taught me that research was the most important thing. He taught me that history would grab him by the throat, as he used to tell me. When I went to Paris for example, he gave me a list of the places I had to go, had to see – places that would be indelibly marked on my soul forever.


Disney Imagineer, animator & artist Herb Ryman (1910-1989)
Herbie was a tough guy in the beginning but soon he became very encouraging to me. I was proud of the fact that we would get along so well. He was also John De Cuir’s teacher, my mentor. I loved John De Cuir, the production designer. I once told Herbie that and he said, “Well, I was his teacher,” and that blew me away!
Herb Ryman taught me about putting yourself, your own personality and your own interests into a design…really finding what you love about something and putting in that depth. Anything can be done cheaply. Anyone can contrive a themed area. But really researching it and putting in the detail is something that the audience will always perceive. That was something that Herbie taught me.
Herbie also taught me about being specifically vague. That is, creating renderings and paintings and drawings that put the soul of the project out there and let the people in the audience see things in their own way. He never articulated it, but I got that from him. He would say, “Eddie don’t detail it too much.” You want people to see what they want to see in the image. In the early stages of a project nothing is more important than that.


Herb Ryman’s famous concept rendering of the Haunted Mansion at New Orlean’s Square Disneyland.


“Specifically vague” concept art. Herb Ryman’s rendering of Spaceship Earth at EPCOT circa 1981.


Herb Ryman’s vision of Walt Disney’s “Progress City” was the inspiration for EPCOT. It also inspired Sotto to open a design studio of the same name.
Herb Ryman had a life outside of Disney, too. Herbie was fascinated with people and life. He was also fascinated with people’s business. Tony Sarg did studies of people in New YorkCity. He drew cartoons of crowd scenes, and the crowd was always doing something. Herbie loved Tony’s books.
He said, “Eddie, you do these renderings and it looks like commercial art because the people are all stick figures.” They are there as a necessary evil that gets in front of the architecture. John Hench’s drawings were like that. The people are there because they have to be. But Herbie had nuns in his paintings, and children, and chinamen, and all sort of things going on. Herbie said, “It’s a snapshot of life!


Tony Sarg’s crowd scenes in artwork like this inspired Disney Imagineer Herb Ryman.


This Ryman rendering of the image of Tomorrowland Entrance for Disneyland includes families doing things together just as Walt Disney envisioned.
I think what made Herbie Ryman great was that he put soul into what he was doing. I think that’s what made him special. He had a great life even beyond Disney. He humanized the people who worked for Walt and he loved Walt Disney. He was great artist on his own but he knew he could be more prolific as a Disney artist on a team working for Disney.
That was a great lesson. If life is just about you, then you are going to reach the people that are just about you. But if you are working in a team organization and you are putting your work on a palette where a lot of people can enjoy it, you can sacrifice anonymity for something that a lot of people will enjoy. That’s an interesting, humble way of looking at things.
NN: What did Disney Imagineering legend John Hench mean to you?
Eddie Sotto: Those two guys [Hench and Ryman] were not in love with each other. They didn’t like each other much but they had unique perspectives on the Imagineering journey. They each taught me their own perspective on the Imagineering process.
John Hench had some interesting ideas in terms of how to create a process. He instilled in me his concepts of survival and why people go on theme park rides. In his mind, people go to assure themselves that everything is going to be okay. His concept of reassurance are in his books like Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance.


John Hench and Walt Disney talk in front of a model of Disneyland during the television series, Disneyland.
John Hench was not a great personal friend in a sense, because we didn’t socialize. But I was always pleased because while he was known to be tough on Imagineers; he liked the work that I did and he encouraged me. I showed him a lot of the work we were doing. I was happy because he made very few critiques of what we were doing and he was very supportive of my designs.
He encouraged me. He said, “Eddie, don’t be afraid of color.” People are terrified by color. Don’t be afraid to use it!”
NN: Thanks so much Eddie! Let us continue and discuss your newest project: To be continued…

Part Two with Eddie Sotto: Experiential Design & Learning from the Legends

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