What do Pixar’s animators and teenage magicians have in common? Surprisingly, they both have developed some interesting critique techniques that we’ve learned a ton from.

The teenage magicians are members of the Society of Young Magicians’ Boston Chapter. It’s a group of 30 or so kids, ages 8 to 20 years old, who meet monthly to learn about performing magic and hone their skills.

Each meeting, they conduct “The Chosen Ones,” where four of the young magicians perform a five-minute routine and then receive critique from the other kids in the group. When I first heard about this, I thought, “Wow, that’s got to be a disaster.” After all, young adolescents aren’t known for thoughtful critique skills.

I was blown away by the performances and by how constructive and encouraging the critique sessions were. The kids came away feeling good and received a wealth of helpful, instructive ideas on how to make their routine even better. The respect and thoughtfulness these kids put into the sessions is something I wanted to bottle up and bring to every design meeting.

Pixar’s Dailies

Around the same time I was hanging out with the kid magicians, I started learning about Pixar’s process of reviewing their progress in the creation of their great animated films. One of their techniques is a regular meeting they call Dailies.

Dailies come out of the movie industry. They were a morning showing of the previous day’s filming. Before a day’s filming, the director, producers, and senior crew would review the previous day’s film to identify any reshoots or changes.

At Pixar, where films are made in the memory of graphic processors, they’ve morphed the regular meetings into something a little different. In these sessions, artists and crew members present work-in-progress for group critique. Practically every day someone presents what they’ve been working on to gain an outside perspective. The teams at Pixar say dailies are a key contributor to the tight, high-quality films that the company is known for.

Both the SYM’s Chosen Ones and Pixar’s Dailies have evolved into well-honed sessions that produce great results. Taking a moment to peek into how they work can provide us a ton of insights into how we can get the most from our own critiques.

The Importance of Ritual

Each of the several dozen SYM Chosen Ones sessions I attended was conducted the same way. Four kids would perform and for each one the chapter’s vice president, a 15-16 year old, would make a brief professional introduction. The audience would applaud and the performer would start their five-minute routine. Once completed and after the well-deserved rousing applause, the VP would return and ask for “Goods and Bads” – their code word for critique.

At this point, the kids in the audience would politely raise their hands and the VP would call on them to share what they liked and questions they had about the performance. As each person said something nice, the performer would thank them. The performer would address any questions and give thoughtful consideration to improvement ideas that emerged. Everyone in the room was soaking it in.

At the end, the senior adult advisors, many of whom are themselves famous professional magicians, would offer advice following the same goods and bads model the kids used. In many cases, they would just agree and amplify the advice that the other kids had already offered. Then the performer would thank everyone, step off the stage, and the process would repeat for the next child performer.

Having it work exactly the same way each time put the performers at ease. They knew exactly what to do and could concentrate first on their performance and then on the feedback they were receiving. It’s stressful enough presenting your work and getting the feedback without worrying about what’s next and how it comes together.

Separating Out 3 Roles: Presenter, Facilitator, Recorder

Giving the presenter a chance to show their work without being interrupted by a string of questions turns out to be pretty important. After seeing the Chosen Ones in action, I immediately noticed how, in my design reviews, disruptive interruptions can be. It throws the presenter off and doesn’t give them a chance to tell their story about the design and what they’re trying to accomplish.

There are four roles in any critique session. The two everyone’s most familiar with are the presenter and the audience (also sometimes called the critics). However, every session also needs a facilitator and a recorder.

Unfortunately, we often let the presenter also play the roles of facilitator and recorder. The wise kids at SYM let one of their own be the facilitator. (It was officially the VP’s job, but when that kid needed to perform, one of the other chapter officers would facilitate that meeting.)

Recording all the ideas coming in is important and it’s really hard to do, even for seasoned adult presenters, when simultaneously trying to listen and take in the ideas. Having another person record the group’s thoughts gives the presenter the confidence that everything’s being recorded without needing to juggle listening with note taking.

Goods and Bads: Affirmative & Constructive Criticism

By asking for Goods and Bads, the kids knew to start their feedback with a positive comment. We call this affirmative criticism and it’s critical to the great critique sessions.

Receiving a compliment delivers an endorphin rush. The presenter also hears what shouldn’t change or go away in future renditions of the work. In many ways, this is as important than knowing what needs changing. It forms a good design “root system” of that everything else can grow from.

Knowing that one day they’d also be a chosen one, the kids would be very careful about how they worded their “bads.” They’d try to be very constructive, often forming a question, such as, “Did you intend for me to see that was my card before you flipped it over? ” This gives the presenter a chance to think about what they intended to happen, versus what actually happened.

The subsequent discussion delved into fascinating nuance and subtlety about the work that everyone in the room learned something from. You can tell it’s a great critique when everyone’s learning something new, not only the person presenting the work.

The Work-in-Progress Sweet Spot: Being 25% to 75% Done

Pixar has an interesting rule for their dailies: the presented work should be at least 25% done and no more than 75% completed. It should be a solid work-in-progress.

When the work is less than 25% completed, it’s too early and most decisions haven’t been made yet. The session is too likely to turn into group brainstorming and design-by-committee, which everyone wants to avoid. (Brainstorming is great, but not in a daily, where the session is about receiving feedback what’s been done so far.)

When the work is too close to completion, it’s hard to take in the criticism and feedback. At that point, there’s just not enough wiggle room for changes. Instead, Pixar wants to find their work-in-progress sweet spot — that place where the direction can change and new ideas are easy to take in.

Everyone’s Invited

Pixar opens their dailies up to anyone who wants to come. It’s not unheard of for someone from accounting to sit in on a review of an upcoming film’s art direction.

By being open, ideas emerge that are unconstrained by the thinking that’s already gone on. It also helps the presenter remember to bring out some of the early thinking and design rationale, thereby challenging and reaffirming they are still the right direction to take.

Subsequently, other departments at Pixar, including the business side, have started presenting their own work in dailies. It’s a great forum to get outside views and to help understand how you’ve gotten to this point.

Great Critique Doesn’t Happen By Accident

Critique is one of the most valuable tools a design team has. Careful thought and consideration on how it’s done is as important as doing it.

The lessons we can take from the kids at SYM and the animators at Pixar tell us we need to be thoughtful in how we run our own critiques. There’s a lot for us to learn from these guys and gals.

Want to Learn More?

Critique is a critical role in the design process but often it's not done in a productive manner. In this article, Jared explores critique techniques and discusses four important roles of the process. Design studios and critiques are so instrumental in the design processes that we've included it as a one day workshop at the User Interface 18 Conference in Boston, October 21-23. In Adam Connor and Aaaron Irizarry’s workshop, Building Consensus in Critiques and Design Studios, you’ll learn how to become better at conducting your own critiques in order to become better at problem solving and design.


Jared SpoolAbout the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company, helps clients understand how to solve their design problems, explains to reporters and industry analysts what the current state of design is all about, and is a top-rated speaker at dozens of conferences every year.



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