Discover the language of motion design

Justin Cone explores how the ever-evolving medium of motion can really capture an audience's imagination, and deliver the most complex of concepts with flair.

The proliferation of screens in our lives has transformed nearly every static surface into a dynamic canvas. In our pockets, on the street and projected onto virtually everything around us, technology has promoted a new aspect of our designed world: motion.

Motion design is notoriously difficult to define. It's shorthand for the longer but only slightly more helpful term, 'motion graphic design'. For many, this conjures visions of logo animations or cheesy wedding video effects. For others, it suggests abstract 3D shapes undulating in beautifully complex but ultimately meaningless forms.

Motion graphic design, it would seem, is a fairly shallow practice. All artifice, little substance. But if we reconfigure the phrase to 'graphic design in motion', it suddenly blooms with possibility. Graphic design sits at the intersection of many complementary fields. A small sampling from a seasoned graphic designer might include colour theory, photography, illustration and typography - all working harmoniously together to communicate messages. If graphic design were a language (and you could argue that it is), then these skills are some of its verbs. Its nouns run the gamut from branding and advertising to art and architecture.

The language of motion

Adding motion to the mix doesn't simply broaden the skillset of graphic designers, it redefines it. Photography becomes cinematography. Illustration becomes animation. Even the essential skill of layout morphs into something else, something more akin to understanding the rhythmic structures of music than the solid forms of print. Motion design is, in other words, a new language. And designers have only just begun to test the limits of its expressive power.

In 2008, a global economic crisis brought the world's financial markets to their knees. Seemingly overnight, stock prices tumbled, investors panicked and millions of people lost their jobs, their homes and their sense of wellbeing. Dumbstruck, we groped for answers. What the hell had just happened?

Adding motion to the mix doesn’t simply broaden the skillset of graphic designers, it redefines it

Around the same time in New York City, ground zero for the economic epidemic, Jonathan Jarvis was toiling away under a fellowship on UNICEF’s innovation team. His tasks involved translating complex concepts into digestible diagrams. As he crafted interwoven graphics explaining such esoterica as credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations, he thought back to some earlier animations he'd created while he was studying media design at the Art Center College of Design.

He realised that using animation in combination with his explanatory graphic design work for UNICEF could work as a new approach for demystifying the credit crisis. So he set about creating The Crisis of Credit Visualized, a 10-minute motion design opus that garnered millions of views in its first few months online and sparked conversation across the web about how we’d gotten ourselves into such a fine mess.

The film, while not the first of its kind, represented a then-nascent trend for the motion design world - and for marketers and advertisers. Using motion design to explain complex economic ideas was only a few short steps away from using it to explain new products and services. The same strengths of the medium that make it so effective for unpacking complex concepts to wide audiences also make it effective for explaining value propositions to those same audiences.

From 2007 to the present day, dozens - and now thousands - of so-called 'explainer videos' started popping up online. Many of these, like Jarvis' work, were aimed at informing the public and benefiting the greater good. But a growing number yearned for a different goal: to sell stuff. Companies with names like Demo Duck, Explanify and Planet Nutshell sprang up to help companies launch products and services using the language of motion design.

Asked if explainer video production is still a growth market today, Demo Duck’s Founder and CEO Andrew Follett said, "Absolutely. And that’s not just a feeling, it’s from the increased demand we’ve seen from all different industries looking for marketing videos."

Television, print and radio ads have almost always focused on why a product will bring you happiness: it will make you sexy. It will make you strong. It will make you rich. With only 30 seconds of airtime or a slice of a magazine spread, broadcast advertising has no time to waste. It must create a problem by dramatising some (often imaginary) inadequacy in you, the consumer, and 'solve' it with a product, service or brand.

Consumers today are still very much susceptible to this approach. It remains the dominant form of advertising. But, much to the consternation of advertisers, the internet has inserted itself between advertisement and purchase. The web, with its vast trove of product reviews, social media updates and shopping tools, has encouraged people to pause for an instant before hitting the 'buy' button or approaching the register.

In short, the web makes it possible to ask one simple but pointed question: How? Exactly how will this product make me sexy? How will it bring me happiness? Answering those questions takes more time than a television spot can allow. Thankfully, on the web, there are no time limits. A spot can be as long as needed, provided it holds the viewer’s attention.

Information versus entertainment

"I remember a project briefing at Google Creative Lab, where one of the art directors drew a Cartesian diagram with 'Information' on the X-axis and 'Entertainment' on the Y-axis," explains Orion Tait, executive creative director at animation studio Buck.

"He then plotted a point in the upper-right quadrant to help explain where on the scale that particular project fell. For example, the piece we made for 'Google Offers' would be higher in entertainment than information, whereas 'Google eBooks' is more didactic."

In a video created for the launch of Google eBooks, Buck exploited motion design’s ability to tell stories across media. Handcrafted stop-action commingles with slick CG animation as the narrator explains the key value points of Google's eBooks platform. Each vignette in the video revolves around a visual metaphor inspired by the voice-over script. The result is a deepening - both on an emotional and intellectual level - of the video's message. This freedom to explore the possibilities in the space between the voice-over and visuals is one of motion design’s most appealing strengths.

"The distilled visuals serve as anchors that take the heavy descriptive lifting off the narration’s shoulders, freeing it up to focus on the big picture," says Jarvis, who is coincindentally now a designer at Google. "The narration describes some of the less tangible concepts that are difficult to visualise and prevents the visuals from having to illustrate absolutely everything."

Current trends in the world of explainer videos include the use of iconic imagery, bold palettes and fluid 2D animation to create seamless transitions between visuals. Certain tropes - circular animation motifs, grey or off-white backgrounds, UI-inspired graphical elements - surface so often that the entire genre starts to feel vaguely formulaic. The reason for these visual commonalities, though, might be attributable to something more than just the mindless echoing of the latest trends. Over the past several years, simplicity of visuals has been persistent in explainer videos, suggesting that there might be some deeper justification.

One concept from the field of multimedia learning might explain why. Cognitive Load Theory is the idea that every learner can process only a limited amount of information over a given period of time. There's a sweet spot of visual and auditory information that doesn't overload or 'underload' the learner’s capacity to process and store new ideas. In motion design, stripping back the visuals to their simplest forms reduces cognitive load, allowing the viewer to internalise the meaning of the graphical elements and focus on the interplay between them, rather than on the elements themselves.

The characters aren’t the stars, the relationships between them are

"That's one of the reasons I use very simple graphic styles," says Jarvis. "Each character should use as little detail as possible to represent a concept. It's the relationships between the characters and concepts I'm trying to communicate: 'this makes that happen'. The characters aren’t the stars, the relationships between them are."

Launching product concepts

The immensely popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter created an interesting phenomenon for motion design. At the top of every project page is a block reserved for a piece of content that will make or break the project: the video. While many of these are lazy webcam shots of the project creators standing in their living room in front of a draped bed sheet, a growing number are harnessing the power of motion design to drive interest - and dollars - to their projects.

Elequa, a clean water start-up in Texas, used motion design to explain the global water shortage crisis and the science behind its technological solution to it. Although its product only exists as a prototype in a lab, in two-and-a-half minutes Elequa was able to explain its grand vision for the future and invite viewers to co-create it.

In addition to helping to raise funding, explainer videos for non-existent products can raise opinions of a brand. Design firm Ideo sought to examine the experience of reading by introducing imagined products in a motion design-laden video entitled The Future of the Book. In the video, three concepts for reading apps are introduced, each with a different spin on the activity of reading. While the film does an excellent job of explaining each notion, there's a secondary benefit - by presenting thoughtful, forwardlooking concepts for something so universal as reading, the video paints a portrait of Ideo as a thoughtful, forward-looking company.

Motion design is also often the fastest, cheapest way to test a product’s viability. At Frog Design, motion is used not only to help solve design problems but also as an internal pitch tool. "You can spend an hour in After Effects and get a good set of screens to take you through a product," explains senior designer Umyot Boonmarlart. "That doesn't just help you envision what’s going to happen in the product, it’s also a pitch. It creates a lot of impact in a short period of time."

From brand DNA to motion

Sometimes, companies need to do more than simply launch a new product. Sometimes, they need to relaunch themselves. When Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg took to the stage to deliver his first keynote address at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, he had no small task before him. In 60 minutes, he had to explain what he called 'The Networked Society' - a new vision not just for Ericsson but for the entire ecosystem of consumer technologies connected to Ericsson: from online gaming to mobile filmmaking.

He couldn't just present facts, he needed to inspire his audience. So, for the centrepiece of his talk, Ericsson turned to brand agency Jack Morton Worldwide and Dutch motion design studio Onesize. Together, they crafted a tour de force of motion design. In three minutes, the video retells the history of Ericsson, recasts the present state of mobile technology and hints at a revolution just over the horizon.

Unlike the relatively Spartan explainer videos, this type of motion design takes a maximalist approach. Here, narrative and visual spectacle are the primary vehicles of messaging - cognitive load be damned. For a brand film like the Ericsson keynote, the amount of information to convey is relatively low. As a result, the chains could be tossed off the visual design without negatively impacting the project’s effectiveness.

All of the many strengths of motion design come together in this keynote film: storytelling, metaphorical imagery, seamless transitions between connected ideas and a novel visual language to capture viewers' attention and hold it. While it's true that live action could have accomplished some of this, only motion design was suited to link a steady stream of branded information to the film’s narrative framework.

At the furthest end of the visual maximalism spectrum in motion design, you'll find product launch videos for the beauty and fashion markets. To call these projects shallow would be a mistake, though. While the need for communicating complex concepts may be relatively low, the need to instill the brand's DNA in the consciousness of the viewer is very high. This is arguably just as nuanced and difficult as unraveling the mysteries behind an economic collapse.

A nuanced approach

One stunning example can be found one of G-Star Raw’s launch videos for its Spring-Summer 2013 apparel collection. The Art of Raw, created by Glassworks Amsterdam, is a jaw-dropping CG odyssey through the creation of G-Star denim. Through a series of fantastically detailed macro shots, the film is a breathless ride with a surprise ending featuring a canine skeleton clad in a denim vest. The whole thing is exceptionally surreal, and yet grounded in a tangible reality. It seems at once otherworldly and intimately familiar.

That is, in essence, what motion design does for marketing. It bridges a mysterious gap between consumer and product. On one side of that gap, the consumer has an unvoiced desire for something and an untapped imagination to envision it. On the other side of that gap are brands, products, services and ideas that represent the fulfilment of that desire.

Motion design, with its virtually unlimited tool chest of techniques, fills in the gaps with the dreamlike logic of animation and design. It illuminates a path co-created by the viewer from point A to point B, so that when the viewer arrives at the other side, it feels as though the destination has been earned. That's a powerful thing. It means that the message is not so much consumed as it is owned. Here's to mastering the new language of motion design.

Justin Cone is the director of special operations at US-based production company Psyop, and the founder of He has spoken around the world about motion design, and served as a professor of Motion Media Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 221.

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