Designing Interface Animation: an Interview with Val Head

A note from the editors: To mark the publication of Designing Interface Animation, ALA managing editor Mica McPheeters and editor Caren Litherland reached out to Val Head via Google Hangouts and email for a freewheeling conversation about web animation. The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Animation is not new, of course, but its journey on the web has been rocky. For years, technological limitations compelled us to take sides: Should we design rich, captivating sites in Flash? Or should we build static, standards-compliant sites with HTML and CSS (and maybe a little JavaScript)?

Author Val Head describes herself as a “weirdo” who never wanted to choose between those two extremes—and, thanks to the tools at our disposal today, we no longer have to. Without compromising standards, we can now create complex animations natively in the browser: from subtle transitions using CSS to immersive, 3-D worlds with WebGL. Animation today is not just on the web, but of the web. And that, says Val, is a very big deal.

Caren Litherland: Are people intimidated by animation?

Val Head: There are definitely some web folks out there who are intimidated by the idea of using web animation in their work. For some, it’s such a new thing—very few of us have a formal background in motion design or animation—and it can be tough to know where to start or how to use it. I’ve noticed there’s some hesitation to embrace web animation due to the “skip intro” era of Flash sites. There seems to be a fear of recreating past mistakes. But it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

We’re in a new era of web animation right now. The fact that we can create animation with the same technologies we’ve always used to make websites—things like CSS and JavaScript—completely changes the landscape. Now that we can make animation that is properly “of the web” (to borrow a phrase from Jeremy Keith), not just tacked on top with a plug-in, we get to define what the new definition of web animation is with our work.

Right now, on the web, we can create beautiful, purposeful animation that is also accessible, progressively enhanced, and performant. No other medium can do that. Which is really exciting!

CL: I’ve always felt that there was something kind of ahistorical and ahistoricizing about the early web. As the web has matured, it seems to have taken a greater interest in the history and traditions that inform it. Web typography is a good example of this increased self-awareness. Can the same be said for animation?

VH: I think so! In the early days of the web, designers often looked down on it as a less capable medium. Before web type was a thing, a number of my designer friends would say that they could never design for the web because it wasn’t expressive enough as a medium. That the web couldn’t really do design. Then the web matured, web type came along, and that drastically changed how we designed for the web. Web animation is doing much the same thing. It’s another way we have now to be expressive with our design choices, to tell stories, to affect the experience in meaningful ways, and to make our sites unique.

With type, we turned to the long-standing craft of print typography for some direction and ideas, but the more we work with type on the web, the more web typography becomes its own thing. The same is true of web animation. We can look to things like the 12 classic principles of animation for reference, but we’re still defining exactly what web animation will be and the tools and technologies we use for it. Web animation adds another dimension to how we can design on the web and another avenue for reflecting on what the rich histories of design, animation, and film can teach us.

Mica McPheeters: Do you find that animation often gets tacked on at the end of projects? Why is that? Shouldn’t it be incorporated from the outset?

VH: Yes, it often does get left to the end of projects and almost treated as just the icing on top. That’s a big part of what can make animation seem like it’s too hard or ineffective. If you leave any thought of animation until the very end of a project, it’s pretty much doomed to fail or just be meaningless decoration.

Web animation can be so much more than just decoration, but only if we make it part of our design process. It can’t be a meaningful addition to the user experience if you don’t include it in the early conversations that define that experience.

Good web animation takes a whole team. You need input from all disciplines touching the design to make it work well. It can’t just be designed in a vacuum and tossed over the fence. That approach fails spectacularly well when it comes to animation.

Communicating animation ideas and making animation truly part of the process can be the biggest hurdle for teams to embrace animation. Change is hard! That’s why I dedicated two entire chapters of the book to how to get animation done in the real world. I focus on how to communicate animation ideas to teammates and stakeholders, as well as how to prototype those ideas efficiently so you can get to solutions without wasting time. I also cover how to represent animation in your design systems or documentation to empower everyone (no matter what their background is) to make good motion design decisions.

CL: Can you say more about the importance of a motion audit? Can it be carried out in tandem with a content audit? And how do content and animation tie in with each other?

VH: I find motion audits to be incredibly useful before creating a motion style guide or before embarking on new design efforts. It’s so helpful to know where animation is already being used, and to take an objective look at how effective it is both from a UX angle and a branding angle. If you have a team of any significant size, chances are you’ve probably got a lot of redundant, and maybe even conflicting, styles and uses of animation in your site. Motion audits give you a chance to see what you’re already doing, identify things that are working, as well as things that might be broken or just need a little work. They’re also a great way to identify places where animation could provide value but isn’t being used yet.

Looking at all your animation efforts at a high level gives you a chance to consolidate the design decisions behind them, and establish a cohesive approach to animation that will help tie the experience together across mediums and viewport sizes. You really need that high-level view of animation when creating a motion style guide or animation guidelines.
You could definitely collect the data for a motion audit in tandem with a content audit. You’ll likely be looking in all the same places, just collecting up more data as you go through your whole site.

There is a strong tie between content and animation. I’ve been finding this more and more as I work with my consulting clients. Both can be focused around having a strong message and communicating meaningfully. When you have a clear vision of what you want to say, you can say it with the motion you use just like you can say it with the words you choose.

Voice and tone documents can be a great place to start for deciding how your brand expresses itself in motion. I’ve leaned on these more than once in my consulting work. Those same words you use to describe how you’d like your content to feel can be a basis of how you aim to make the animation feel as well. When all your design choices—everything from content, color, type, animation—come from the same place, they create a powerful and cohesive message.

CL: One thing in your book that I found fascinating was your statement that animation “doesn’t have to include large movements or even include motion at all.” Can you talk more about that? And is there any sort of relationship between animation and so called calm technology?

VH: It’s true, animation doesn’t always mean movement. Motion and animation are really two different things, even though we tend to use the words interchangeably. Animation is a change in some property over time, and that property doesn’t have to be a change in position. It can be a change in opacity, or color, or blur. Those kinds of non-movement animation convey a different feel and message than animation with a lot of motion.

If you stick to animating only non-movement properties like opacity, color, and blur, your interface will likely have a more calm and stable feel than if it included a lot of movement. So if your goal is to design something that feels calm, animation can definitely be a part of how you convey that feeling.

Any time you use animation, it says something, there’s no getting around that. When you’re intentional with what you want it to say and how it fits in with the rest of your design effort, you can create animation that feels like it’s so much a part of the design that it’s almost invisible. That’s a magical place to be for design.

MM: Do we also need to be mindful of the potential of animation to cause harm?

VH: We do. Animation can help make interfaces more accessible by reducing cognitive load, helping to focus attention in the right place, or other ways. But it also has potential to cause harm, depending on how you use it. Being aware of how animation can potentially harm or help users leads us to make better decisions when designing it. I included a whole chapter in the book on animating responsibly because it’s an important consideration. I also wrote about how animation can affect people with vestibular disorders a little while back on A List Apart.

MM: Who today, in your opinion, is doing animation right/well/interestingly?

VH: I’m always on the lookout for great uses of animation on the web—in fact, I highlight noteworthy uses of web animation every week in the UI Animation Newsletter.

Stripe Checkout has been one of my favorites for how well it melds UI animation seamlessly into the design. It really achieves that invisible animation that is so well integrated that you don’t necessarily notice it at first. The smooth 3D, microinteraction animation, and sound design on the Sirin Labs product page are also really well done, but take a completely different approach to UI animation than Checkout.

Publications have been using animation in wonderful ways for dataviz and storytelling lately, too. The Wall Street Journal’s Hamilton algorithm piece was a recent data-based favorite of mine and the New York Times did some wonderful storytelling work with animation around the Olympics with their piece on Simone Biles. Also, I really love seeing editorial animation, like the Verge had on a story about Skype’s sound design. The animations they used really brought the story and the sounds they were discussing come to life.

I really love seeing web animation used in such a variety of ways. It makes me extra excited for the future of web animation!

MM: Any parting thoughts, Val?

VH: My best advice for folks who want to use more animation in their work is to start small and don’t be afraid to take risks as you get more comfortable working with animation. The more you animate, the better you’ll get at developing a sense for how to design it well. I wrote Designing Interface Animation to give web folks a solid foundation on animation to build from and I’m really excited to see how web animation will evolve in the near future.

For even more web animation tips and resources, join me and a great bunch of designers and developers on the UI Animation Newsletter for a weekly dose of animation knowledge.

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