Designing Interface Animation

A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share Chapter 9 of Val Head’s new book, Designing Interface Animation: Meaningful Motion for User Experience, available now from Rosenfeld. For 20% off all books purchased through rosenfeldmedia.com, use the discount code ALADIA.

Each animation in an interface tells a micro story, and as a user encounters more and more animations throughout your site or product, these micro stories add up to reveal the personality and story of the brand or product behind them. The animations create an impression; they give your brand a certain personality. It’s up to us as designers to take control of the combined story that animations are telling about the brand we’re working on. Your animations will be much more effective if you intentionally design the additional messages they’re sending.

Brand animation design guidelines aren’t something entirely new, of course. Brands have been expressing themselves in motion in commercials, TV bumpers, video titles, and similar places for years, and they’ve had guidelines for those mediums. What’s new is the idea of needing animation design guidelines for the web or interfaces. Even if your brand will never be in a traditional commercial or video, having a website is enough of a reason to need a motion style guide these days.

How Your Brand Moves Tells Its Story

Deciding what you use animation for, and how you implement it, for a particular project defines how you express your brand or tell your brand’s story with animation. Often, the decisions of which properties to animate or what easing to use on which elements is done at the component or page level without considering the bigger picture. Assembling a global set of rules about motion and animation for your entire project will help you make more cohesive animation decisions moving forward. These choices lead to more consistent design decisions surrounding animation and make your design stronger overall. It requires you to go back and forth between the big picture of the overall project and the more detailed components, but your entire design will benefit from looking at the project from both perspectives as you work.

There are two approaches to begin defining how your brand expresses itself in motion. The first is to go from the bottom up: start by evaluating what you already have and build from there. The second is to go from the top down: first, determine what it is your brand should be saying about itself on a high level, and then determine how individual animations will express that concept.

The first approach works best for existing projects that already use animation. There could be hidden gems of communication to build upon in the animations you’ve already designed—ones that will inform the bigger picture you’re working to define. The second approach is generally your only option when starting a brand new project, as there won’t be any existing animation to start from. Whichever approach you choose (or even if you use both), you’ll arrive at the same end result, a common set of guidelines for putting your brand in motion, so they are equally good places to begin.

Defining Your Brand in Motion from the Bottom Up

Before you start documenting for the future, you need to get a good picture of what you’re currently using animation for. It’s hard to move forward before knowing where you currently stand. (That is, unless you’re planning to throw it all out and start over.) For existing projects that already use animation, you can start with a motion audit to find all the instances and ways you’re currently using animation. Collecting these in one place will identify the common threads and even help you eliminate unnecessary duplicated or overly similar animations. A motion audit will focus your animation efforts and the design reasoning behind them.

A motion audit gathers up all the interface animations you’re currently using to identify patterns and evaluate their effectiveness as a group.

The Motion Audit

To collect all your animations in one place, you’ll need some screen recording software that will output video. QuickTime is a handy built-in option for Macs, but a more specialized tool like ScreenFlow can save you some time with its more robust cropping and editing tools. Use whichever tool is easiest and fastest for you. The exact software used is less important than the end collection and what it will tell you.

How to do a motion audit (Fig. 9.1):

  • Collect screen recordings of every animation currently on your site. (Be sure to get a recording of all the different states for interactive animations.)
  • Crop and edit the video clips as needed to focus in on the animations.
  • Assemble all the video clips into one document and group them in categories according to content type (for example, one slide for all the button animations, one slide for navigation animations, etc.).
  • Review the document with your team to evaluate your brand’s existing animation style.

When you have all of those in one place, you can look for global trends, find potential redundancies, and most importantly, evaluate if the way you’re currently using animation accurately reflects the personality of your brand or product.

A screenshot of a page/slide of a motion audit document created for Shopify.
Fig 9.1: A screenshot of a page/slide of a motion audit document created for Shopify.

Software for Motion Audits

Recording Animations

For the screen recording part of motion audits, I like to use ScreenFlow. It’s Mac only, but Camtasia offers similar functionality for both Windows and Mac. The QuickTime player that comes installed with OS X is also an option. It’s especially good for recording animations from an iPhone. Just plug it into the computer and select it as a camera in QuickTime.

The Motion Audit Document

My preferred software for the end document is Keynote. (PowerPoint would do just fine here as well.) I prefer it because it makes it easy to set each animation’s video clip to play when clicked and because it lends itself well to be projected and discussed as a group.

When Keynote isn’t an option, creating a web-based motion audit is a good alternative. It’s easy to share, and the video clips can be played directly from within the web pages. I find that having the videos playable from the document is really useful. Often, you’ll discover animations that some of your teammates weren’t aware of or maybe haven’t encountered in a while.

The key is having an end result that can be shared and discussed easily. So if there’s another format that your team has a strong preference for, you can make that work, too.

Evaluate Your Existing Animation’s Design

The first question you’ll want to investigate is: Does the personality expressed by the existing animations fit your brand? Look at the qualities of the animations you’re using to answer this one. What kind of personality traits do the easing and timing used convey? If it’s snappy and bouncy, does that match your brand’s personality and energy? If it’s all stable ease-in-outs, is your brand personality also stable and decided? If you find the mood of the animations doesn’t fit your brand’s personality, small changes to the easing and timing could make a huge difference to bring the animation in line with your brand.

If the personality conveyed from your animations is all over the place and not cohesive at all, starting over and taking the top-down approach described might be the next best step. It’s often easier to work from the top down with a clear vision, as opposed to trying to fix a huge group of existing animations that are all a little bit off.

If the personality conveyed by your animations does fit your brand perfectly, great! Take a detailed look at what all these animations have in common. List the easing, timing, and other design choices they have in common. This will be the basis of your brand’s animation style guide.

Evaluate Your Existing Animation’s Purpose

Next, look at the purpose of the animations you’ve collected. How are they aiding your users in their tasks? Are they bringing something positive to the experience? Their purpose can be anything from something tactical like providing feedback to something more branding related like expressing your brand’s personality. Challenge yourself to articulate a purpose for each one to help you evaluate how useful they are. If there’s no definable purpose for an animation to be there, consider eliminating or redesigning it to have a solid purpose and goal. (Good UX purposes for animation are covered in Chapters 4 through 8.)

It’s also helpful to group the animations in your motion audit by their purpose—gathering up all the animations that are there to give feedback into one section, for example. This can reveal some helpful insights, similarities, and patterns among animations that share a similar purpose.

Define Your Brand in Motion from the Top Down

If your brand doesn’t currently use any animation or if you’re starting a new project, you can develop your brand’s animation design guidelines from the top down instead. That is, start from your brand’s design philosophy or the traits your brand aims to embody and decide how to translate those into animation. It’s starting from a different place, but it gets you to the same end goal of having specific and defined ways that your brand will exist in motion.

The Words You Use to Describe Your Brand

Start with the adjectives that you use to describe your brand or product. The description of the personality or feelings it aims to create. Is your brand energetic? Friendly? Strong? Playful? Stable? All this descriptive language can be translated into motion just like it can for other design tools like typography and color. Animation speaks in similar ways.

A great place to look for these descriptive words is in your copywriting guidelines or voice and tone guidelines. Many of the same words used to describe how to write for your brand can be directly applied to motion as well. Brand style guides or brand books can also be a good source for descriptive language.

If none of the above exists for your brand, you’ll need to do a little work to define your brand’s voice. “5 Easy Steps to Define and Use Your Brand Voice” by Erika Heald could be helpful for a quick start. Or to get even deeper into defining your brand, I recommend reading Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler.

Energetic

If your brand is energetic, friendly, or bold, animation that relies on a lot of overshoots or follow-through and anticipation can help convey a sense of energy. Softly overshooting the target position can make animations feel both friendly and energetic. Drastic overshoots and quick speed changes read as bold and outgoing. Taken even further, adding a bit of bounce to overshoots or follow-through can convey a sense of even more energy in a movement—so much energy that an object has to bounce off its destination once or twice before it settles (Fig. 9.2).

Placement of square shapes in relation to a target finish line
Placement of square shapes in relation to a target finish line
Placement of square shapes in relation to a target finish line
Fig 9.2: Follow-through and overshoots in motion come across as energetic. The more exaggerated the movement, the more energy is implied. See it in action in this video.

Quick, soft movements—like overshoots—tend to read as energetic in a friendly way. On the other hand, quick movement with sharp changes in direction can suggest impatience, curtness, or urgency. That kind of movement is difficult to show in print, but you can see a video version here to see what I mean.

Playful and Friendly

Playful brands can take advantage of squash and stretch to convey that playfulness (Fig. 9.3). Squash and stretch also makes movements read as energetic. However, beware, because it can also make motion look childish or sloppy if it’s done with too much of a heavy hand. But, on the other hand, when it’s done well, it can really set you apart.

Bouncy easing can also evoke friendliness or playfulness. Wobbly bounces can seem playful and elastic, while springy bounces can seem friendly.

Rounded and elliptical shapes suggesting changes in dimension
Rounded and elliptical shapes suggesting changes in dimension
Rounded and elliptical shapes suggesting changes in dimension
Fig 9.3:
Squash and stretch tends to create a sense of playfulness and a little goes a long way. See it in action in this video.

Decisive and Sure

Ease-in-outs—that is any easing that gradually speeds up into the action, is fastest in the middle, and then slows at the end of the action—are balanced and stable. They produce animation that accelerates into the action and then slows down to hit its end target exactly and with precision and decisiveness. Sticking with variations of ease-in-outs can communicate a sense of stability and balance for your brand. A variation of ease-in-out easing applied to a simple horizontal movement would look like this video example in Fig. 9.4.

A graphic illustration the curves of an ease-in-out progression
Fig 9.4: Motion with ease-in-out easing like the graph above, and similar easing curve variations, tends to read as calm and decisive action because elements move fastest in the middle of the action and decelerate into their final position. You can see the resulting motion in this video.

Calm

The amount of movement you employ can also say something about your brand. Animation doesn’t necessarily have to include large movements or even include motion at all. Smaller movements read as more calm and subtle than larger more drastic movements. Using smaller movements can contribute to the stable and calm personality of your brand.

You can still imply the same kinds of movements, just in a less drastic way. For example, when you aim to create small movements, you might have a modal animate into place from 50% of the way down the screen instead of 100% off-screen past the bottom of the visible area (Fig. 9.5).

Visual comparisons of location adjustments as a square either moves in small increments or large ones
Visual comparisons of location adjustments as a square either moves in small increments or large ones
Visual comparisons of location adjustments as a square either moves in small increments or large ones
Visual comparisons of location adjustments as a square either moves in small increments or large ones
Visual comparisons of location adjustments as a square either moves in small increments or large ones
Visual comparisons of location adjustments as a square either moves in small increments or large ones
Fig 9.5: Both squares in the frames above arrive at the same destination, but the first one gets there by moving a shorter distance. This smaller movement often reads as feeling calmer and more subdued than larger movements. See both in action in video: small movements vs. large movements.

Stable

Animating properties like opacity and blur instead of creating movement is another way of conveying a sense of calm and stability (Fig. 9.6). (Animating these properties will change the appearance of the object—making it more transparent or blurred, for example—but because the position of the element isn’t being animated, no movement will occur.) It can also convey a sense of softness or even feel dreamy, depending on how softly you use the opacity and blurs. Sticking to these nonmovement properties can still say so much about your brand in small spaces where motion may not be possible or desirable.

A square shape progressively becoming transparent
A square shape progressively becoming transparent
A square shape progressively becoming transparent
Fig 9.6: Animating non-motion properties, like blur and opacity, can read as more stable and subtle. See it in action in this video.

These are just the start of adjectives to consider when trying to convey a specific type of energy in the design of your animation. Like most other design tools, it’s more of an art than a science. Experiment with the guidelines to find what expresses your brand best for you.

Referencing Motion from Real Life

Looking to the physical world can be a great option for finding your brand’s style for motion by finding a physical object or creature to emulate with your on-screen animation. Technically, you could choose anything at all to base your motion on, but this works best when the thing you choose is relevant—either literally or metaphorically—to your product or brand.

IBM has done a wonderful job of this with its Machines in Motion design guidelines. IBM used to make those giant, room-sized computers, typewriters, and other hardware before becoming the IBM they are today. They decided to reach back to their rich history as a company when defining how they would express their brand in motion (Fig. 9.7).

Screenshot of IBM’s Machines in Motion design guidelines
Fig 9.7: IBM’s Machines in Motion design guidelines pair movements from the physical products IBM used to make with matching motion for their animation interactions. See it in action.

They used these past machines to inform their motion design efforts on two levels. On a high level, they chose four machine traits that all their interface motions should embody: agility, efficiency, precision, and order. From there, they got more specific and paired motion from the actual machines with screen-based equivalent animations. On-screen menu drawers are animated to have the same motion as the carriage return motion of a 1970s IBM typewriter. Loading spinners are animated to have the same acceleration patterns as reel-to-reel tapes of an old mainframe’s tape drives.

These one-to-one translations of motion from the historical real-world objects to the screen-based motion inform all of their motion design decisions. If you have physical objects, either historical or not, that are significant to your brand or product, you could develop your own guidelines using this same approach.

A more metaphorical approach to emulating real-world objects can work well, too. Finding a particular dance piece or animal movement that speaks to the same personality values as your brand can be a great place to start. Music can be a source of motion inspiration, even if you’re not including any sound in your interface. Choosing a specific rhythm or phrasing from music to apply to your animation’s movement brings a whole new dimension to the idea of UX choreography. There are so many possibilities out there. Find something that feels inspiring for your brand and explore how it can establish a cohesive thread through all your animations.

Staying on Point

  • Animation design guidelines or values can help keep your brand’s motion efforts consistent and cohesive.
  • Collecting and evaluating existing animations as a group with a motion audit can give you valuable insight into how you’re currently using animation.
  • The same words you use to describe your brand and its values can be translated into motion to define your brand’s motion style.
  • Looking to real-world objects or animals to emulate can also help define what your brand looks like in motion.

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