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A Quick Guide To Animation, Motion Graphics, And Graphic Design

What’s the difference between motion graphics and animation? Where does illustration come into play? Is it all considered graphic design? In this article, we break down these terms. Even though they’re related art forms, each type of design suits different storytelling and messaging purposes. No matter which one you use, moving images are the perfect way to catch people’s eye and get them hooked. Read on to learn about the various forms of moving graphic design and how to find the right creative team for your project! 

Graphic design. Motion graphics. Animations. Illustration. To the novice, these art forms can seem incredibly similar — and in some respects, they are. All involve creating and manipulating images, whether through digital or analog tools. Each type of design can also be used to create each other, which can get confusing! Let’s break down the key elements of each art form and how to know which you need for your project.

What is Graphic Design?

While many people tend to associate graphic design with logos, posters, and so on, it’s actually an umbrella term. Graphic design is any sort of visual composition that communicates a message. While film and fine art certainly have messages as well, graphic design’s purpose is to transfer an existing message while creating a visual representation. It encompasses typography, photography, iconography, and illustration, while film and fine art rely on their native materials to express the artist’s vision.

Graphic design includes both 2-D and 3-D representations, and it can be either static or dynamic/interactive. This leads to confusion about its relationship to animation, which in some circumstances is art (e.g. animated films) and in others is “motion graphics.” 

Motion Graphics vs. Animation

A motion graphic is a type of animation in which images move. It sounds simple, but the purpose of motion graphics can be complex. They can evoke a feeling, demonstrate a process, or add dynamism to a visual experience. Many UI designers use motion graphics to help people navigate a website or platform. Subtle movements such as an icon wiggling or notification popping up can spur the user to action. Other times, motion graphics express the value or purpose of the image. Think about the moving studio logos at the start of a movie.

As a term, “animation” usually refers to a visual composition that tells a story. There can sometimes be a fine line between motion graphics and animation. For example, is the famous lamp animation for Pixar Studios a motion graphic or an animation? Because it’s long enough to portray a story, most people would characterize it as an animation. 

How are Motion Graphics and Animations Made? 

Here’s where things get complicated again. Graphic design encompasses all motion graphics and animation, but it is also a means of creating those works. In popular use, graphic design usually refers to visual composition tools, typically residing on a computer. Both animators and motion graphic designers use those tools to create backgrounds, characters, and other visual elements. To throw in another curveball, illustration — the use of fine art techniques to create unique images — can be used in both as well.

In any case, most modern designs are finished in digital form. It is now easier than ever to create moving images, whether they’re classic cartoons, sleek motion graphics, or photorealistic animations. 

Which Should I Use?

No matter which way you slice it, graphic design offers immense potential to communicate your brand’s message. Humans respond well to moving images — after all, we’re surrounded by them every day! Motion graphics and animations capture our interest and give a fresh, modern feel to marketing materials. 

As a rule of thumb, if you want to tell a story, e.g. showing how your product works or illustrating your customer’s experience, you need an animation. This can be as short as a few seconds. Animations may use illustration, graphic design, computer-generated images (CGI), or all of the above. Some may incorporate typography for titles.

If you’re expressing your brand’s value, emphasizing a point, or giving someone visual feedback, you need motion graphics. These are always short, sometimes a split-second in duration. Think of them as visual aids or “flourishes” that enhance the user experience. They’re typically created with digital design techniques and may incorporate typography as well. 

Who Should I Hire: A Graphic Designer or an Animator?

It’s worth noting that despite the overlap between motion graphics and animation, many self-described animators focus on story-driven creations. They often build from illustrations or CGI, which means they may have no idea how to design a motion graphic for you. Those who call themselves graphic designers are more likely to create motion graphics, which are more often used in marketing materials and UX design. 

In short, you need to understand what your project entails before you start hiring. As we discussed, there can be a fine line between motion graphics and animations. Your best bet is to check a potential designer’s portfolio to see what type of moving images they create. Don’t expect a graphic designer who has only done bouncing logos to be able to produce a 3-minute animated video.

That said, you may need a graphic designer and animator to work together. For complex projects, such as videos that animate illustrations alongside moving text , you’ll likely need to hire a graphic designer, illustrator, and animator. (Check out Vox’s Explained series for an example.) No matter what your needs are, communication is the key to a project’s success.

Wrapping Up

The world of graphic design is vast and wonderful, and all types of moving images play a big role in it. Animation and motion graphics are two sides of the same coin, each created via overall design principles and tools.

However, in practice, most designers do one or the other. Some projects entail multiple types of creatives all working together to produce the final composition. To understand which type of design you need for your project, take the time to figure out the message you’re trying to send. Are you trying to tell a story or provide a visual cue? Then, let your creative team get to work making an image come to life!