Motion Graphics vs Animation

Mar 1, 2016

“You say you’re a ‘motion graphics designer?’ Oh, you mean you’re an animator?

-Everyone at every party I’ve ever been to, ever.

The terms motion graphics and animation are often used interchangeably, and sometimes that’s okay. To animate merely means to give life to something, and that can mean giving life to primitive shapes just as much as to Bugs Bunny or Wall-E. But are these two labels really the same beast?

Relationship Between Motion Graphics + Animation

The truth is, motion graphics and animation have a complex relationship. “Animators” and “motion graphics designers” tend to rely on very similar tools, both from a software perspective (Adobe After Effects, MAXON Cinema 4D, Maya, and Photoshop, to name a few), and from a craft perspective (for example, the Twelve Principles of Animation). In this way, animation and motion graphics truly complement each other.

motion graphics animation

It’s understandable that this deeply complementary relationship leads to some blurry distinctions between animation and motion graphics, and can cause quite an identity crisis. When I tell folks at parties that I’m a motion designer, the reaction begins with a blank stare and a blink. I then hurriedly follow up with it’s sort of like an animator, because in the moment it’s the easiest way to preface the inevitable avalanche of obscure case-by-case distinctions I call upon to describe what I do. But every time I hear myself say it, I wince a little. ‘I’m NOT an animator; I’m a ding dang motion designer!’ I yell at myself. But it’s too late; everyone at the party now sees the anecdotes I’ve shared about my work through the lens of legends like Disney or Pixar, and meanwhile I’m just having a weird little awkward-turtle conniption fit by the fondue fountain.

motion graphics animation

So What’s the Difference?

Why is it so important for us to figure out what differentiates animation from motion design? Well, if I were a cardiac electrophysiologist, that potential client at the party who just heard me say I’m sort of a doctor will be none too pleased when she shows up at my doorstep with questions about the weird thing on her foot. She came away from our conversation with a pile of pretty reasonable assumptions about my capabilities and experience, and while I’ll happily help her with her heart rhythm issues now that she’s here, her weird foot thing probably isn’t getting addressed to her satisfaction.

So here’s the challenge: what’s the elevator pitch for motion graphics as a discipline? Let’s take a stab at it.

Just as the cardiac electrophysiologist is absolutely a kind of doctor, a motion designer is a kind of animator. We each work to bring life to our subjects, but whereas an animator relies on character and narrative to communicate ideas, a motion designer (following in the traditions of Modernist design) seeks to reduce that communication to more primitive formal elements: color, space, and typography

motion graphics animation

Final Thoughts

But this, of course, isn’t the final word; the definitions of “animators” and “motion designers” are as varied as the creatives who bear those titles, multiplied by all the folks who hire and consume their work. As motion graphics designers, animators, or any other kind of creative professional, how do you explain to the world what you do?

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