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Turn your Static Visualization into Animated Genius

According to Parsons Professor, Liz Burow, “short animations are one of the best tools out there for explaining ideas, but they aren’t used often enough for fear they’re too advanced.” Short animations are excellent ways to help explain complex stories. So, maybe you are one of those people who steers away from animations fearing they are too complex, or you’ve got some great static images, but are looking to get more out of them? Well look no further.

The other day I came across a great article by Liz Burow off the visualization site, Visually. In her post Liz outlines five key principles that make up a successful animation.

To animate or not to animate?

It’s always a good idea to start out and learn when it is appropriate to use an animation. Burow believes that short animations are great when you are asked to use data to “form an argument, explain a proposition or show cause and effect.” She believes this is because it forces one to think through the “organizational structure, both in hierarchy and flow”, it’s very much akin to how one would approach writing an essay. However, she warns that short animations are not ideal for exploratory information, or where you need to see a lot of data at once to compare and connect relationships.

Structure, Structure, Structure

With any data visualization you are essentially telling a story. Even if you create an excellent visualization, if you fail to think through the story you want it to tell you audience will feel like it’s lacking something. To fix this Burow’s states, that animations “must have an argument and a message that explains: (a) a need and an opportunity, or (b) a problem and potential solutions.” While this sounds difficult, Burow offers up three different processes to help you out:

  • Question/Response: Based on quantitative or qualitative data and research, pose a question. Explain why this question is worth asking and why it matters. Supply the response, or answer to this question.
  • Problem/ Solution: Introduce a problem. Explain the “who, what, where, when, and why” surrounding this problem. Offer solution(s) and explain how it changes or affects the problem statement. Make the solutions tangible and actionable.
  • Myth Buster: Introduce and explain the history a myth or an urban legend. Bust the myth with the support of facts, figures and data.

Start Static & slowly Animate Layers

While static and animated visualizations may hold the same content, the medium can greatly affect the way people perceive the information. Burow advises that “before jumping into an animated data explanation, it is useful to create a static version. This lets you gather, organize and visualize the content all in one space…Only after you have gathered your thoughts, does it make sense to start imagining the explanation “as a series of built-up layers of hierarchical information.”

Storyboard to develop focus

Holding your audience’s attention often depends on having finely tuned graphic design skills, including visual hierarchy, compositions and data ink design. “Animations also require these skills, plus an understanding of pacing, sequencing, structure and rhythm,” says Burow. Storyboarding is a great way to put it all together to see what you have and how it all flows. Storyboarding can be done in a number of different ways that include “using templates, index cards, or post-it notes, but it is best done when the “frames” can be rearranged multiple times to best configure sequencing and explanation structure.” Oddly enough, storyboarding is pretty helpful when it comes to project management as well. Once the project is laid out it becomes pretty easy to see how labor-intensive building an animation can become based on the storyboard visual and narrative complexity.

Constrain it!

To make sure you don’t let your animations get the better of you, it’s always a good idea to add some constraints to help manage expectation and set clear goals for delivery. If you place some constraints around the project, it will make for better edits and decisions by the designer.

There ya have it. Explore, be creative and while creating a short animation may be more complex than a powerpoint, it’s important to remember that the real reward come when you let the audience hit play.

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