What is the difference between motion graphics and animation?

In the world of animated videos, there has always been a discussion about the difference between motion graphics and animation. If you aren’t part of either of those worlds, chances are that you have no idea what the difference is. For someone who is a motion graphics designer, it’s very common to be confused with an animator even if they don’t work making cartoons.

Truth is, that in many instances, a piece of content might use both motion graphics design AND animation. Especially in advertisements. But for the sake of explaining the difference between the two, we will look at how each one has its own purpose.

One huge confusing aspect of all this is how online graphics editors use the term “animation” for giving motion to shapes and pieces of data. The term is correct but it just makes the line between the two so much more blurry. In both motion graphics and animation, when a static visual is given movement, it is “animated.” Of course, some hardcore fanatics will say to “give it movement” instead.

Animation of boy walking. Eight walking frames + 1 static pose. Vector cartoon isolated character/frames.

What do they have in common?

Before looking at the differences between the two, let’ look at how they are similar. This will help understand why they are so commonly confused or interchanged in conversation. Both motion graphics and animation are art forms in which objects or characters are given movement. It’s the art of taking a static image and bringing it to life.

Both art forms use the same type of software to reach the results they need; Maya, After Effects among others. Motion graphics and animation also both follow the Twelve Principles of Animation. These principles are a set of visual rules to help artists give objects life in a natural way. From bouncing to rolling and jumping, the twelve principles apply to any object given movement through the process of animating it.

In a sense, you can say that motion graphics and animation actually complement each other.

Now let’s look at how they are different.

The main difference is the storytelling aspect

The best way to explain how motion graphics and animation are different is to see them through the stories each one aims to tell.

An animation is generally a visual representation of a story with characters and a storyline where actions unravel to a climax which then reaches a conclusion. It can be an animated short, a full-length Disney animated movie or a presentation with animated characters telling an informational story.

Motion graphics is more about giving life to something that usually wouldn’t have any. For example the shapes inside a presentation, the background of an explainer video. Another use for motion graphics is to explain a process. For example, the way in which a product is made and then shipped to customers.

Similar to the difference between graphic design and illustration

Another way of looking at it is that motion graphics relates more to the work of graphic designers while the animation is more similar to illustration.

Graphic designers explain a concept through visuals, and motion graphics designers do the same but with movement. Illustrators create a visual story, and animators give the story life.

When it comes to a client deciding if they need an animator or a motion graphics designer, they need to analyze exactly what it is they want to convey with the finished work. If what they need is a visually appealing presentation about their sales efforts of the past year then a motion graphics designer is exactly what they need. If they want an emotional animated story of how their products change peoples’ lives, then an animator will be more suited.

In either case, the motion graphics designer works directly with a graphic designer or is one. On the other hand, the animator will also either be an illustrator or will work closely with one. Inside a creative agency, these roles are usually very separate. The animation department will have illustrators sketching the art while the animators will use the software to give those illustrations life.

What about visual effects?

There is one more design role that sometimes becomes involved in the world of animation and motion graphics. This is the role of visual effects. For people not inside the realm of design, it’s easy to confuse motion graphics with visual effects, after all giving something movement is a visual effect.

The reality is that visual effects are something completely different. The role of a visual effects artist is to add visual richness to any piece of work, be it animated or real life film. Visual effects artists add to the atmosphere of scenes; by adding rain, colorizing the sky, or adding emphasis to a light source.

If you sit through the credits of any type of film, you will see the role of visual effects artists every single time.

Over to you

Do you do any kind of animation or motion graphics? How do you feel about the labeling of each?