The ’12 Basic Principles of Animation’ in Graphic Design

Although my heart and career lie in graphic design, I also have a keen interest in animation, mainly because of my love of ‘Pixar Animation Studios’. When not in the classroom learning about graphics, I did independent studies into the ideas and concepts of animation, including Frank Thomas’ and Ollie Johnston’s ’12 Basic Principles of Animation’.

After hearing a talk from a motion designer, Cennydd Bowles, about how the 12 principles could be applied to motion design, I was inspired to examine this relationship further, and see how those principles can be used in graphic design.

Just to avoid confusion, ‘motion design’ is more focused on kinetic graphics and entertainment value, whilst ‘graphic design’ is more about still graphics, legibility and functionality.

1. ‘Squash & Stetch’ and ‘Tracking & Leading’

One of the most important principles for an animator to understand is making an object squash and stretch as it moves to adds weight and flexibility to that object. It’s also important for a designer to understand tracking (the spacing between multiple characters) and leading (the space between paragraph lines). Larger type generally requires smaller leading and tracking to add weight, whilst smaller type requires larger leading and tracking to make the type lighter.


2. ‘Anticipation’ and ‘Paragraph Styles’

‘Anticipation’ is when the animator prepares the audience for when an action is about to happen by adding a small, subtle movement. Arguably, the same thing can be said for graphic design, as the designer needs to give a hint to the reader to indicate when a new paragraph is about to start. There are multiple ways of doing this, including the use of titles and subtitles, spacing between paragraphs, first line indents, and drop caps.


3. ‘Staging’ and ‘Negative Space’

Animators have to present scenes, characters and actions in a way that’s easy to comprehend, achieved with camera angles, a removal of visual obstructions and the use of ‘negative space’. Exactly the same can be said for graphic designers, since the most important elements need to be kept clear and instantly viewable. This is achieved with a ‘less is more’ concept, by removing/reducing the size of unimportant components and using negative space to bring focus to the most important sections.

4. ‘Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose’ and ‘Responsive Web Design’

‘Straight Ahead’ involves drawing all frames from start to end, whilst ‘Pose to Pose’ involves drawing key frames before the remaining animation is filled in. ‘Responsive Web Design’ is a growing trend where a website changes scales and arrangement depending on the size of the device it’s being viewed on. Simular principles to ‘Straight Ahead and Pose to Pose’ are used when designing a responsive website, usually by starting with the largest screen and reworking the design for smaller ones.
5. ‘Follow Through & Overlapping Action’ and ‘Brand Consistency’

It’s widely understood that nothing stops all at once, so animators make sure that even when one part of something stops, anything else attached to that will continue to move. A similar thing happens when it comes to multiple projects falling under the same brand. When the logo is used in a particular way on one product, all other products must use the logo in way as similar as can be. I.e. the aesthetic of the brand doesn’t stop at one design.

6. ‘Slow In & Slow Out’ and ‘Headers & Footers’

Everything has to physically speed up and slow down when moving from A to B, which is animated by adding more frames towards the start and end, and the main movement has fewer frames in between. This makes the faster movement more appealing. A simular approach is used with page layouts. The header and footer includes less relevant information, which is slower to read and less inviting. All the while, the body includes more relevant information, which is easier to read and grabs the readers attention.

7. ‘Arcs’ and ‘Reading Direction’

Animators almost always have to use ‘arcs’ when making something move, as they help the object to comply with the laws of physics and give it an overall better flow. Our eyes follow an arc when we read a page, including the text and images. For that reason, in western culture, where we read from left to right and top to bottom respectively, designers often optimise the layout of anything they design to be ‘read’ in those directions.


8. ‘Secondary Action’ and ‘Interactive Graphics’

When one object comes into contact with another, it will cause both objects to react in a different way. The same applies to interactive, digital products, such as websites and apps. When a pointer hovers over or clicks on a div, usually a button, it typically causes a change in shape, scale, and/or colour palette. Some changes may be permanent, whilst others may only be temporary. Either way, it’s important for the designer to understand what happens when someone uses their pointer.

9. ‘Timing’ and ‘Average Words per Line’

The concept of ‘timing’ is simple: fewer frames between A and B make something look faster, whilst more frames make it look slower. The same can be said for the average number of words there are in a paragraph’s line, as fewer words make the reader scan the page faster, and more words make the reader slow down. To avoid overly long paragraph lines, columns are often used to split lines into a more readable lengths. The recommended number is between 6 and 12 words per line.

10. ‘Exaggeration’ and ‘Simplification’

These might sound like opposites, but they actually complement one another nicely. Proportions and movements in animation are exaggerated to create a hyperreality, which is basically a fancy way of saying that it compensates for an otherwise unrealistic world. When it comes to using vector illustrations in graphics, especially pictograms, solid colours and simplified shapes are often exaggerated and used to make the images clear.

11. ‘Solid Drawing’ and ‘Packaging Design’

All animators have to have an understanding of how all scenes and objects have a 3D form, even if the animation itself is flat. Graphic designers need an even greater understanding of this, as many design projects involve 3D nets to work with, such as when designing packaging. Designers need to understand the layout and required elements for each face of the product, as how all faces would fit together.

12. ‘Appeal’ and ‘Postmodernism’

By far the most enjoyable principle is that of it’s ‘appeal’; making the animation engaging to its audience. Graphic Designers have to do the same thing, and convert what could otherwise be unappealing blocks of text and images into inviting and entertaining aesthetics. Much like animation, this is achieved with postmodern ideas, which involves adding colours, forms, shades and textures to the graphics. It only takes a little imagination for a designer to make a brand look individual and appealing.



About Clayton Richards

I am a freelance/junior graphic designer based in Carmarthen, Wales. I operate under the brand name ‘Release! Graphics’, a name I chose because of my ambition to “set great designs free”. I mostly specialise in print, yet I also have growing skills in animation and web-coding. Equally inspired by modernism and postmodernism, I love to innovate and come up with creative, out-of-the-box ways of making designs both memorable and individual, whilst still remaining functional and legible in everyday use.

Main website:
Twitter: @ReleaseGraphic

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