Motion Literacy: An Approach to Design.

If we consider Motion a process that changes one situation into another, then:

Is everything in Motion?

The term Motion includes a great number of different processes which may have multiple manifestations and different degrees of complexity. Motion involves various concepts, historically explored within different disciplines of art and science. As Motion and Communication Design seem to getting closer, designers are becoming more aware about Motion literacy, trying to understand how Motion can be used to communicate more effectively.

In a physical sense, Motion refers to a change of position with respect to space coordinates. We all experience Motion almost every moment of every day. In fact, it would be difficult to point to a human experience which does not involve physical motion directly or indirectly. The verb “to experience” implies the context of Motion. For instance, perception of Motion brings to focus a rather complex, dynamic relationship between the observer and the observed within an experience. The distinction between actual Motion and the representation of Motion, points to another dichotomy which is central to communication design.

In a broader social sense, Motion can also be understood as a process beyond physics: a process which changes one situation into another with reference to the system of human values. The Motion of transferring information in a learning experience takes a person from one point to another on a difficult path to knowledge. In a social context, Motion can be seen as transformation.

Rhythms within Rhythms

A violinist is playing music. Her body is in motion. Her fingers of the left hand move above a fingerboard, occasionally pressing the strings. The right hand moves the bow perpendicularly to the strings. Up and down movements of varying rhythms cause the strings to vibrate. A sound wave is Motion of the air at a certain frequency and amplitude. Amplified by an instrument, the sound waves reach the listeners ears and the sequence of sounds is perceived as music.

The violinist’s solo cadenza is about to end and a conductor moves his hand in a gesture preparing the orchestra to play. Although he himself does not produce any sound directly, the conductor “designs” a particular interpretation of musical text written by a composer by translating his musical concepts into “choreographed” body language which is perfectly understandable by the musicians.

We see the conductor’s posture and the motion of his arms from the back. And then, the camera moves to the right, slowly circling the orchestra behind the bass section and percussion. While the image on the screen slowly moves to the left, at the same time the camera starts zooming in on the conductor’s hands. The hands become visually dynamic as they take over the entire screen. By coincidence or by design, the image on screen emphasizes the fortissimo of the musical movement. When the music changes to pianissimo again, the image of the hands dissolves, and a different image fades in, revealing another point of view from another camera.

Is it possible, and then is it relevant, for communication designers to understand all the aspects of motion described above? Various languages of motion? Instruments? Participants? Goals of using motion? Should designers study motion more carefully prior to playing with the dynamic tools of time-based media?

  • It took astronomers and physicists some time to conceptualize the observer’s point of view, and to realize that human-scale experience of Motion, such as the effect of gravity on objects, is interconnected with movements of cosmological scale.
  • It took engineers some time to develop tools for capturing various manifestations of Motion in order to visualize processes that escape the perception of unaided human eye due to extreme scale or velocity.
  • It took choreographers, cinematographers and musicians some time to develop and to codify expressive languages of Motion in their respective disciplines.
  • It took visual artists some time to proclaim “kinetic rhythms – the most important element of art” (Gabo and Pevsner) and to focus on Vision in Motion as a dynamic process of seeing while moving (Moholy-Nagy). Without a doubt, it will take designers some time to absorb and use Motion as a potent tool of communication – not just an experimental toy, residing in the designer’s digital toolbox.

Language of Motion

Is there a universal language of motion applicable to communication design? Can we define a set of “basic” principles underlying each and every special vocabulary of each and every discipline that uses Motion as a structural “material”? Are we speaking of Motion as a common, “cross-disciplinary” language? Can we understand each other, although we may speak different “dialects” as professionals of various disciplines?

Actually, these questions sound very familiar. Similar investigation was conducted a long time ago in reference to basic visual form and resulted in the concept of design foundations taught at the Bauhaus. Klee in The Thinking Eye, Itten in Design and Form, Kandinsky in Point and Line to Plane, attempted to identify, then study and teach, the fundamentals of visual language as a formal system universally applicable across art and design disciplines, from painting to architecture. We still teach design foundations according to that model, a revolutionary concept at the time, perhaps awaiting a major upgrade for the 21st century.

Similarly Eisenstein, Richter, Vertov tried to codify the components of their cinematic vocabulary. The dynamic language of film — the new media of the 20s and 30s — created an artistic and intellectual challenge rooted in combining the optical aspect, Vision with the acoustic Sound, and the kinetic Motion — into one system of communication.

Perhaps, we are ready to do it again – this time, to investigate the parameters of motion as a universal language of “new media.” The current situation is more complex than before. Such properties as shape, scale, color, tone, position, etc. remain important components of the visual language of communication design, however, we must now focus on the properties and rules specific to Motion:

  • first are the spatial properties of motion, which refer to space-related dimensions, such as the distance of an object from a point of origin in space as a result of motion;
  • second are the temporal properties of motion, which refer to time-related dimensions, such as time duration from the motion starting point in time; and
  • third are the kinetic properties of motion, which are defined by both space and time dimensions such as velocity and amplitude of motion.

Last but not least, we must also focus on interaction – the most original and unique element of “new media.” Interaction and hypertext structure create a special kind of “information in motion.” In the context of interactive media, information is fluid “…is not something fixed, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions.” [Manovich]

Multiple representation of information is the real advantage of interactive media. Text, image, audio, video – and the choice is mine, the user, or at least it feels like it is mine. Interaction — which is motion — gives me a sense of participation in the process of creating my personal path through database to the most appropriate form of content delivery, according to my own individual preference or special needs.

Participation is action and reaction. I choose, I get information. Sometimes, I do not get information. Sometimes it is my mistake. Stimulus and response promotes transformation and therefore motion, but I like motion “on demand” according to my pace, my intention, and my ability to absorb “information in motion.” I may wish to pause, intrigued by text or an intelligent diagram, that helps me to learn something. And I enjoy interruptions when I am in charge. My journey is self directed, not imposed by aggressive acrobatics of dynamic buttons and banners.

After all, design requires an equilibrium of non-motion and motion. Absence of Motion is a case of potential motion. An interruption or pause can create a very strong impact as a contrast to Motion – an equivalent of silence in music. Therefore, to serve the purpose of communication, designers must always ask themselves the question if motion is appropriate to their design objectives, to their audience, to the content and context. They need to ask themselves the following question first:

To move or not to move?


Note: This article was inspired by a series of discussions conducted within Design Seminar 1 class at the Dynamic Media Institute of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. I would like to thank my students for their contribution, especially: Evan Karatzas, Christine Pillsbury, Elif Ozudogru, Julia Voellinger Griffey, Harun Razith, and Claudia Baeza.

Download the PDF of the original publication in: Journal of AIGA Boston; Vol. 3/01, Fall 2003.


© 2018 Jan Kubasiewicz

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