Motion Literacy

Since motion is a constant in everyday life, then isn’t motion integral to design? Of course Motion has already been explored within different disciplines of art and science, but with the easy accessibility of kinetic tools, motion and communication design are more than ever integrated into one discipline. And since designers are becoming more concerned with injecting motion into their work, motion literacy — the act of trying to understand how motion can be used to communicate more effectively — is essential.

From a technical viewpoint, making type, an illustration, or a diagram move on a screen is a relatively easy task. However, achieving clarity of communication through the language of motion proved more challenging for many designers than achieving fluency in kinetic tools.

Communicating via motion involves issues of both “what” is moving across the screen – typographical, pictorial, or abstract elements – and “how” that something is moving.

The “how” question refers to the kinetic form and its grammar, defined by both space and time dimensions of motion such as velocity and amplitude. Kinetic form itself, may convey a broad spectrum of notions and emotions: from a sensible gesture, through a dramatic tension, to a violent collision. Of course motion in combination with pictures and words (and sound, if available) multiplies those irresistible opportunities in making meaning.

The meaning of motion on a screen, similar to all other aspects of communication design, relies on conventions and artistic techniques. A cross-fade of two scenes conveying a lapse of time, or a split screen meaning simultaneous happenings, are just two examples adopted from the cinematic vocabulary – the source of inspiration for motion designers. The language of cinema in its century-old history evolved into a complex, universal system of communication, combining the visual, sonic, and kinetic aspects into a synchronized, multi-sensory experience, and that language now becomes a new realm of communication design.

While perceiving visual/sonic/kinetic information simultaneously through multiple channels and over a period of time, the mind attempts to organize these discrete messages into a story, however abstract that story might be. A story must have its beginning, middle and end, but a story not necessarily has to be told in this order. Therefore, the designer’s awareness of different timelines – the one of the story, and another one of the storytelling – is essential. Equally essential is the designer’s awareness of the “plasticity” of time, and consequently, the designer’s ability of manipulating with time – real time, its representation and perception ­- through motion, sequentiality and multiple-channel correspondence (multimediality). Time, as intertwined with motion, becomes the structural design element as well as the subject of design.

One of the most spectacular historical examples of the design process for a multimedia structure is a post-production diagrammatic storyboard for Alexander Nevsky, a 1938 film by Sergei Eisentstein, a Russian film director and one of the first theorists of the medium. That storyboard is a timeline in which visual representation of the film components are precisely synchronized into a sequence of “audio-visual correspondences” including film shots, music score, a “diagram of pictorial composition”, and a “diagram of movement.” The “diagram of movement” represents specifically the camera work resulting in on-screen motion. Choreographed very precisely, in fact to a fraction of a musical measure, this “diagram of movement” attests to how essential for the cinematographer was on-screen motion and its meaningful integration with all other elements of his vocabulary. The same challenge of integrating motion as a meaningful component of communication design should remain the focus of research and practice for contemporary designers.

Currently, the integration of motion and typography is perhaps the most extensively exhibited practice of motion design. Kinetic logos and taglines very successfully “scream” their brand names and services, even from the muted TV screens. But a great potential of type in motion is not limited to TV commercials and film titles. Adding motion and time dimensions to typography is to add new possibilities to the imaging of verbal language. Kinetic typography complements traditional typography by exploring “real-time” visualization in a spirit of phonetic properties of spoken language, such as spontaneity, intonation, etc. The dynamic visualization of these properties, possibly codified at some point and customizable, would promote the user’s personal preference of on-screen, typographical “behavior” of words and lines in such cases as closed captioning for instance.

The concept of the kinetic “behavior” of an on-screen design object – such as typography, an illustration, or a diagram – especially the behavior triggered interactively by a user, is one of the central issues of motion literacy. For a user such kinetic behavior may be perceived as a dynamic transformation of some spatial properties of the initial object, which occurred as a result of pointing, dragging or clicking. For a designer, to design a kinetic behavior means to define a matrix of specific dynamic parameters of transformation of that object mapped to specific variables of input. Injecting motion into interactive design means entering the environment of algorithmic thinking and that is why suddenly the language describing it became very technical.

Integration of motion with information graphics has a tremendous potential of contributing, through interactive visualizations, to various disciplines of science, economy and education. Dynamic diagrams, charts and timelines, seem to be the only practical solutions for understanding complexity of large-scale information structures. However, translating complexity of data into clarity of visual information will not be easy on designers, since increasingly sophisticated computational imaging requires new conventions and strategies for dynamic visualization, and very often, the solutions adopted from traditional information design, do not work successfully in interactive environment.

Interacting with complex data within hypertext structure is a special kind of motion, involving the concept of multiple representation of information – dynamically linked text, image, audio, video, etc. Multiple representation of information is the real advantage for the user and a challenge for the designer since in the context of interactive media, information is not fix but fluid. According to Lev Manovich, it is “…something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions.” Therefore, interaction is supposed to give the user a sense of the unique process of walking a personal path through databases to the most appropriate form of content delivery, according to the user’s own individual preference or special needs. And since this unique path to knowledge is a result of action and reaction, a stimulus-response loop repeated ad infinitum, designers must always ask themselves how much motion is appropriate to their audience, to the content and context. After all, motion is not the purpose for its own sake but a way of serving the purpose of communication and since design requires equilibrium of non-motion and motion, absence of motion is just a case of potential motion. And yes, motion is integral to design.


This article was published in: The Education of a Graphic Designer, edited by Steven Heller, Allworth Press; 2nd edition (November 1, 2005)

© 2018 Jan Kubasiewicz

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