UI Animation: A Complete Guide For Beginners

When you hear the word ‘animation,’ you might think of cartoons or video games. In reality, animation is all around us—especially in the apps and websites we use. From scrolling down a screen to getting a notification, not only does animation guide your users as they navigate through the site—it’s also vital for storytelling and creating a brand narrative. In short, animation provides a ‘living’ element to something that would otherwise be static.

If you’re a UI designer looking to add more skills to your arsenal, consider this blog post your official introduction to the exciting, innovative world of UI animation. We’ll guide you through the basic principles, the tools you should have on your radar, and how to get started. By the end of this article, you’ll be well on your way to creating awesome animations that will take your interfaces to the next level.

1. What is UI animation?

UI animation is the process of adding motion to UI elements in order to enhance a product’s interactivity. UX and UI designers use animation to guide them around the interface, alert users of a change, influence users’ decisions, and indicate a relationship between elements—among other uses. UI animation also reduces the mechanical feel of a website or app, creating a much more natural and intuitive experience.

In the infant stages of the digital age, it was commonplace for designers to overload their interfaces with animated gifts and bright, flashing colors. But as we began to learn more about the psychology behind how users interact with digital interfaces, it became clear that excessive use of decorative animation detracted from the quality of the site—and even resulted in a loss of users. Over time, designers opened their eyes to the functional benefits of animation, taking it from a decorative add-on to something that could enhance the user experience. A turning point in the evolution of UI animation was the switch from linear movement to interactions that mimic real-world properties, like speed, gravity, and weight. This progression led to the realistic UI animations that we have today.

In UI design, animation can be functional or decorative. Functional animation guides and informs the user in real-time, whereas decorative animation is an essential storytelling and branding tool.

Animation vs. motion graphics

If you’re new to the world of UI animation, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between animation and motion graphics. A quick Google search will show you that these terms are often used interchangeably, so what’s the distinction?

Animation is an umbrella term for the practice of adding motion to imagery. While it’s a part of UX/UI design, it also encompasses other fields—such as film, gaming, and VR. Motion graphics, on the other hand, refers to the process of adding motion to graphic design elements. Put simply, motion graphics are a type of animation. Unlike other types of animation, motion graphics tend to place less emphasis on storytelling.

2. Why is UI animation important?

With the number of websites and apps increasing ten-fold every day, users have come to expect powerful, functional, and unique interfaces that are easy to navigate. Today’s digital products have to be human-centered, intuitive, and responsive. One of the ways that designers achieve all of the above (and more) is with animation.

Animation adds a vital human touch to digital interfaces by simulating the experience of interacting with a physical object in real life. This makes for an easier, more natural experience for the user, and reduces cognitive load. From point A to B, UI animations act as signposts—oftentimes so subtle that you wouldn’t even know they were there. Animation also reduces stress by providing real-time updates and feedback, keeping the user informed at all times.

From another perspective, animation can make an interface fun and engaging. Having a visually appealing interface is vital, and including just the right amount of animation could set you apart from the crowd. Think of animation like a spice rack, and your digital product as a stew. Adding only one spice could mean the stew will taste bland and uninviting. On the other hand, overloading your stew with too many different spices could give your stew an overwhelming and confusing flavor. You have to learn how to add just the right amount of spice to make the stew delicious and nourishing.

3. What are the different kinds of UI animation?

While many designers have their own ways of categorizing animations, the most common UI animation types tend to fall into these four groups:

  • Micro-interactions
  • Loading and progress
  • Navigation
  • Storytelling and branding

4. UI animation principles

In 1981, Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas produced their book The Illusion of Life, which outlines 12 core principles of animation. While these principles were intended for film and cartoon use, they’ve since become an invaluable resource for UX and UI designers—providing a useful framework for introducing functional, comprehensive animations into digital interfaces.

1. Squash and stretch

2. Anticipation

3.Staging

4. Follow through and overlapping action

5. Easing

6.Arcs

7. Secondary action

8.Timing

9. Exaggeration

10.Appeal

11 & 12. Solid drawing & straight-ahead vs. pose-to-pose.

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