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The motion design rule
that should never be broken

motionworks - finding-context

As motion-creatives, we are all driven by the desire to create technically clever and beautiful work, but do we sometimes do this at the expense of context and objectivity?

To begin with I should probably explain how we, at MotionWorks, define “context” in relation to communication art and design. Providing you with some context – if you will.

When you “google” context-led design the top search results will probably direct you towards architecture, UX design and AI algorithms – working out the most appropriate placement of content on social platforms. Our notion of design-context, however, is born out of audience recognition and understanding. It’s a thread that connects our creative ideas with the intuitive expectations of the consumer. It is as relevant to traditional graphic design as it is to motion media.

New tricks, old philosophies

It can be argued that digital motion design is a relatively new creative field of expertise – evolving constantly within the constraints of technology. You may also argue that this is why traditional conceptual ideas are of less importance in moving media. It’s a valid argument if the work produced is purely decorative. Communicative design should resonate purposefully with its intended audience. It’s a blueprint for effective graphic design that has been an important factor throughout my time as a designer.
My personal freelance motion career was born out of a curiosity for the medium around the time of the millennium. Yes – I’m one of those early self-taught adopters. My CV prior to this was a collection of advertising, art direction, brand and packaging design roles within some influential agencies across the UK. Just prior to going solo, I spent a couple of years in UX design (or new media as it was called in its infancy). It’s no surprise then that concept and rationale is almost part of my DNA at this point; 35+ years on from a junior design role, in my native Leeds. It’s this experience that drives my design ethos: if a client doesn’t understand a concept that is presented to them, in the absence of an explanation or rationale, then what hope does the target audience have? It’s akin to a joke that no one gets, until it is spelled out.
Undoubtedly, motion design is technically a bit of a paradigm shift; being a combination of visual communication, storytelling, conceptual ideas, animation and vfx. It’s a crucible of disciplines that’s become one of the hottest and most desirable areas for graphic designers to work in. Steep technical learning curves prohibiting all but the tenacious; software and tech dictating that it’s a path to enlightenment that never ceases.

Challenging techniques eventually become more accessible, and when they do they become more ubiquitous. Billowing cloth, or other ostensibly complex simulations permeate the creative outputs of studios globally. Just like that, a technique has become a trend. Flowing fabrics as analogy to the properties of something is storytelling. Without reason or context it is simply decorative. At Motionworks we believe that every facet of a design and each shot within an animated sequence should be a purposeful part of the narrative.

Bucking the trend

Design trends, just like fashion, revolve and evolve. In motion design the influences are as much to do with technical advances, as I mentioned earlier, as they are with aesthetic choices. As a motion director/designer myself, forever present is the temptation to go “off-piste” – frustratingly trying to employ the newest technotrend to elevate the current project my team is engaged in. Fundamentally, however, the same parameters surface to reign that desire back in; message and context. If the artistic direction does nothing to enhance the message, or even worse, causes confusion – then for us at Motionworks it’s a non-starter. A visually complex and arresting piece will, without doubt, engage its viewer. The aim should not be a passive experience however and as attention spans become increasingly shorter, then the narrative – literal or visual – must be concise and relevant to be understood and be memorable. Clarity of message is possibly more relevant now than at any other time.

Contemporary design movements that aim to push against trends and design convention eventually become trends themselves, ironically. “Disruptive design” is one such trend that emerged as a way of challenging the norm by questioning how we approach design problems – delivering unexpected and novel solutions. The idea of “disruptive innovation” emerged late last century coined by Clay Christiansen, a member of the faculty at Harvard Business School. Originally, it was a term used to describe how new businesses might challenge the status quo with unexpected products and services. It’s an idea which has been adapted as an ethos by a number of studios in the design community to enable a more unconventional, art-based approach to graphic design; creating a reason for style and technique to obfuscate recognisable messages – rendering the concept more open to interpretation.

Provocative or emotive, art is able to exist for its own sake, and rightly so. Design, on the other hand must be objective; communicating, informing, motivating. Art critics and historians painstakingly dissect and analyse works, in order to reveal the artists’ intent. Graphic design, by its function, exists to communicate purposeful messages that should have little to no ambiguity. As a strategy, disruptive design can work within the right context, which tends to be the environment it is deployed in or supporting material that accompanies it. As a stylistic approach in isolation, however, confusion might be the only take-away the audience recalls.

Making sense of it all

Without context, we’d have a difficult job of making sense of the world around us. The same goes for enabling audiences of our work make sense of what they see and hear. In setting up Motionworks, I knew that we had to find our own place within the motion design landscape. Declaring that “we love what we do” or that we’ve won design accolades was not going to be of any real value to our clients, when many other studios are able to make the same declaration. It was our pragmatic way of working that helped me, as the founder, form our unique perspective. Focusing on context as the driver for visual narratives when other motion studios are following more disruptive trends, feels like a brave step. It also sets us apart and offers our clients clear proposition.

The projects we are briefed on at Motionworks fall into two clear areas which, on the surface, appear quite unrelated. The title sequence and promotional projects seem creatively at odds with the evidential, legal sequences we deliver under the banner of Incident Films. The first, creatively conceptual; allowing for the use of metaphor and analogy. The latter, factually correct; descriptive and informative. Their commonality being a necessity to be meaningful, relevant and relatable. Firmly rooted in objectivity, our work beautifully reinforces our clients’ intent. So context-led design became our raison d’etre – neatly describing our creative approach.