Don’t complicate, animate! How to use visuals to explain complex concepts
You're in health, science or tech and are bringing your product to market after years of development. You're an academic looking to share your theories with the wider public. But how are you going to convey such complex concepts without 2000 words of text that no one will understand? This is where animation comes in, explains Alex Mallinson.
If you have a tricky concept to convey, whether medical, mechanical or theoretical, you’ll recognise the bemused expression of someone who’s lost the thread and is too polite to ask you to clarify for fear of appearing stupid.
Thanks to having been raised by clowns, I have no such qualms. I’ll ask and ask again until I understand, then I distill that process into a simple, beautiful animation. By helping me understand, your audience will understand.
Animation can be an artform, but when used to illustrate concepts, artistry must yield to design. It has to be clear, unambiguous, and the key to this is, as any stand-up comic well tell you, is to know your audience. Often, I’m the audience - an interested party, with a stake in understanding the concept, but without the necessary knowledge.
However if yours is a complex process, and the audience is perhaps hostile or unengaged, as with the danger posed by man-made climate change, simply explaining the concept isn’t sufficient. We need to engage them in the process, make it relevant to them.
2D animation when used to explain concepts, is essentially a diagram in motion. It can have a pleasing simplicity, a universality and ages well in comparison to video. I’ve known clients to balk at the thought of what is essentially a cartoon, but don’t be fooled, cartoons have secret access to our brains through a childhood of Saturday morning entertainment.
Quirky, whimsical videos win our hearts with their look, which makes it easier to win our minds with their content. Especially if they feature polymath and childhood hero of many - Johnny Ball.
It’s worth taking a little detour here to say that the importance of the voice can’t be underestimated. Animation without sound is like one of those dreams where you’re naked at school - horrible to contemplate.
Add sound and the viewer is engaged. Feature a voice that tingles its way past our cynical, oversaturated senses and the viewer will be entranced! Thanks to home studios, there are a dizzying array of options available, my advice is to avoid the trap most businesses fall into, hiring a ‘businesslike’ voice. The great orators and salespeople don’t talk to us like the physical embodiment of an institution, they invite us in, they are idiosyncratic and memorable. Look for a distinctive voice.
3D animation is a superb tool. When the diagram on the page simply won’t convey a complex process, I add not just one, but 2 extra dimensions. Who doesn’t want more space and time?! Time is crucial to understanding process. The cardiac cycle, tidal power generation, these are living processes that a series of diagrams don’t do justice.
The optimum length of time for a web video is between 2 and 3 minutes. That’s not long to enlighten an audience, so it’s often worth breaking a concept down into stages.
Helpfully, once the design has been generated and assets created, subsequent chapters prove easier and cheaper to produce. Trying to cram it all into one animation just makes things more difficult for everyone, but especially the audience.
That said, if the videos are to be shown to a captive audience, then perhaps the upper limit is 8 minutes. There are lots of tools to prolong your audience’s interest - but they require a leap of imagination, from explainer to storyteller. It’s actually an easy transition to make - the traditional three-act structure of storytelling which encompasses the problem, the journey and the solution, can translate to the scientific method - hypothesis, testing and conclusion.
With a little visual flair, this can be quite cinematic, and your audience will go away not just wiser, but having enjoyed the path to wisdom. One fine example is carpet manufacturer Interface, which celebrated its green credentials with a narrative work about a girl and a giant reversing environmental damage.
Just as the most memorable teachers use their passion and humour to educate, so too can we bring that into animation. The quirky imagery of old Usborne books, and the anarchic brilliance of The Really Wild Show still inspire me to make what I do not just educational and informative, but - to complete the Reithian ideal - entertaining too.