Animation — Designing on the Fly

Why Animate?

To begin, by animation we simply mean to control the way and order in which an object appears on the screen. PowerPoint blesses us with 144 different ways to “introduce” text or graphics, almost all of which are major detractors from the presentation itself. A few of these “special effects” work to enhance the presentation process; most, like the default effect FLY, have helped to create the disastrous level of presentation quality that we take for granted in business today.

Words vs. Graphics

Birds, airplanes, and Frisbees all fly. Words don’t. With PowerPoint, you can attach the same special effects to text as you can to any other object, no matter how inappropriate. So where it might be very fitting to have a clip-art airplane fly across the screen, the worst animation you can apply to a group of words is the one most people use.

Here’s the problem: people in your audience are human, and are genetically engineered to want to be the First to Know. They can’t wait for you to tell them, and if their vision is captured by a light source, they can’t avoid trying to discern it’s meaning or importance, instantly. When a group of words goes flying across the screen, even though the moving text is very difficult to read, the audience can’t help but try to read the text before it stops.  But after even just a few lines of flying text, which drag the brain from somewhere off screen and then whack it with the abrupt stop at the end, comprehension is quickly overwhelmed by the energy needed to keep up with the action. 

Add to that the lovely sound of screeching brakes or broken glass, the two most widely used sound effects, and you have an audience whose main focus is on when the presentation will end (and the pain will stop!).

And though FLY is a really, really bad way to introduce text, there are others capable of worse damage. SWIVEL (rhymes with drivel) demands that you sit through three complete revolutions of the text you want to read before it settles down to let you do so. CRAWL is useful if you want to prolong the agony of FLY, as it creates the same effect, only at half the speed.  Bring in your text with CHECKERBOARD, and you can draw real tears in just three slides!

The fun really begins when you mix up the different variations PowerPoint empowers you with, such as having the first line fly in from the left, the next from bottom-right, a couple more from the top, all the while adding a different sound effect to each direction of flight.

Proper use of animation is quite rare in the thousands of slides we see each year.  We generally see either no animation at all, especially in slides with too many lines of text in the first place, or we see mind-numbing overuse bordering on abuse. So what’s a designer to do?

The Final Four

To use animations properly, you first need to remember that words and graphics create different responses in the audience’s brain, and therefore some animations that work well with objects are jarring when applied to text. As with everything else you now know about design, the best animations are the simplest.  For those of you who have made the move to the PowerPoint 2003 or newer, you finally have one animation that you should consider above the rest: FADE.

The fade has been around since Cecil B. DeMille times (let’s say the 1920’s), and nobody putting text on a big screen has been able to improve on it much since. If you have it, use it.  It is the most gracious of the animations, as it is the gentlest.  Whether or not it is worth your “upgrading” to the latest version is your decision — the program has actually come to require more labor with each new iteration, so you have to make a real cost/benefit decision here. 

Otherwise, for text, only four of the available build animations are appropriate:

1. Wipe (Up, Down, Right, & Left)

2. Random Bars (Horizontal & Vertical)

3. Dissolve

4. Appear

What these effects have in common is a) a gentle motion, and b) they don’t move the text as they work; in other words, the text itself remains static, causing no violence to the eye or brain. DISSOLVE would work better if the grain were less coarse.  For this reason, we often use RANDOM BARS Vertical, and mix in a little Horizontal every now and then to change things up. In the same manner, we will use APPEAR every once in a while in conjunction with the other two. 

The rule is that you want to use at least two different animations for your text, but not more than three.  If you use one animation 60% of the time, another 30%, and a third 10%, your presentation will remain consistent yet not entirely predictable. Those percentages refer to the times you do animate. Animation is definitely not required, or encouraged, for every slide.

If your concept is self-evident (or the next-best, self-explanatory) with all of your text appearing at once with the change-of-slide, by all means do not animate it. Animation builds are there to control the flow of information in a way that provides maximum clarity. A very well designed slide often needs no restrictions; indeed, a very strong presenter delivering well-edited material can often be as effective with the old slides or overheads.

But are you that good?  Most of us are not, which is why builds are a good thing.  Just remember, it’s about the presentation, not about the effects.