Animation Handbook

Taking animation further

Small things matter

by Ryan McLeod

In the previous chapters you’ve read how integral animation is to modern product design, learned about some animation guiding principles, and heard how a few of the best design teams bring motion into their workflows. Now let’s take a look at how you can take animation further with fluidity, nuance, consistency—and humanity.


While many products use animation, few do so in ways that respect our attention and make us react the right way at the right time. When you search for “coffee” in the Google Maps app, the red pins that mark your options quickly fade in without distracting you. While Google’s designers might have been tempted to overdo the animation with a volley of dropped pins calling for your attention, they were wise to keep the motion to a minimum.

When we learn new animation techniques, we have a tendency to go overboard in attention-grabbing ways. But when we design for real-world contexts and scenarios—like searching for a destination while biking, or searching in a dense metropolitan center with dozens of results—digital hand-waving is distracting and even dangerous. It’s important that we frequently step back and consider the diverse contexts in which the animations will be deployed.

With no physical restraints or real-world gravity, it’s natural to want our interfaces to take giant animated leaps and bouncy bounds. But the restraint of nuance is all about ensuring motion adds clear value to the interface without stealing attention from more important matters. Nuance means whittling away as much as possible until it’s subtle, felt, and nearly unseen. The disapproving shake of a password field, for example, communicates just as much as an animated alert, but without taking attention away from the task at hand.

In his article “Good to great UI animation tips,” Pablo Stanley provides a concrete example of how nuanced thinking leads to better animation design.


Consistency is meeting expectations and intentions. As we add physicality to the movement of our designs, we must maintain consistency of motion just as we do for typography, layout, color, and the like. When we maintain material, spacial, and physical consistency, we make a product feel more cohesive, and we encourage discovery by building confidence and trust. Then our animations communicate not just how something works, but also the way the digital world around them functions.

Contradictions between what we expect and what actually happens introduces a cognitive load that prevents our designs from becoming usable without exertion—we force our users to think, rather than make our product feel like an extension of their minds. Product designer and engineer Austin Sarner explains:

Consistency doesn’t mean everything we do should move with the same timing for the same duration through every screen. We just need to ensure that everything we make is influenced by common principles. Shared components and design systems help, but like we learned in the nuance section, we should evaluate all elements in their contexts of use.

In the Tinder app, for example, a core interface principle is that everything you see on screen is “real.” The interface relies on a highly realistic card metaphor, with cards so lifelike that they appear to be cut from paper and could be held in your hand.

While everything you can touch in the Tinder interface is interactive, different elements act in different—yet consistent—ways. When you touch and drag a card from the flash card-like stack, the card “feels” light because of how it swivels and pivots around your finger. Other parts of the interface extend offscreen, lending additional weight; when you swipe to move these other parts, they feel heavier and move more rigidly. Despite having similar gestures, neither element’s motion is designed as a variation of the other; rather they’re designed around a consistent principle.

Going further, the simple design of the iOS control center belies its complexity. The buttons in the control center use bouncy, overlapping animations to bolster implied interactiveness. On devices with Apple’s 3D Touch functionality, certain buttons can be pressed harder to reveal even more options. Since all the buttons look and animate the same way, we expect them to react to touch the same. If we attempt to press buttons without those additional options, our finger is met with a gentle spring-back animation that implies, “nothing to see here.”

This spring-back maintains physical consistency by behaving in a way that makes sense to the rest of the interface. Just like a house with floors that inexplicably emit odd creaks or doors that swing of their own volition feels haunted, an interface that breaks our mental model of how things should behave adds cognitive load to the experience. Understand and stick to the principles of your interface to maintain confidence and promote exploration.

The buttons in the control center use bouncy, overlapping animations to bolster implied interactiveness. On devices with Apple’s 3D Touch functionality, certain buttons can be pressed harder to reveal even more options.


Things like bikes, door handles, and toasters are approachable because of their human-geared affordances and clear, intuitive workings. Digital objects like cell phones, computers, and microwaves, on the other hand, are so complex that their inner workings are abstracted and inaccessible without advanced training.

When digital systems were first built, we lacked the ability to create the affordances we demand from our software today. Command line interfaces and hierarchical file systems reflect machine capabilities more than people’s demands. As computing advanced and became a consumer product, we began to bend our technology to be more familiar, intuitive, forgiving, and inviting.

The approachability of the analog world doesn’t exist in the digital world, so we use sleight of hand to make the digital more intuitive. Modern software employs plenty of tricks we rarely think about to make the digital appear more human. As animators, we have license to bend the truth to make something feel truer.

Just because we can teleport images across pixels on a screen in milliseconds doesn’t mean we should. We can move things in from off screen to cover what we previously looked at, like a printer spitting out page on top of page. This fakery gives us a sense of physical space in a digital environment, which lets us mentally map both what we see and what’s out of view.

Digital animation serves to humanize software by slowing down the instant in thoughtful ways. When we reach the end of a long passage of text, we might come up against a bit of tug when there’s no more content to scroll. This tug is a playful, non-jarring indication that we’ve reached the end.

When we have face-to-face conversations, we look and listen for cues, like hesitations or gestures, as part of a natural back-and-forth. In our text messaging apps, animated typing indicators—like the bobbing ellipses that signal someone is typing—reintroduce humanity to a digital experience. We should always be on the lookout for non-obvious ways to bring the human element to our products.


It takes more than snappiness, responsiveness, and gestures to make an interface feel fluid. Chan Karunamuni, in his Apple’s WWDC talk, says fluidity “boils down to when a tool feels like an extension of your mind.” It takes a considered use of motion to build a tool that anticipates our needs with minimal effort.

Most software interactions—like entering a command or pressing a button—happen after we make a decision; once we commit to an action or get a response it might trigger an animation. Fluid interactions happen while we make decisions, giving us the ability to redirect, cancel, and change our decisions mid-gesture—like dragging a file to the trash or to a folder.

While we can play a defined animation at the touch of a button, a fluid gesture contains too many possibilities to cover this way. Instead, fluid interfaces should draw inspiration from the physical movement of the real world to align motion with intent. Because these motions are tightly coupled with their related interactions, they must be designed collaboratively from the start with interactive prototypes to fine-tune the details.

Touch the future

Good animation takes principles and know-how, but it’s refinement and nuance that sets a project apart. Thoughtful animation introduces humanity to a project, and makes an interface feel intuitive and alive under our touch. With the knowledge you now have about motion, you’re primed to not just animate but to craft interfaces that are a seamless extension of body and mind.

About the Authors

Ryan McLeod

Ryan McLeod is a puzzle maker and self-taught designer with a masters in Computer Science. He designs and develops the infamous and infuriating game Blackbox, which won an Apple Design Award in 2017. In addition to being a game, Blackbox has also become a testbed for interaction design and accessibility innovation. Off the computer, he cooks a lot and once accidentally bartended the Nobel Prize after-party.

  • Currently listening to: The XX and RÜFÜS DU SOL when I’m writing. I rock DJ sets like Nora En Pure‘s when I’m coding.
  • Inspired by: Brett Victor, who likes to blow holes in immutable things like mathematics. He’s great at questioning these subjects but also offering ways in which we might improve with things like new interfaces for learning and teaching math.
  • Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Amsterdam is removing traffic lights. The result is less traffic traffic/delays and sees no increase in accidents. Makes me wonder what other situations can be improved by similar patterns of thought.