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Motion Design vs. Motion Graphics: Understanding the Differences

May 20, 2022

Image of Motion Design vs Motion Graphics

Have you ever watched a gripping title sequence like the stylized opening to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or the moody welcome to True Detective, and thought to yourself – who does that?

The opening credits to HBO’s True Detective Season 1 are a fantastic display of motion graphics.

Maybe you’ve caught a lyric video with kinetic typography or come across a cinemagraph, or even saw a logo animated in a way that made you smile.

Though varied in their platforms and use cases, each one of these creations – and so many more – are designed by skilled and creative artists known as motion designers. Or, as some may call them, motion graphic artists, but we’d never call them that. Learn exactly why as we delve into the differences between motion design and motion graphics, a brief history, and examples that may just inspire you to design a mograph of your own.

What is Motion Design?

Put simply, motion design is graphic design with the added element of movement to help convey story or evoke emotion. Most often, that comes to life through animation, whether that be of a figure, text, or other design.

While motion design has been around for centuries dating back to early experiments in Europe from the likes of Hans Richter, the field advanced at a rapid pace within the last couple of decades due in large part to technological advances. Adobe Premiere, After Effects, and similar software have allowed skilled designers to transform static illustrations and designs into moving elements, and evolve the ways in which we visually communicate.

More recently, technology has enabled those outside the most seasoned motion designers to dabble in the discipline without an extensive depth of expertise. Tools like Fable unlock the multi-faceted world of motion design for experts in the field and novices alike.

Regardless of the tools used or the platforms where they work, motion designers create the same general type of assets. We call that motion graphics.

What are Motion Graphics?

Motion graphics are the output of motion designers. Motion graphics – sometimes referred to as a mograph or mographs – refers to those animations, cinemagraphs, even those title sequences we previously discussed. A motion graphic could be a subtle UX animation on a website or a full-blown Saul Bass title sequence.

Saul Bass is considered a hero of graphic design, and he’s the mastermind behind many motion design staples, like this title sequence.

Motion graphics can refer to an individual selection of movement or the piece as a whole. That is to say, that a few frames of the above title sequence would constitute motion graphics, as would the entire opening credits.

There are myriad use cases for motion graphics, but you’ll commonly find them in digital applications, film, television, and ads. Whenever you see a logo animate at the end of a television commercial, that’s a motion graphic. Now you know where to spot them the next time that arrow curves in the shape of a smile underneath “Amazon.”

At Fable we're building tools to help future motion designers meet the constantly shape shifting and growing challenges of motion graphic production. - Fable Creative Team

How is Motion Design Different from Motion Graphics?

Many people use motion design and motion graphics interchangeably, but they are, in fact, distinct concepts. Motion design refers to the discipline of applying graphic design principles to filmmaking and video production through the use of animation and visual effects. Motion graphics are what is created in that process.

So to sum it up:

Motion design is a discipline.

Motion designers are masters of that discipline.

Motion graphics (or mographs) are what those motion designers craft.

History of Motion Design and Motion Graphics

Motion design is a relatively new discipline, though you can find very early examples as far back as the late 1800s. That’s exactly when the very first examples of animation emerged largely in Europe from the likes of Hans Richter and Walter Ruttmann. Our current perception of motion design really emerged in the later half of the 20th century, alongside the advent of computers and the proliferation of more mixed media. Before computer graphics came into play, motion designers had to experiment in more of a tactile nature – with oil on glass plates or rotoreliefs (spinning graphics that create the illusion of movement).

Motion graphics remains a more circulated term among the wider populace, perhaps due to John Whitney, the founder of Motion Graphics Inc in 1960. Whitney was an animator, composer, and inventor, and importantly, one of the founders of computer animation. He was a collaborator on the Vertigo title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock, and served as an artist-in-residence at IBM in the 1960s before going on to teach computer graphics at UCLA in the 1970s. Throughout his illustrious career, he taught pioneering computer graphics technology while making his own works, many of which have been preserved in museums around the world.

Aside from Whitney, Charles Csuri is also credited as one of the pioneers of computer animation and digital art. His work dates back to the 1960s, including Hummingbird, one of the first examples of computer animation that lives on in MoMA’s permanent collection. That short film contains over 30,000 computer-generated images drawn on film with a microfilm plotter.

Like Whitney, Csuri combined an incredible career of making digital art – motion graphics as they weren’t yet called – with teaching at his alma mater, The Ohio State University.

Motion Design and Motion Graphic Examples

There are countless examples of motion graphics (created by motion designers!) throughout media, and probably in your own daily consumption of the internet. If you’ve streamed Netflix recently and heard that “tudum” sound, you may look up to see the Netflix logo animating before you in their signature red. That’s a motion graphic.

Title sequences are a great place to spot motion graphics in play. AMC’s Mad Men took inspiration from Saul Bass with the development of their credit sequence. More recently, HBO’s limited series Lovecraft Country featured simple yet highly-stylized motion graphics to help build the Lovecraftian look and feel. Speaking of bold, simple, and Netflix, the Stranger Things title sequence is minimalist yet effective at bringing us into the retro horror world, particularly when combined with its signature soundtrack.

Stranger Things title sequence

How Stranger Things got its retro title sequence

Stranger Things composers break down the show's music

The truth is, once you know what motion design is and how motion graphics show up in the world around you, you’ll see them everywhere! Beyond when you’re watching TV, you’ll see it in apps you use frequently. If you’ve ever shared a TikTok to your Instagram story, that subtle animation of the TikTok logo at the end is a motion graphic.

So here’s a fun challenge for your budding motion design eye: see how many motion graphics you can spot during your day. From apps, to websites, to TV, to digital billboards, you may come across far more than you think – and you can thank motion designers for that.