What are the Essential Skills for a Motion Designer
Amy Lustig·Aug 1, 2022
If you’re familiar with the fundamentals of motion design and your interest has been piqued, you might be wondering to yourself what it really takes to be a motion designer.
There are many ways that motion designers have broken into the industry, whether it was learning the discipline in school, growing expertise in traditional design and art before expanding into motion design, or simply being self-taught through and through.
No matter which path a motion designer takes in developing their career, certain experience and skills always come in handy along the way. In this article, we’ll review the design skills, motion design skills, and soft skills that motion designers use every day to create incredible and unforgettable animations.
It’s in the name, so it’ll come as no surprise, but motion designers need fundamental design skills in order to be successful in their day-to-day work. And while the actual technical work of design and motion design are quite different, mastery of graphic design skills will only help motion designers create effective and stunning animations.
Have you ever looked at a work of graphic design and thought to yourself, “somehow those colors just go perfectly together?”
That “somehow” is no coincidence. It’s a product of color theory: a body of guidance, expertise, and even science that guides how we use color, how colors can be mixed, and how to achieve a sense of harmony in our color compositions.
To some degree, we’re all aware of color theory. We learn our primary colors as kids and how we can mix those colors to achieve others. That’s what we might call the most rudimentary of color theory. Motion designers are well-versed in how that theory evolves over primary, secondary, and tertiary colors – and beyond that to the thousands of hex codes they find themselves working with.
A Pantone representation of the color wheel
The color wheel dates back to the 1600s when Isaac Newton was trying to understand color perception. But an astute understanding of color theory goes beyond this familiar device. Hue, shade, tint, and tone all come into play when we are choosing colors to work with and determining what relation we want those colors to have to one another. Does our composition call for complementary colors—that is, opposite colors on the color wheel? Or do we want analogous colors that sit next to each other, or triadic colors that are evenly spaced around the wheel?
There are full books written about understanding color theory and its many applications, and the purpose is always the same: an in-depth knowledge of color theory helps us create more effective designs that are beautiful and memorable.
There are messages all throughout design, but when we’re using letterforms to convey important messages, their design and arrangement is what we call typography design. Typography incorporates how we use various fonts (or create new fonts of our own) to craft compelling messages in our work.
Even if you’re a novice to design, it’s likely that you’ve heard some typographic terms. Fonts refer to the actual letterforms and date back to traditional metal typesetting. A collection of those letterforms is considered a typeface (think how we consider this font as one, italics as another, and bold as a third–together, they make our typeface). There are many different typefaces, but two commonly referred-to designations are serifs and sans serifs. Serifs tend to have more decorative elements (known as tails) that give an overall editorial quality to the work. These typefaces tend to look a bit more classic. Sans serifs don’t feature these tails, giving them a more geometric quality that often comes across as more modern.
This motion graphic uses a sans serif on the animated text in the background.
Motion designers need to understand how typography works to design effective messaging in their animations. In the above example, using a sans serif font and understanding how to animate the letterforms brings a modern energy to the piece. We can imagine that if we made the same motion graphic using a serif (think Times New Roman for example), the piece would have an entirely different feel.
Motion Design Skills
While motion designers employ the design skills noted above, and many more, there is a whole other suite of motion design techniques required to navigate the exciting world of motion graphics.
A firm understanding of animation skills is a prerequisite for every motion designer. It’s the building blocks upon which every good motion graphic is made. A good refresher on those animation skills can be found in the book The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, in which these two Disney animators outline the 12 principles most employed by the esteemed Disney team:
- Squash and stretch
- Straight ahead action and pose to pose
- Follow through and overlapping action
- Slow in and slow out
- Secondary action
- Solid drawing
Every motion design employs animation, so consider mastering the above a 101 course in motion design.
In motion design, keyframes establish the start and end of a movement, and also all of the action that happens in between.
Taken alone, keyframes are still images, but when employed by a motion designer, we present those images at a rate fast enough to create life and energy – animation in effect. Keyframes can help us determine the value of several elements we need to consider in any motion graphic: position, scale, opacity, and rotation. You can start with a small number of keyframes to understand how to employ position, scale, opacity, and rotation most effectively. As you continue to grow as a motion designer, you can add more and more keyframes to build more nuanced, richer, and deeper animations.
Learn all about keyframes to develop a strong foundational understanding at Fable Academy.
Parenting establishes links between layers that can allow you to carry over transformations in your assets to all of the children that fall underneath that parent. Parenting can help you establish a more efficient workflow, so that you don't need to individually adjust every single layer of our animation with the desired effect.
Review parenting techniques and become a pro at Fable Academy.
If you're using a tool like Fable, parenting is an easy skill to learn. In the timeline, you just select the layers you want to connect, and drag a link from the dot on a child to its parent. As soon as you release, the dot becomes yellow, meaning that child is now attached to its parent. If you need to free the child from its parent layer, you simply hover over that yellow dot and click to cancel its connection.
The process is similar if you need to connect multiple child layers to a parent. All you need to do is hold down shift as you select your layers and drag the connection, just as if you were individually selecting. You can follow this process and create multiple chains. Child layers can become parent layers and in turn create grandparent layers, so that changes can be made uniformly and you can become a more efficient motion designer.
Soft skills refer to all the ways in which we work. While harder skills like the technical knowledge of keyframes and animation will go far in terms of developing motion design experience, if you’re hoping to become a full-time or freelance motion designer, soft skills are just as important to learn and use in your day-to-day.
Developing a workflow that works for you and your team is a crucial skill in your motion design practice. This one may seem very intuitive, but if you’re bogged down in trying to find specific asset files when you could have had a file naming convention, you’ve wasted important time that could be better served for your creative skill set.
Workflow is important for any creative discipline because by finding efficiencies in how we can work, we create more time for the deep, focused work that we simply can’t get to if we’re constantly responding to emails or messages that come in from our office or clients. Workflow also goes hand-in-hand with time management, a skill that best sets you up for delivering your motion graphics on time without stressing out your team, or as bad, burning you out.
There are many tools to help with workflow and time management, and odds are that if you’re in a workplace right now, you’ve employed some of them already. The goal of streamlining a workflow is never to make more work out of the process of work, but rather to make a process so you can spend more time thinking creatively.
Soft skills often feel very basic in their nature, but they are skills nonetheless – and they require practice. Communication is key among them; that is, the ability to effectively talk with your colleagues, speak to your work, and advocate for what you need and what you’re doing with your motion designs.
If you went to design school, you may be very familiar with presenting your work and the process of critiquing design. For those who are more self-taught, this layer of communication can feel painful. Practice giving and receiving communication and not taking things personally when some constructive feedback comes your way.
Remote work has added a layer of complexity to communication among colleagues, whether you’re freelance or full-time. Many creatives find themselves needing to over-communicate in lieu of being able to see one another and connect in the break room or over the proverbial watercooler. Providing regular status updates on your work, or even just shouting out colleagues for being helpful or collaborative regularly can foster a greater sense of connection and enable more teamwork.
The skills outlined above can establish a great baseline for any working motion designer. Practice those skills in action on Fable.