I admit that was a .GIF snob. I associated the animated .gif (Graphics Interchange Format) images with bad website design. I started working on websites during the browser wars. There was no consistency on what a user experience would be. The standards movement and Firefox were in their infancy, and websites were still rudimentary by today’s standards. It was all tables, plug-ins and .gifs. There were many online destinations that still looked like (warning, this may hurt your eyes….don’t do it) this. I hated all the ugly clutter of blinking words, dancing babies, crude pixelated photos with gaping mouths. If you wanted great design, print ruled in big glossy magazine pages, books, billboards, films and tv. Gifs were not featured in Communication Arts annuals.
There were also online alternatives to .gifs, we had Adobe Flash and .swf format which was popular and provided a glimpse of what an immersive internet experience could be. The best designers were drawn to it in the days before we could have embedded fonts, jquery, html 5 and mature CSS. The internet was a sideshow, something marketers did not take seriously and only cared about as auxiliary channel. For me, the .gif was the epitome and a painful reminder of that limited era. That changed.
It wasn’t just me. I was repelled for just aesthetic reasons, but when the patent holders of the .gif compression decided to start charging for the its use, there was true geeky resentment and outcry. There was even a public protest called “Burn All GIFs Day. On websites, GIF images were largely phased out as a key graphic elements, especially since other file formats now did a better job when it came to static pictures. Lorraine Boissoneault explains it best for Smithsonian.com “…but nobody else could fill one niche that GIF had cornered: animated images. And so, even as the Internet evolved beyond early HTML, the scrappy old GIF clung on for dear life” This observation was truest in our personal and even business communications.
When email clients started supporting animated .gifs they became a form of personal expression. Pictures really do convey a thousand words and gifs were fun. We gained the power to include a joke, or some kind of emotive content in an email, as a signature. later text messages. They were easy to use, copy and paste, had small file sizes and were stored locally. They communicated an idea quickly in a short, soundless animated loop.
Add this benefit with the severely reduced attention spans of future generations, the nature of social media and the .gif as was poised for a resurgence. The .gif was also a superior medium when considering the drawbacks of other media formats:“.swf” animations were largely blocked on mobile devices due to security concerns (Apple vs. Adobe), video codecs were heavy in terms of file size, storage and bandwidth and were not easily embedded before the rise of .mp4.
It seems I owe the .gif format an apology. Now .gifs are all the rage again.The .gif responds like L.L. Cool Jay “Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years!” My bad, it was severely misused. It is not .gifs that create eyesores, its people that create eyesores!
Apple recently announced greater support for animated .gifs in its iOS11 photos app. It allows users to create and share animated .gifs. In early 2017, Facebook quietly tweaked their product so advertisers could post animated GIFs in the news feeds of targeted customers. With silicon valley powerhouses like Apple and Facebook embracing the animated .gif, the future seems very bright for the almost obsolete format.
There are now huge monetization incentives in .gifs. because GIFs are easy to use and easy to integrate into mobile messaging, According to research from BI Intelligence, messaging apps now have 20% more monthly active users globally than social networks. A New York based startup launched in 2012 called Giphy is at the forefront of this phenomenon. Two billion GIFs a day are currently sent over Giphy. The company received a $1 million investment offer from New York collective Betaworks which blossomed into partnerships with third party providers like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Slack. Giphy has content partnerships with Disney, HBO, and Calvin Klein, among others, and has a full suite of mobile apps. According to a late 2016 Fortune article, Giphy is worth approximately $600 million.
Giphy is working on a number of new initiatives that hint at how developers will use the GIF format over the next few years. Perhaps it is why Apple jumped into the functionality, GiphyCam lets users record their own GIFs, add filters and special effects, and share them with friends. “The GIF Camera,” the iOS and Android app is designed to work by taking video on the spot. Another API’s lets developers integrate stickers into their own apps. Gifs are the internet pioneer gift that keeps on giving.
So yes, I admit that they are great as long are used in moderation. They can be light, elegant, and relevant. They especially bring design value to places where an animation is unexpected such as an email, social media post or notification. What makes them very effective and appealing to communicators and artists alike is that they load instantly without human interaction and loop. They are used for the presentation of a concept or the animation of an idea in seconds. Who knows, maybe my grandchildren will be admiring a .gif of a dancing baby one day in a museum next to a Picasso or a Mondrian. Clearly, when developing a strategic campaign across several channels, it seems that the animated .gif should be added as a legitimate part of your previsualization. Sorry, no cat farting rainbows today, but below you will find seven animated .gifs I really like, how they fit into a bigger campaign effort, and why.
- Mailchimp – New Brand. I have been using mailchimp now professionally for about 3 years and am completely impressed with the platform. One morning I went to log in and was greeted by a completely new look. The animated .Gif next to the headline “Your Business Was Born for This” told a great story of a bird growing up and taking full flight. In just a few seconds I was inspired. The simple palette, bright yellow, black and white were also great design choices. The choice of “Cooper Light” as headline serif font not only displays the platforms new partnership with Google Fonts, it was also reminiscent of a simpler time and complements the brand’s wry humor. There is a full write up about the design here. As displayed in my next choice. Technically, the .gif is nicely crafted, it has a very smooth animation.
- Mailchimp UI animations – MailChimp shows you this animation of a hand sweating over a big “send” button. And then gives you a high five on the confirmation page. Designed by extremely talented designer Brent Clouse, they are just brilliant. I remember the first time we sent out a test email on the new platform. I had received approval and was moving the whole organizations email to a new platform. We had uploaded our full list, created a responsive template and were ready to go. Seeing these animations of the nervous chimp sweating over the button and high five made me laugh and put me at ease. Someone at that company understood how I was feeling.
- Network Solutions Email Marketing – Recently, I began receiving emails from Network Solutions promoting their services. They are usually not very exciting and are just bland copy about security highlights, blah blah blah…. I usually delete these emails right away. But this time, something flickered and there it was, a nicely and tastefully used animated .gif.
- American Apparel sells T-shirts that have been “power washed” to make them “super soft”. This key benefit would not attract much attention if it wasn’t for the animated GIF simulating the T-shirts being washed in an imaginary washing machine. The animation graphically tells the whole story and highlights the product in a few seconds.
- Modcloth’s email template is rich in texture. The low res print background allows the clothes to “pop” in the foreground. Very light and airy, combined with the headline it captures the feeling of spring any time of the year.
- JJill’s Winter Sale – I like the Winter Sale animation because of its stop motion animation feel and sweeping dramatic change from white to red. It certainly is effective in capturing your attention if you are quickly scrolling down a page or email. The simple color palette keeps the size down too in spite of its size and big animated feel. The designer probably just used 64 colors instead of the full 256. In this case, less is more.
- Netflix – Stranger Things Promotions. Netflix manages to create mystery and use the story’s dual universe “the upside down” as a way of generating interest. The image tells the story quickly, something is going to happen to these kids, something STRANGE! The foreboding quality of the lightning works well in the loop. Netflix did an amazing job promoting this series and creating interest in other social media channels and services. Pictured below are special stations they commissioned on Spotify. There is more information about this award winning campaign here.
References and more than you ever wanted to know about .GIFs….
360.AGENCY. The return of the animated GIF -. (2015, April 30). Retrieved from https://www.360.agency/en/blog/the-return-of-the-animated-gif
Ungerleider, N. (2018). It’s a GIF World. We Just Live In It. Built to Adapt. Retrieved from https://builttoadapt.io/its-a-gif-world-we-just-live-in-it-6da025ac4937
Boissoneault, L. (2017). A Brief History of the GIF, From Early Internet Innovation to Ubiquitous Relic. Smithsonian. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-gif-early-internet-innovation-ubiquitous-relic-180963543
Monllos, K. (2018). That GIF You Just Shared? It Might Actually Be an Ad. Adweek. Retrieved from https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/that-gif-you-just-shared-it-might-actually-be-an-ad
Leibsohn, A. (2015). Yes, We Pronounce It With a Hard ‘G'. Recode. Retrieved from https://www.recode.net/2015/9/16/11618600/yes-we-pronounce-it-with-a-hard-g
Creation and history:
Buck, S. (2012). The History of GIFs. Mashable. Retrieved from https://mashable.com/2012/10/19/animated-gif-history/#_DiYEbAGtiq7
The animated history of how the GIF came to be. (2012, May 03). Retrieved from https://www.dailydot.com/upstream/gif-history-steve-wilhite-olia-lialina-interview
Staff, W. (2017). The GIF Turns 30: How an Ancient Format Changed the Internet. WIRED. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/05/gif-turns-30-ancient-format-changed-internet
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
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