Welcome to the Next Golden Age of Animated GIFs

Animated GIFs, those silent, looping, video-like images are back in a big way — and this time it’s serious.

Animated GIFs have always been a playful part of the web. In the 90's, during their first golden age, they gave web designers an easy way to add animation to a website. The files were easy to share, simple to publish and small enough to be served up by dial-up modems. It seemed that every site had some kind of animated GIF, even if the site was, um, under construction.

As the web matured, GIFs became a throwback. Bandwidth improved along with technology and online video became the belle of the ball. In the early aughts animated GIFs were more of a novelty. In the fashion of the web they were decidedly out of style.

What Was Old Is New Again

Today animated GIFs are back in the sun. New tools and media options have created an explosion of animated GIFs on the Web. They now appear in Twitter feeds, on GIF sharing sites like Giphy, in sports highlights, articles and more.

At heart, most GIFs are entertainment. But I believe that animated GIFs are capable of a lot more than dramatic chipmunks. I believe GIFs can be useful. Before covering that, let’s look at the big picture.

What is an Animated GIF, Really?

Let’s get this technicality out of the way… GIF stands for “Graphic Interchange Format” and it’s a popular format of digital images that originated from Steve Wilhite at Compuserve in 1987. Other digital image formats include JPG, PNG, etc. The beauty of these formats is that they can be easily shared on the Web — and that’s a very big deal in the story of the animated GIF.

The GIF has special powers because a bunch of GIF images can be combined into one experience to create an animation — an animated GIF. And because the animation is still in GIF format, it can be shared almost anywhere a digital image can be shared. No plug-ins, no device restrictions, no worries. Unlike online videos or flash animations, animated GIFs just work.

A Digital Flipbook

Perhaps the best way think about animated GIFs is to consider old fashioned flip book animations. Instead of cards flipping to show an animation, it’s digital images that flip. Each image shows for only a fraction of a second. Together, the images create an illusion of a video in the more-sharable format of an image.

What Has Changed?

Today animated GIFs are easier to create and share than ever before. Their creation has become more democratized and that has led to an explosion in their use. Consider two factors that go into most GIFs we see today.

  1. Source Material — Today, many GIFs are created from existing videos like TV clips, smartphone videos and YouTube videos. The supply of source material is virtually unlimited.
  2. GIF creation tools — A growing number of tools are making it simple and often free to convert any video clip into a GIF.

Together, these two factors have made animated GIFs a big deal, again.

The Tools

While many animated GIFs are created with Photoshop, there is no shortage of cheap or free GIF creation tools. The examples below are just a sample for your reference.

YouTube has become a huge supplier of source material for GIFs. The tools below integrate with YouTube URLs to make GIF creation simple:

  • gifyoutube.com — Simply add “gif” to any YouTube URL (gifyoutube.com/…) to open this tool.
  • makeagif.com (also offers a free Chrome app)
  • gifsoup.com — hosts a large selection of GIFs

The following examples can convert video files saved on your computer to animated GIFs:

  • Gfycat.com — Web-based GIF conversion and hosting (15 second limit). This service also converts GIFs to smaller mp4 videos.
  • Imgur.com — The popular image hosting site recently rolled out a new GIF conversion tool that converts GIFs to smaller mp4 videos.
  • GIF Brewery — A powerful paid app ($5) for OSX.

Downloadable tools also offer the ability to capture anything on your screen and automatically convert it to an animated GIF.

  • LiceCap — Free, works on Windows and OSX
  • GifCam—Free, Windows only

The Current State of Animated GIFs

Trying to summarize animated GIFs today is like trying to summarize online photography — the variety is just overwhelming. Below are a few popular genres.

Reaction GIFs

Reaction GIFs are among the most popular genre today. They are very short GIFs that capture a reaction by a person or animal. You often see them in articles or as responses in the comments of blog posts or Reddit threads. Here, animated GIFs are used as a medium of communication.

Did someone say something stupid?

Art GIFs

A number of animators and artists are using the GIF format to create amazingly beautiful animations. Because GIFs loop, the pieces often seem to be in perpetual motion.

GIF by Dave Whyte

Highlight GIFs

Because GIFs can be created from almost any video, they are often used to share amazing feats and fails.

The skateboarder is Daniel Pelletier

It’s this core idea that has re-emerged… a silent, animated image that offers the viewer a video-like experience and often a moment of delight — all in a package that’s as sharable as any digital image.

BUT — Can Animated GIFS be Useful?

While most GIFs are known for entertainment, I believe they can also be amazingly useful — and that’s my focus here.

Here’s an example of a useful animated GIF that shows how a sewing machine works. Can you imagine a better way to communicate this?

Animation by NikolayS

Or how a zipper works:

Animation by Dominique Toussaint

What about the concept of pi?

Animation by John Reid

Or the innards of a lock and key:

The Problem of Production

The useful GIFs above, like most we see today, are created from source material that is quite sophisticated. Creating the GIF file is easy — it’s producing the source material that is the real challenge.

Further, file size is still a problem. Because animated GIFs are essentially a stack of images, the can get very big very fast. Thankfully, there are easy ways to create DIY Animated GIFs using common tools.

Creating Original Animated GIFs

Below is an animated GIF that I created using PowerPoint shapes and animations. Once I got the animations down, I used screencasting software to record the animations on my screen and then converted that video into an animated GIF.

It’s this sort of DIY animation that I think has true power in the move to useful animated GIFs.

Consider these ideas:

  • Animated GIFs in your company’s online support documents.
  • Animated GIFs for Ikea furniture assembly.
  • Animated GIFs for teaching cell division or sentence diagrams.
  • Animated GIFs for explaining your product’s features on a landing page.

Imagine, for a moment, what’s possible using the simple system I used to create the water cycle GIF:

Animated Venn Diagrams

Animated Charts and Graphs

Diagrams and Processes

People and Conversations

Until next time…

I write books and run an intentionally small company called Common Craft.

I write books and run an intentionally small company called Common Craft.