Animation in Responsive Design

Animation and responsive design can sometimes feel like they’re at odds with each other. Animation often needs space to do its thing, but RWD tells us that the amount of space we’ll have available is going to change a lot. Balancing that can lead to some tricky animation situations.

Embracing the squishiness of responsive design doesn’t have to mean giving up on your creative animation ideas. There are three general techniques that can help you balance your web animation creativity with your responsive design needs. One or all of these approaches might help you sneak in something just a little extra into your next project.

Focused art direction

Smaller viewports mean a smaller stage for your motion to play out on, and this tends to amplify any motion in your animation. Suddenly 100 pixels is really far and multiple moving parts can start looking like they’re battling for space. An effect that looked great on big viewports can become muddled and confusing when it’s reframed in a smaller space.

Making animated movements smaller will do the trick for simple motion like a basic move across the screen. But for more complex animation on smaller viewports, you’ll need to simplify and reduce the number of moving parts. The key to this is determining what the vital parts of the animation are, to zone in on the parts that are most important to its message. Then remove the less necessary bits to distill the motion’s message down to the essentials.

For example, Rally Interactive’s navigation folds down into place with two triangle shapes unfolding each corner on larger viewports. If this exact motion was just scaled down for narrower spaces the two corners would overlap as they unfolded. It would look unnatural and wouldn’t make much sense.

The main purpose of this animation is to show an unfolding action. To simplify the animation, Rally unfolds only one side for narrower viewports, with a slightly different animation. The action is still easily interpreted as unfolding and it’s done in a way that is a better fit for the available space. The message the motion was meant to convey has been preserved while the amount of motion was simplified.

Si Digital does something similar. The main concept of the design is to portray the studio as a creative lab. On large viewports, this is accomplished primarily through an animated illustration that runs the full length of the site and triggers its animations based on your scroll position. The illustration is there to support the laboratory concept visually, but it doesn’t contain critical content.

At first, it looks like Si Digital just turned off the animation of the illustration for smaller viewports. But they’ve actually been a little cleverer than that. They’ve also reduced the complexity of the illustration itself. Both the amount of motion (reduced down to no motion) and the illustration were simplified to create a result that is much easier to glean the concept from.

The most interesting thing about these two examples is that they’re solved more with thoughtful art direction than complex code. Keeping the main concept of the animations at the forefront allowed each to adapt creative design solutions to viewports of varying size without losing the integrity of their design.

Responsive choreography

Static content gets moved around all the time in responsive design. A three-column layout might line up from left to right on wide viewports, then stack top to bottom on narrower viewports. The same approach can be used to arrange animated content for narrower views, but the animation’s choreography also needs to be adjusted for the new layout. Even with static content, just scaling it down or zooming out to fit it into the available space is rarely an ideal solution. Rearranging your animations’ choreography to change which animation starts when, or even which animations play at all, keeps your animated content readable on smaller viewports.

In a recent project I had three small animations that played one after the other, left to right, on wider viewports but needed to be stacked on narrower viewports to be large enough to see. On wide viewports, all three animations could play one right after the other in sequence because all three were in the viewable area at the same time. But once these were stacked for the narrower viewport layouts, that sequence had to change.

What was essentially one animation on wider viewports became three separate animations when stacked on narrower viewports. The layout change meant the choreography had to change as well. Each animation starts independently when it comes into view in the stacked layout instead of playing automatically in sequence. (I’ve put the animated parts in this demo if you want to peek under the hood.)

I choose to use the GreenSock library, with the choreography defined in two different timelines for this particular project. But the same goals could be accomplished with other JavaScript options or even CSS keyframe animations and media queries.

Even more complex responsive choreography can be pulled off with SVG. Media queries can be used to change CSS animations applied to SVG elements at specific breakpoints for starters. For even more responsive power, SVG’s viewBox property, and the positioning of the objects within it, can be adjusted at JavaScript-defined breakpoints. This lets you set rules to crop the viewable area and arrange your animating elements to fit any space.

Sarah Drasner has some great examples of how to use this technique with style in this responsive infographic and this responsive interactive illustration. On the other hand, if smart scalability is what you’re after, it’s also possible to make all of an SVG’s shapes and motion scale with the SVG canvas itself. Sarah covers both these clever responsive SVG techniques in detail. Creative and complex animation can easily become responsive thanks to the power of SVG!

Bake performance into your design decisions

It’s hard to get very far into a responsive design discussion before performance comes up. Performance goes hand in hand with responsive design and your animation decisions can have a big impact on the overall performance of your site.

The translate3D “hack”, backface-visibility:hidden, and the will-change property are the heavy hitters of animation performance. But decisions made earlier in your animation design process can have a big impact on rendering performance and your performance budget too.

Pick a technology that matches your needs

One of the biggest advantages of the current web animation landscape is the range of tools we have available to us. We can use CSS animations and transitions to add just a dash of interface animation to our work, go all out with webGL to create a 3D experience, or anywhere in between. All within our browsers! Having this huge range of options is amazing and wonderful but it also means you need to be cognizant of what you’re using to get the job done.

Loading in the full weight of a robust JavaScript animation library is going to be overkill if you’re only animating a few small elements here and there. That extra overhead will have an impact on performance. Performance budgets will not be pleased.

Always match the complexity of the technology you choose to the complexity of your animation needs to avoid unnecessary performance strain. For small amounts of animation, stick to CSS solutions since it’s the most lightweight option. As your animations grow in complexity, or start to require more robust logic, move to a JavaScript solution that can accomplish what you need.

Animate the most performant properties

Whether you’re animating in CSS or JavaScript, you’re affecting specific properties of the animated element. Browsers can animate some properties more efficiently than others based on how many steps need to happen behind the scenes to visually update those properties.

Browsers are particularly efficient at animating opacity, scale, rotation, and position (when the latter three are done with transforms). This article from Paul Irish and Paul Lewis gives the full scoop on why. Conveniently, those are also the most common properties used in motion design. There aren’t many animated effects that can’t be pulled off with this list. Stick to these properties to set your animations up for the best performance results from the start. If you find yourself needing to animate a property outside of this list, check CSS Triggers… to find out how much of an additional impact it might have.

Offset animation start times

Offsets (the concept of having a series of similar movements execute one slightly after the other, creating a wave-like pattern) are a long-held motion graphics trick for creating more interesting and organic looking motion. Employing this trick of the trade can also be smart for performance. Animating a large number of objects all at the same time can put a strain on the browser’s rendering abilities even in the best cases. Adding short delays to offset these animations in time, so they don’t all start at once, can improve rendering performance.

Go explore the responsive animation possibilities for yourself!

With smart art direction, responsive choreography, and an eye on performance you can create just about any creative web animation you can think up while still being responsive. Keep these in mind for your next project and you’ll pull off your animations with style at any viewport size!

About the author

Val is a designer and web animation consultant with a talent for getting designers and developers alike excited about the power of animation. She is the author of The Pocket Guide to CSS Animations and the upcoming Designing Interface Animations.

She curates the UI Animation Newsletter, hosts the All The Right Moves screencast, and co-hosts the Motion and Meaning podcast. Val leads workshops at companies and conferences around the world on motion design for the web and loves every minute of it.

More articles by Val

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