Why Do Animated Videos Work?

We’re approaching the four year mark in making Common Craft videos and over this time, I’ve always wondered: why do videos work? In fact, I think the bigger question is not just our videos, but any short animated video that is designed to educate. What is it about this style of video that hold people’s attention and helps them learn?

First, what is an animated video?  

Let’s talk about what it’s not. An animation is not live action - animated videos don’t usually have actors, sets and stages.  It’s not a screencast - animated videos don’t usually focus on computer screens.  Animated videos, in some ways, exist in a purely fictional world that is completely designed by the animator or producer.  They often use illustrated representations and symbols of the world to tell stories versus the objects themselves.

Do they work?

We could debate this point forever. After working on videos for almost 4 years and seeing the success of the members of our Explainer Network of producers, I am comfortable making the claim that yes, animated videos do work.  We see demand every day for animated videos, usually meant to explain products or services.  

If you need further proof, here is an iconic animated video that helped lots of young Americans learn about government:


But Why? What is so special about this format?

I put this question to the members of the Explainer Network and their responses fall into a few couple of categories:


  • Appeal to the Senses
  • Getting to the point
  • Making Sense of New Things

First: Appealing to the Senses

Bryan Zug of Lilipip recently wrote about the power of animation on his Flat Hatter blog:

In his book “Brain Rules” developmental molecular biologist John Medina breaks it down like this: “Vision trumps all other senses.”

When you tell a story visually people remember it because human beings are creatures driven by sight. As Medina notes, recognition and recall soar when information is communicated visually.

Now these points are not necessarily unique to animation. However, animation provides a very rich visual medium that can have more power and creativity than others because it’s limitless.  If it can be imagined, it can be animated.

Another point from Bryan:

As comic book artist Scott McCloud noted in his phenomenal TED talk, illustrations are very different from photographic images (such as video shot with a camera). Illustrations tap into a deep iconic universal form of communication that is deeply embedded in the human brain. Illustrations illuminate things.


Second:  Getting to the Point

Another recurring theme is the idea that animations make it easy to cut through the noise and focus on what matters.  We’ve noticed that with Common Craft videos as well. Nothing appears on that whiteboard that doesn’t need to be there - nothing.

Bryan Zug:

Animation in particular gives us the ability to use kinetic illustrations to crop out noise and focus the eye of the human mind on a very specific story.

I think the power of visual metaphor is a big point that is unique to animation. In what other medium can inanimate objects morph into other objects or have personalities?

Third: Making Sense of New Things

Mark from Splainers writes:

I think we all associate animations with getting to the core of it… cartoons and animations were presented to us as kids; they helped us make sense of a world that was so new to our eyes. They still appeal to us in adulthood, whether through the humor only understood by adults in Pixar movies or by discovering the world through political cartoons, or…

Putting animation to video as a way of explaining things is the next, logical (and fun) step.

I really like this point. I imagine that most of the videos that we (Common Craft and the Explainer Network members) produce are focused on introducing a new product or service.  This boils down to helping people feel comfortable and accepting of a different way of doing things. Animations help people over the hurdle of understanding the big picture. 

Communicators have a choice in this context: Going directly into the product or service with all the features and buttons, or taking a step back and building a simple and easy-to-grasp world around it.  We’ve seen that animation is the perfect medium for building that world.  It helps people feel comfortable and less anxious about learning something new because it’s presented in a format that feels fun and familiar. To Mark’s point - they communicate in a way that helped us as children.

There will always be a place for live-action, screencasts and other formats, but online animated videos occupy a particularly useful niche on the web, one that is often perfectly suited for introducing, educating and informing.

If you're interested in making your own Common Craft Style explainer videos, check out the DIY Media Maker Course at the Explainer Academy.