Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

30 May 2013


Clark @ 6:32 AM

I’ve been thinking more about animations of late.  I am a big fan of diagrams (as you probably infer :), and animations add an important dimension.  However, they’re more problematic to create.  Yet I’ll argue that they can be really powerful.

As Larkin & Simon pointed out in their landmark Cognitive Science article (PDF) “Why a diagram is (sometimes) worth ten thousand words”, a mental model is composed of conceptual relationships between the elements.  And a mental model provides predicative and explanatory power: you can infer from the model why something happened or how to do something.  A diagram maps those conceptual relationships to spatial relationships, providing a memorable framework to both comprehend and remember that model.

Now, sometimes the relationships aren’t static, but change under different conditions.  Then, we need to convey those changes, and so we need a moving diagram, an animation.  An animation can convey things like the effects of introductions of various factors on related elements, such as heat in a steam system, or chemicals in an ecosystem, helping learners understand the dynamic relationships.

For instance, the diagrams I used yesterday to convey a meta-learning architecture could be animated to show the flow and aggregation of the information of competencies over time.  Similarly, for those who have trouble visualizing use of the experience API, an animation could show how individual activity generates data that can be aggregated and then mined, either for specific answers or with machine learning for new insights.  I think that there may be a barrier to comprehending the whole picture (more than happy to be wrong), and here an animation could help.

Animation is inherently more complex than creating diagrams, and requires additional skills than just static visualization.  Consequently, I haven’t developed that particular capability, but I strongly encourage design teams to acquire that capability either internally or a strong partner.

I like the Common Craft ones, which typically include this sort of dynamic relationship exposition, but also narrative (which you also see in  RSA Animate, another favorite).  I remember the ones that explained reproduction that they showed us in school many years ago, stripping away the yucky bits so we could understand the underlying processes (and risks).  Can you think of animations that have really helped you comprehend something?


  1. You’re right: animations can add significant depth to the learning experience. It can take a lot of work for an average designer to produce though. One way I make illustrations is to start with a video; this is generally easy to do using a mobile device. Then I export individual frames showing something significant. From here it’s possible to use other apps like Animation Studio or iStopMotion on iOS to create some good ones.

    Thank you for the link to Common Craft and RSA Animate: new resources are cool.

    Comment by urbie delgado — 30 May 2013 @ 10:10 AM

  2. Hi Clark, I am a big fan of learning animations too. Here are some simple animated gifs you may find interesting. Number 18 in particular cleared up something I have always wondered about…

    Comment by Robert Panetti — 3 June 2013 @ 11:20 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress