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The real story, what really differentiates something, can be hidden away in the smallest detail.

Marcel Twohig

Over Christmas I happened to find one of my brother’s animation books – The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams. It is a wonderful book which is almost entirely hand written and illustrated with hundreds of pencil sketched animation sequences. As it’s title suggests it is something of a bible for animators, outlining principles, methods and formulas for character animation.

Much of the book focuses on the very subtle difference between getting the meaning of a gesture right and getting it wrong. Animators work in increments of 1/24th of a second (24 frames every second). That is a level of precision that few of us ever think about. In fact it is almost imperceptible. Williams himself says that you need 5 or 6 frames to be perceivable.

As an example have a look at the images below taken from the book. Williams shows the difference between pointing a finger emphatically and a softer finger pointing gesture such as conducting a waltz. Both of the gestures have exactly the same movement and timing up until the point (the “felt accent”). This is illustrated as a time line to the right of the sketch. But after the accent, the movement – and hence the meaning – are different. The emphatic finger pointing bounces back, the other continues forward. It is important to consider the scale of this movement with respect to time. What differentiates these two gestures lasts for about a quarter of a second.


How is this relevant to design? Well as a design consultant there are a few things I find myself saying over and over again. As I try to convince a client of the value of investing in a well designed product I inevitably return to the same language. It tends to revolve around creating “meaningful products” and paying “attention to detail”. Communicating that the two are related can be difficult. Williams draws a direct line between very subtle elements and how we create meaning. He shows that if we really break things down and look close enough, its not the obvious gesture but the almost imperceptible resettling afterward that is what we read. The real story, what really differentiates something, can be hidden away in the smallest detail.