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Designimator: Fact or Fiction?
Guest Editorial by Dyske Suematsu

Am I a designer or an animator? Nowadays, in broadcast design, these roles are seen to be two separate specialties. It is true; you cannot be good at both. If you are an experienced animator, you are probably less experienced in design, and vice versa. Each requires its own share of knowledge, skills, and talent. In fact, many broadcast designers prefer to do only design or animation. For design firms and design departments at networks, managing talents becomes much easier if you separate the two roles. For design, one could hire from a vast pool of print designers. For animators, one could more or less ignore their design sensibilities and their understanding of type. This way, as an art director, one has more options.

Part of what is driving this compartmentalization in the broadcast design business is its technical complexity. Broadcast designers are required to think in 3 dimensions as well as in time, which means that there are two more dimensions to deal with than there are in print design. With the introduction of each dimension, the technical complexity exponentially grows. Many broadcast designers are expected to know not only all of the standard design applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, but also 3D programs like Maya, Softimage, and Cinema 4D, as well as animation programs like After Effects. It is simply not realistic for anyone to master them all.

But the division of the two roles has its own problems. Firstly, by separating the two, we create a need for an art director to manage and coordinate the two. Much can be lost in translation between the two, and it is not a cost-efficient strategy either. Secondly, designers who do not understand the dimension of time cannot create designs that are conducive to motion. The latter problem is potentially more serious. The difference between a designer and an animator is like the one between a painter and a sculptor. A painter who does not think in 3 dimensions would come up with a design which is inherently 2 dimensional, so that the only thing the sculptor can do with it is to simply extrude it. In the same manner, most print designers are not used to thinking of design in the dimension of time, and the animators who are given such a design, can only artificially move it. The result is often rigid, limited, and awkward.

Years ago, at a panel discussion, one of the creative directors told the audience that in everything he did at his firm, each and every frame had to stand as a good piece of design. It feels natural to think that way, especially if you come from a print design background. In other words, for him, a good motion graphics consists of a series of beautiful still designs. I disagree. Movement alone can in fact be beautiful even if none of the individual frames are beautiful. A talented animator could take a black square against a white background, and animate it beautifully. Any given frame would then be just a black square against a white background. The creative director mentioned above won’t be able to see the potential of such beauty, and this problem is quite widespread in the broadcast design business. Many people underestimate the beauty possible within the dimension of time. For this reason, I do not particularly like the common practice of using style frames as the first step in the development of a motion graphics.

Another aspect of motion graphics which does not exist in print design, is its ability to tell a story. A static design can imply or inspire a story, but it cannot tell it. Telling of a story must take place in time. And, by “story”, I do not simply mean a series of text presented in sequence, nor voice-overs. Even abstract shapes and patterns can have stories that unfold in time. This storytelling can take on a variety of forms. Like still photographers, print designers are trained to capture everything in a single moment. When you need to tell a story in time, this habit must first be unlearned.

When designing for motion, designers must also take into consideration what is technologically possible. This sounds rather self-limiting, but in the real world of broadcast design, technological limitations are quite real. It is one of the few areas of the creative business where the technology has not yet caught up with our imagination. Since deadlines are always too close in this business, knowing what can be done within a given time frame is critical to the overall success of the work. If you spend 2 weeks animating a design that should actually be given 4 weeks, the result is often unacceptable. A design that is less ambitious would end up looking much better in that scenario.

For these reasons, it is not easy to clearly separate the roles of a designer and an animator. Whether you choose to divide or unite, you are making significant compromises either way. Sadly, there is no perfect solution. The bigger your business grows, the more attractive the divided strategy becomes. By the same token, the smaller your business is, the more attractive the united strategy is. In that sense, both strategies would probably continue to exist. As long as you understand what you are compromising, you can wisely choose your strategy. That way, it is not so much a problem as it is a matter of choice.

Personally, I choose to do both, and I have to admit that when I see others who specialize in specific aspects of this business, I realize how much better they are than I am. Since I’m originally from Japan, I have a tendency to be a generalist, a more holistic approach to understanding the world. A generalist and a specialist offer different perspectives that are equally valuable, especially when it comes to understanding something as complex as motion graphics. I believe, in the end, your own natural inclination would make that choice for you.

Dyske (“Dice-Kay”) Suematsu is a graphic designer based in New York City. He spent half of his life in Japan and the other in the US. He is quite opinionated and writes a lot of what his wife calls “Jibba-Jabba”. His personal site is dyske.com and his business site can be found at dyskedesign.com.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Sep.02.2005 BY Speak Up
Mike Que’s comment is:

I believe your arguments make sense in a larger mechanized environment where all talent is considered interchangeable. For instance, on a spreadsheet, you could map out a project as needing 3.2 designers, 4.6 developers, and .6 IA. But the best work comes from affiliations of individuals who have honed their own skills based on talent and interest. A person at this level eludes specific labeling. True, this is applicable for smaller organizations and projects ledd complex than an all-out broadcast development project. But it is important to not pigeon-hole ourselves into roles that make sense only from a human resources point of view.

On Sep.02.2005 at 11:56 AM
David Gilliaert Werner’s comment is:

Some great points; many extending beyond the realm of motion - is it better to become an expert in one area or extend your focus wider?

As a grad student, it's great to be in a safe environment where students can explore different worlds of creativity daily. Posters, books, cartoons, film, writing, photography, illustration, music, websites, product design, etc. It's challenging to jump back and forth between projects, but it's also extremely fun. In terms of motion, as the lines between television, movies, websites and video games get blurrier, so will the specialization. We can't be instant experts on every new program that comes out, but once we understand the basics of a timeline or thinking in three dimensions, that knowledge helps lessen the learning curve. I mean, some of the concepts I learned in Mario Paint on Super Nintendo ten years ago have carried over into Flash and After Effects. Even if we become labeled as "print design guy" or "code guy" or "animation guy", there's something to be said for people who can speak and understand a variety of creative languages.

On Sep.02.2005 at 12:30 PM
Ruben Sun’s comment is:


it continually strikes me... in hindsight... just how many decisions we as designers need to make, and how many things we need to be intensional about (that applies both at an instictive level as well as a more conscious level, depending on what kind of designer you are).

That said, with media being as hybridized as it is today, these sort of "cross-platform" issues are more frequently coming into view. Logo/brand identities must be translated from collateral, to environmental graphics / signage. Websites are increasingly becoming animated and interactive. With animation becoming more easily delivered on video we find identities need to translate into how they visually behave.

That being the case, it is greatly empowering tto reflect on the complexities of the decision making we have as designers iin the various projects we work on.

On Sep.02.2005 at 12:33 PM
graham’s comment is:

. . . or you could be a director.

On Sep.02.2005 at 12:35 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

Yeah, but where's the fun in that?

On Sep.02.2005 at 07:14 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:


You touch on something very close to my heart— this dilemma of specialization vs. general knowledge. The sage advice is always to “follow your passion”, but many of us have many passions.

I recently had the chance to listen Marty Neumeier, author of the Brand Gap discuss the topic of specialization in the context of collaboration (Branding could be equally substituted with many other creative/strategic pursuits). While predicting the era of specialization, there will also be a need for team builders and collaborators. Intense specialization can help one become “best of breed”, but without the ability to understand the issues of your collaborative partners, your work may have limited use.

When I posed this issue as a question to Marty, his answer was that we ultimately need “T” shaped skill sets— deep specialization combined with a broad horizontal comprehension.

One man’s advice, but it makes sense to me. Now to find that stem in the uppercase T ;^)

On Sep.03.2005 at 05:01 PM
Randy’s comment is:

I've always felt the seperation model to be antiquated; one could easily apply Dyske's description to the disciplines of writing and designing.

Marty Neumeier's description is likely accurate and rather encouraging, but I must say, I hope the cross-bar joins the stem of the "T" with a big, fat curve.

On Sep.03.2005 at 08:15 PM
Armin’s comment is:

On a recent project we were collaborating with a film production house that was developing a video that went along with a large print and web effort. We provided look and feel assistance for titles, graphics, etc. When we saw some of the animations that incorporated type and images, we thought they could be done another way. After a few minutes of explaining some of the transition effects we were hoping for to a couple of the editors, they said "OK, we'll need to have a designer do this then". I thought that was very telling on the sensibilities that a designer brings to animation that a "pure" animator may not bring.

This of course brings up the question: How do you differentiate between a designer and an animator? How do you define each one's roles? Are today's animation designers different from one's 10, 20, 30 years ago?


As a control-freak person — and a designer that doesn't care what the medium is — if I am doing something with motion, I prefer to animate it myself; I know what I want in my head and if I know the tools to get it done I prefer to move things from point A to point B by myself. A few of the most fun design pieces I have done (1, 2, 3 — sorry, 3 ceased to exist on the internet…) have been motion; it's not After Effects for a TV commercial or anything and it sure is not enough to put a motion reel together but, as Dyske says, it's telling a story through time.

On Sep.06.2005 at 08:46 AM