Big Think Series: Can You Know Motion Without Knowing Stillness? (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: The Big Think Series attempts to step back from our frame-to-frame existence and look at the bigger picture. This post is from Austin Shaw, a designer and director currently serving as a Professor of Motion Media Design at the Savannah College of Art & Design.

Motion Media Design Fractal © Austin Shaw 2010

This is a question that many Motion Media Designers struggle to answer. Is it Motion Graphics? Is it Animation? Is it Branding? The Theory presented in the fractal diagram above seeks to answer some of these questions.

Motion Media Design builds on the tradition of many creative disciplines. To break it down to its essence, I have constructed a fractal image that is essentially a set of cross continuums. Each continuum represents a pair of complementary opposites. Being complementary means that each opposing end of a continuum completes and/or balances its opposite. That means that an aspect of Motion Media Design such as “Motion” is not complete without its complementary opposite, “Stillness.”

This theory is expressed through the idea that a beautiful motion piece begins with a beautiful still image. A single Style Frame is most often the genesis of a Motion Design piece. In practice, I typically begin a Design Board striving to achieve a frame with a dynamic composition. Once I have a great composition, I will create another frame in the sequence, either before or after my first ‘Hero’ frame.  Creating beautiful motion becomes an extension of creating beautiful compositions in still frames. The process of animating can be a journey from one amazing composition to the next as planned out in a Design Board.

If you look at the fractal diagram you will see the words “Change” and “No Change” at either end of the Motion / Stillness continuum. These serve as tipping point guidelines to know where a piece stands along the continuum. The question to ask to determine where a piece is located along the continuum is “Is it changing?.” If it is changing then it is tipping towards Motion. Conversely, if it is not changing then it is tipping towards Stillness. Let’s have a look at an example of each…


"MASKS" Panda Panther for Zune

Now take a moment. Reflect on what you just experienced. Then take a look at an example of Stillness…


"Still Life"

To be clear, I am not placing a value judgment on either Motion or Stillness. Rather, I am attempting to highlight their differences as to better understand their respective strengths. In the Panda Panther piece, I am amazed at the richness of Change. The music and sound design creates movement through emotion. The camera angle is constantly changing from wide to medium to tight shots. The point of view of the beings of the opposing armies changes as they exchange masks, not to mention our view of these beings as semi-savage warlike critters, to cute and childlike characters. Change can be experienced both externally in what we see, and internally in how we perceive and feel.

Now, contrast the experience of ‘Masks’ with the still life of the flower. Silent and calm is what I feel, especially heightened immediately following the viewing of the Motion piece. There is a serenity rooted in the Stillness, a theoretical snapshot of a moment in time. Both pieces may share many similar qualities, but there are fundamental differences.

It is important to note that the notions of absolute Motion or absolute Stillness exists only in theory. You will indeed find moments of Stillness in Motion as well as Motion in Stillness. However, the overall quality of a piece will tip towards one end of the continuum or the other.

I am curious to hear your responses to the experience of Motion compared to Stillness.

To be continued in Part 2: Art & Design


About the author

Austin Shaw

Artist, Designer, Animator, Teacher



Although this didn’t resonate particularly deeply with me, I like what this post strives to do — which is to talk about motion design outside of individual projects. I’m hungry for more writing that addresses the future of motion graphics and how the discipline could cross-pollinate with new screens that offer new opportunities for design and story-telling.


One common pitfall of conversations about motion design is that they tend to always steer around “industry” standards. For example, a good motion concept does not have to start with boards. That is just the way most companies work. I personally dislike boards and rarely use/create them. I’m much more convinced by an eloquent metaphor.

Don’t start with boards, start with five random objects on your desk, and arrange them in an abstract manner. Then try to translate that into a metaphor for the mountain range surrounding your objects.
Then think of what it would mean for that mountain range to have a cousin.
That might lead to some interesting stuff

The idea of placing motion and stillness in dialectic is interesting, but I think it can go much further. The idea that each frame of motion is in fact still, and that each part of the still frame begs to regain its original motion is a dialectic that can lead to what I consider my personal holy grail in motion graphics : the merging of the possible and the impossible in a dynamic balance


Austin Shaw

Hi Alex,

This is a beautiful line ‘The idea that each frame of motion is in fact still, and that each part of the still frame begs to regain its original motion’

I think it reflects what is being illustrated in the fractal diagram as well as addressing the question – Can you know Motion without knowing Stillness? And the converse – Can you know Stillness without Knowing Motion?

I agree that style frames and boards are not the only starting point for Motion, although they are the typical industry starting place. They also help to convince clients to award projects!

Rather, I see boards as a metaphor for the idea that Motion begins in Stillness. Another way of saying that would be that Motion begins with a Single Point, that is Stillness. I would encourage readers to see this underlying pattern, rather than focus on what particular method you start with.


Greg Herman

This concept of a “Think Big Series” is an amazing addition to the site, not to mention kicking off the series with a very thoughtful post Austin! Great work.

This discussion brings me to 2 thoughts I have always had about our industry, that to me is interesting.

1.) How designers as well as clients, can easily get carried away with a still frame forgetting that it is just a single moment in time, and pulling us out of the big picture.


2.) When people find out how much goes into what we do for a mere 30 secs. ie: extended periods of boarding, testing, designing, shooting. etc. both still and in motion.

Anyways, thanks Austin and looking forward to more of these!


“designers as well as clients, can easily get carried away with a still frame forgetting that it is just a single moment in time, and pulling us out of the big picture.”

Yes but so often its incumbent on a still frame (or three) to sell to the client the entire range of emotion that the resulting motion graphics piece will convey.

For this reason I’ve always admired people in the industry who can create a single fantastic style frame that sells a whole concept instead of a complete storyboard.


“Rather, I see boards as a metaphor for the idea that Motion begins in Stillness. Another way of saying that would be that Motion begins with a Single Point, that is Stillness.”

Isn’t that a complicated way of describing change … which you’ve already got on the continuum. i.e For something to change it must have a current state that can be altered.

Motion design would simply appear to be design that changes its internal structure as it progresses. Motion is just a subset of that as is stillness (the lack of change). Neither of them necessarily change but it is change that implies relative motion. It’s also change that allows us to notice anything and be surprised, delighted and sad.

Theory of Special Relativity of Design.


Great to see that the ambiguous domain of motion graphics, or motion design is further explored.

However, this first step seems to me a bit too simple and straight forward. Hence, what can we do with this model and how does it help motion graphics designers and/or studios? I think more can be explored in order to bring more credibility to the model and to the theory.

In addition, the example that was used for motion, has in my opinion more to do with the animation (or 3d character animation) discipline than motion design discipline per se. This links with what someone else said above, that ‘conversations always steer around industry standards’. Indeed 3d character animation is increasingly being utilised by the motion graphic industry/studios. However, in my opinion, 3d character animation and motion design and two different disciplines and therefore it might be worth investigating the terminology around motion design prior to establishing such a model?
Just some random thoughts.. Again, great effort.
Curious to part 2.

Austin Shaw

Thank you for taking the time to check out my post and theory!

This first step should be pretty simple, as I have presented it in a short post format.

However, I would encourage a second look at the diagram itself. Through much thought, effort, and revision, I have taken a ‘Less is More’ approach in its creation. Like most work presented in such form, it invites the viewer to explore somewhat with their own interpretation. The cross continuums define a map that is infinitely variable.

Now, I actually did not present my example of ‘Motion’ (Panda Panther’s ‘Masks’) as ‘Motion Media Design’. I only presented it as an example of ‘Motion’. However, in my definition of Motion Media Design, Panda Panther’s ‘Masks’ is absolutely an example of Motion Media Design.

If you examine Drawing at the header of the post, you will see that Motion Media Design exists at the overlap of Motion & Stillness, as well as Art & Design.

So in my model, 3D Animation would be placed on the Motion side of the Continuum. 3D Character Modeling would be placed on the Stillness side of the continuum. 2D Animation would be placed on the Motion side, whereas Illustration would be on the Stillness side. Film goes to Motion, Photography goes to Stillness. A sequence of frames creates Motion, a single frame stillness.

There are many different disciplines / traditions that encompass Motion Media Design, hence the difficulty in defining it. I have actually pulled the theoretical lense back to be inclusive of all creative disciplines in Motion Media Design as well as organizing how they fit together.

Maybe an introduction to the theory/definition more like the sentence above would make it easier to understand?

It is challenging to present a theory in such a concise format, as opposed to a classroom where the stage can be set with questions and more fluid interaction. However, this is only part 1 of the definition! Hopefully, I can improve my clarity in part 2.

I just noticed that the title of my post was changed from ‘Can you Know Motion with knowing Stillness?’ to the current title of ‘What is Motion Media Design’… That certainly can be confusing….

Now, if you are not happy with my chosen example for Motion, I suggest swapping the example I presented, with an example of what you consider to be ‘Motion Media Design’. See if the experience of Motion/Change versus Stillness/No Change is similar to the examples I offered.

Thanks again for your comment.



Any chance of getting that graphic as a wallpaper?

matthew kupon

Was there ever any more in this series?

It’s great. 

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