Use Animation to Supercharge Data Visualization

Visualization is a powerful and influential approach for presenting all types of data, big and small. While even static data visualizations, particularly unique ones, are more persuasive, memorable, and effective as decision aids than tables and text, animation can boost these advantages even further. When paired with a compelling topic and high-quality dataset, well-crafted animated visualizations can be extremely effective at explaining complex concepts and deeply engaging viewers— especially for data showing change across multiple groups or time periods. In this article, I share several high-caliber examples of animated data visualizations, review the research foundation showing their advantages, and provide how-tos for creating your own.

5 of the Best Animated Data Visualizations Ever Made

1 Hans Rosling’s Wealth and Health of Nations — Hans Rosling is unquestionably a pioneer in data visualization and one of its most influential practitioners. It’s extremely unlikely that he would have drawn over 10 million (and counting!) views of his TED talk telling captivating stories about decades of progress (or lack thereof) on country-level health and economics if he had limited himself to tables of numbers, or even static graphs. Through his site Gapminder, he has enabled creation of a wide range of dynamic data visualizations on topic related to financial and physical well-being, and his work introduced many to visualization’s power as a tool for communication and emotional impact. A snippet of one of his most well-known animated visualizations is shown below.

2 FlowingData’s A Day in the Life of Americans — FlowingData, run by Nathan Yau, is one of the highest-quality and longest-running resources for data visualization advice and best practice exemplars. An animated data visualization displaying where Americans spend their time across a 24-hour period (using data from the American Time Use Survey) is one of FlowingData’s best works. Though on the longer side for an animation (the snippet below is only a portion), the constant movement of 1000 dots representing individual people holds a viewer’s attention very well, perfectly illustrating the unique strengths of an animated approach to data visualization.

3 NPR Planet Money’s Fall and Rise of US Inequality— NPR’s Planet Money department often supplements its excellent podcast series with similarly well-crafted data visualizations. Early in 2015, they produced an interactive and animated graphic showing the striking distinction between income growth patterns pre-1980 and from 1980 to 2012. The creators adeptly blend animation with annotation to clearly illustrate which portion of the working population grew their income in each time period, and how the gap between highest and lowest earners has surged in recent decades.

4 Windyty’s Global Weather Visualization— Extremely simple and elegant, Windyty animates wind, temperature, clouds/rain, waves, snow, and air pressure patterns across the globe, drawing on data from the Global Forecast System’s weather model. Users can drag and zoom to their location, and can play an animated projection of forecasted weather for two weeks — a snippet showing a two-day period is shown below.

5 Aron Strandberg’s China/India Population Projection — Aron Strandberg has created several fantastic data visualizations; one of his most-viewed is a side-by-side historical and future projection animating China and India’s male, female, and overall population from 1992 to 2050. The visualization shows when India’s population is projected to overtake China based on the most recent data available, and also illustrates massive differences in age distributions between the two countries.

What the Research Says

Research on applying animation to data visualization is largely promising — in a Japanese study, animated visualizations outperformed static graphs and tables in their ability to aid viewers in interpreting data, making comparisons among values, chunking data into smaller components, focusing attention, and anticipating and understanding change and what happens next. However, animations were rated less highly than tables and graphs in facilitating a “whole picture” view of the data and in guiding statistical analyses — meaning that in some cases, animation is best paired with annotation and additional static data views. An Austrian team comprehensively summarizing research into the use of animation for over-time data concluded that when used appropriately, viewers saw animated visualizations as enjoyable, exciting, and helpful for understanding changes in the data.

Learn to Love Looping

Animations that loop continuously, as many animated data visualizations do, draw on the additional advantage of repeated exposure. Exposure effects are extremely robust psychological phenomena — exposure is consistently and strongly linked to image liking, preference, and pleasantness. For an elaborated discussion and dozens of examples, Lena Groeger has a spectacular article on the explanatory effectiveness of looped animations, “On Repeat: How to Use Loops to Explain Anything”.

Four Ways to Make Your Own Animated GIFs

Though animated data visualizations can be produced using various formats, I recommend using the animated GIF file format to create versatile mini-movies for your visualizations. Animated GIFs can be shared (and play/loop automatically) on social media platforms such as Twitter (and Medium!), and can be easily inserted/played in PowerPoint and Google Docs slideshows, among other applications. For creating Animated GIFs, consider four alternatives:

  1. The Photoshop Route — Cool Infographics has an excellent Infographic (animated itself, naturally) that walks through the process to create animated GIFs. Lena Groeger, the author of the looping article referenced above, has also created a very useful tutorial on her Photoshop-enabled process.
  2. The Excel Add-in Route — If you don’t have access to Photoshop, it’s possible to create animated data visualizations using Excel Add-ins. My personal favorites are E2D3, which offers a template for an animated column chart (for an example, see here), and SmartCharts for Excel, which can produce several animated (and interactive) data visualization types, including circle packing diagrams, treemaps, bar/column charts, and donut charts. These can then be converted to animated GIFs using one of the methods below.
  3. The Screen Capture Route — For even more recording/conversion options (including for visualizations generated using the Excel Add-ins), I recommend the program Screen2Gif, which allows you to capture anything playing on your screen and convert it into an animated GIF (for example, creating an animated visualization first in PowerPoint and then while playing it as a video, recording/converting it using Screen2Gif).
  4. The Frame-by-Frame Route — Animated data visualizations can also be created similarly to the flipbooks we had as kids, piecing together individual graphics into an animation progressing through each graphic in a planned order. For data visualization, this can involve creating visualizations in your preferred analysis program and saving each individually to next be combined into a single animation. I’ve used GIFMaker for this purpose; many other free and paid programs are available.

Animation can propel data visualizations — already extremely powerful in their static form — to even higher heights of viewer appeal, memorability, understanding, and influence. Animated visualizations are particularly well-suited to clearly illustrating and explaining data about change — over time, between groups, and resulting from experiments and interventions. It’s well-worth the relatively brief learning period to make animation part of your own data visualization toolset.

Happy animating!