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Modular Design System for Animation

High-fidelity mobile app designs for a super awesome social media company.

At Cleverclip explainer videos are our bread and butter. But these are very resources intensive, as there is a lot of back and forth with refining the goal of the video, the wording and structure of the script, defining the style and the animation approach, etc. This makes it so that even a seemingly simple video has some prohibitive costs for some clients. Specially if they need to produce more than one video.

Over time we discovered some clients don’t really need a one a kind look for all their videos. Many times they simply want a clear and engaging way of conveying their message to their audience, that retains some visual connection to their brand.

With this in mind in early in 2020 we decided to build a modular illustration system intended to be be used mostly for animation. to cover the needs of these clients looking for more budget friendly alternative.

I was in charge of managing the conception and production of three sets of libraries of asset that could be used for animation. We called these libraries as well as the entire production pipeline designed for animating these ‘Cleverclip Elements’. **

Ground Rules

The system needed to fit three main requirements:

  • Optimized for fast-turn around to reduce production cost to a minimum. We aimed to be able to offer a considerably cheaper option that what was at the time our least expensive videos. In order to do so we needed to reconsider every aspect of production.
  • Easy to expand upon with newer assets. A lot of effort was gonna be put into these first batch of work, but later down the line we would be probably be making a few custom assets for each video, we needed to be sure that any new design could be easily incorporated into the libraries to be reused in the future 1.
  • Easy to customize the colors to fit the clients brand. Clients would essentially be using picking from three libraries of premade assets, but we needed to design them so that adjusting them to fit the client brand was lighting fast and looked good with most color combinations.

The tools and their limits

The initial idea of making such a design system had been floating around for a few years at the company. Before our main option for housing the assets would have been:

  • A single massive Illustrator file that contained the entire library, which would be hard to browse and easy to disorganize.
  • A shared folder in DB with hundreds of individually exported SVGs that would also be slow to browse through. and slow to modify in batches (eg: changing the color of all assets to fit the client’s brand).

For me any of these options was enough of a drag to not consider the viability of such a system to begin with. But after experiencing Figma’s capability first hand what was once inconvenient became a breeze, with the right setup.

With Figma we could have a live library of assets for which everyone at the company could easily access and modify.

Style & Scope

We opted to make three distinct libraries that would cover the needs of most of our clients. The styles were defined based on our experience of working with clients and observing trends online. The style had also to conform to the specifications of the system in Figma.

Each style would have a basic amount of assets to work with that would cover what we knew to be the most elements used in basic explainer videos. We settled for 999 initial assets for each library covering 7 different categories: each major category: People, Ideas, Places, Nature, Transportation, Buildings & Furniture.

2 3

Animation

For animation, like most studios doing any kind of motion design, we work mostly with After Effects. It was easy to stick to After Effects for production, but we needed to speed things up. We opted to limit the

Documentation

The system was optimized for efficiency but it would only be efficient on the long run if users know how to use it and the make the most out of it.

We like many other companies have had problems keeping tracks of our processes documentation, with new people coming, seniors leaving, constant changes in workflow and tools.

For Elements we made it our goal from the start to have the whole production process documented from day one so that any project manager could dig into the knowledge base to understand what the system is in order to sell it better. And that any creative with a working knowledge of After Effects could by themselves read the documentation and understand how to produce and Elements video from start to finish.

This took much longer that expected. But the end result is absolutely worth it, as it was clear for everyone at the company what is the process and end result of an Elements project. The end result if a heft 5000 word live document. This also ended up setting a new standard for how we document other processes at the company.

During the writing process we made sure the Knowledge Base would work for all three major parties involved:

  • Creatives on both motion design and illustration who would need to either do animation or assets for Elements projects.
  • Project Managers who would be overseeing the production of an Elements project.
  • Marketers who would be offering this brand new service to potential new clients or go back to clients who couldn’t work with us previously because of their budget.

Main Takeaways


Be Open

Form the creative department we initially had a lot of resistance toward this kind of massively produced projects. But what we found is the that investing so much time in the initial design process, making the production process so frictionless, the process became fun and we could invest more time in adding little details to make the animation more dynamic.

Think Hard

Think hard before diving into production We spent a big chunk of time, perhaps 40% of the total of hours put into the project, figuring out the constraints for the system. We didn’t want to start producing anything right away and figure out later down the road that the assets made could not be used because of some technical reason.

Make it nice

Branding the individual styles and even the name of the system (Elements), imbues it with . Some client might feel bad about having to opt for the budget option, but when we worked to preset them with very distinct style options with different names as well as custom music tracks that were not simply called song-01, song-02 and song-03, we make the client (and us) feel that they didn’t opt for the cheap alternative.

Documentation is key

Writing things down is a must. Big messy systems like Elements are very powerful, but poorly documented they might be hard to catch on company wide or worse, fail at actually be as efficient as originally intended.

Consider documenting early and leaving enough lay time toward the end to complete documentation. Also, consider the different kinds of readers for this documentation inside your organization. The marketing department have and entirely separate set of needs when trying to understand a system like this (‘What is so cool about this that will help me sell ir’) in comparison to the creatives doing the production labor (‘How to I produce an Elements video from start to finish in the fastest way possible’).4

  • Creatives on both motion design and illustration who would need to either do animation or assets for Elements projects.
  • Project Managers who would be overseeing the production of an Elements project.
  • Marketers who would be offering this brand new service to potential new clients or go back to clients who couldn’t work with us previously because of their budget.

Credits

Illustrations
Bea Ramírez, Nguyen Tran Kien, Alejandro Bonilla, Carlos Saborío.

Animation Presets
Nguyen Tran Kien, Nguyen Tran Kien.

Audio
Sebastian Bender.

Documentation
Jakub Skuropa, Alejandro Bonilla, Carlos Saborío.

  1. A big source of inspiration for the our initial push with how to tackle the system came from this talk by at the Figma XXX. Highly recommend it to anyone who wants to tackle an illustration system in Figma. 

  2. For this Knowledge base we wrote it all down in Notion, which is by far my favorite tool for company wikis as using it is effortlessly. Another tool I could recommend although I don’t have much real experience with is is Slab. 

  3. We studied tons of freely available illustrations systems built in Figma before building our own. Some of the best ones we ran into are: A, B, C. 

  4. We created an Airtable to keep track of production as well as for adding visual references for the designers of what each asset had to convey. Context is important here as as a Swiss company, most of our clients are Swiss, so a small rural town has a certain look in Switzerland that is not the same as one in Mexico or Spain, where some of our colleagues live. These references were very helpful to give a clear direction that helped us avoid lots of design revisions. 


Hola, I'm Carlos

I'm a designer with way too many interests.

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