Criteria for success

  • The main message of your figure is clear.
  • The animation reveals a new dimension of data that supports your main message.
  • The animation makes the main message of your figure easier to identify and understand.

Structure diagram

A moving diagram showing that a figure plus change equals an animation.

Identify Your Purpose

Over the past few decades, we have witnessed an exponential increase in our ability to collect wide swaths of data. In turn, the ways we visualize data have changed. Tables, spreadsheets, charts, and graphs have been the traditional (and still relevant) ways of visualizing data. However, with near universal usage of smart phones and easy access to the internet, new visualization techniques are being adopted, such as animations, movies, and interactive visualizations.

In academia, research articles are increasingly being viewed online, presentations are replacing posters, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings are done virtually. The digital world has enabled new methods of presenting ideas and information in your presentations, electronic posters, virtual conferences, online articles, and zoom meetings.

Animations enable us to do the following:

  • Emphasize changes over time or space
  • Present complex data with many variables
  • Correlate multiple layers of information
  • Add new layers of information in intuitive ways

Experimental results or simulation results are presented as animations/videos in presentations or provided as supplementary videos in journal articles. Here are some exemplar supplementary videos from civil and environmental engineering journals.


An eigenmode of a structural system

Carta et al. Philos Trans A Math Phys Eng Sci. (2019)


Landslides caused by the melting of ground ice in permafrost, Lewkowicz and Way, Nature Communications (2019)


Analyze your Audience

Similar to non-animated figures, understanding your audience is important. You will want to tailor the complexity of the message, the conventions and language, and the amount of details in your animation. [see Figure Design for more information]

Unlike non-animated figures, animations are all presented in a digital platform, such as e-posters, presentation slides, online articles, and video upload platforms (e.g. YouTube). Each digital platform tends to have a slightly different audience, and varying restrictions. Therefore, the animation should be tailored depending on the target platform.

Platform Tips
  • E-posters are used to showcase your research during in-person and online events.
  • Poster sizes could vary, but you might find the size very limited. Using an animation is a great way to save the poster space.
  • You can use animations to emphasize your main message. Check if your data is better shown in a sequence.
Presentation Slides
  • Time is limited in presentations. Edit your animation so that it is short and effective.
  • You might be providing an explanation while the animation is playing. Add arrows or other indicators to guide the audiences’ eyes.
  • Highly repetitive animations could be a distraction. Pause or hide your animation if your explanation is getting long or if you are not explaining it at the moment.
Online Articles
  • In online articles, the audiences have some control over the animation. For example, the audience can zoom in or pause the animation.
  • You will likely not be explaining the animation with a voiceover. The animation caption and the explanations in the article should be sufficient to understand the whole animation.
Video Upload Platforms
  • Video upload platforms have few limitations. The animation can be as long as you want.
  • Similar to online articles, you are not present to explain the animation. Adding in-video captions or voice-over could guide the audience understand your data.


Narrow down which variables you need to highlight to underscore your main message.

Animations are suitable for showing high-dimensional data. After an experiment or a simulation, we often end up gathering data with many variables, for example:  x-, y-, and z-coordinates, time, color, experimental parameters, temperature, stress, strain, measured values. Visualizing these features all at once could be challenging, or even impossible. Even though our eyes have amazing abilities, we can only perceive a limited amount of data at any given point. [see Dimensionality of Visible Data for more information] Depending on the main message you are trying to convey, some variables will be more important while some of them can be de-prioritized.

An animation of a gradiated cube changing colors as a way of representing material stress.
Compression test simulation (Animation by Chad Loh) Taxi rides in NYC (Animation by Chad Loh)
5-Dimensional animation

X = X coordinate of the sample
Y = Y coordinate of the sample
Z = Z coordinate of the sample
Time = Elapsed time
Color = Stress value

4-Dimensional animation

X = Longitude of the trip origin
Y = Latitude of the trip origin
Time = Time of the week
Color, Size of the bubble = Frequency of the trip

Using the right tool

Using the right tool can save you a lot of time when making a figure or an animation. Here is a list of the tools available for MIT students. Many of them are available from MIT IST website (

Bolded items are Adobe Creative Cloud Apps. Free trials are available for using Tableau and Rhino.

Purpose Tools
Plotting and data visualization Excel, MATLAB, Python, R, ImageJ, Tableau*
2D Design tools Photoshop, Illustrator , Inkscape, AutoCAD
3D Modeling tools SketchUp, SolidWorks, Rhino*
Chemistry Chemdraw, PyMOL
Animation/Video Tools Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Animate, DaVinci, EZGIF (online)


Annotated examples

Example 1. Molecular vibration

Molecular vibration modes of simple molecules are easy to understand (like the CO2 stretching modes), but complex vibrational modes are easier to understand with animation. These three animations show us three of the aragonite vibrational modes (152, 206, 1085 cm-1). It can be better by explaining what each atom is and what the axes are. Animations are from