In a previous job, I was really struggling to feel inspired or challenged. That’s not ideal when your job is to be creative and make things, so I was a bit desperate to find something that could help me rediscover the joy in making—after all, that was what had drawn me to becoming a designer in the first place.
So last summer, in search of some sort of spark, I decided to take on a personal project: I would make one animated GIF per day, every day, until I felt like stopping.
It may sound silly. GIFs often are. But it turns out, making GIFs is a great design exercise.
For one thing, they’re extraordinarily simple by design. Steve Wilhite, a computer scientist working at Compuserve, the first big online service company in the U.S., created the GIF in 1987. He had been asked to make a simple graphics format that works on all kinds of computers and could display sharp images even over slow internet connections. (Yes, in the late 80s the image quality of a GIF was considered “sharp.”) One of the first animated GIFs is this famous airplane.
What he wasn't asked to do was create a platform for animation. In fact, the spec sheet for the then-new file format clearly states that though GIFs could be used for very limited animation, that isn’t what they were made for.
But that’s largely what we use them for these days, which means we end up working under a lot of constraints. And creativity thrives under constraints! You have to experiment to leverage limitations and quirks and make them work to your advantage. When you make a GIF, you’re working with a limited color palette (less than 256 colors). Your animation has to be very short and simple or else your file size will be so big that the GIF is no longer easy to share / quick to load. The small file size might frustrate you, but it also might force you to think more abstractly about the most concise way to communicate something complicated.
Another defining constraint: GIFs generally loop. And since those loops are short, you’ll usually see this a GIF in its entirety a couple of times. The best GIFs take advantage of this constraint and make it a central component of their design.
The singer Lana Del Rey spinning endlessly in a microwave. Image via Buzzfeed.
One last incredible thing about animated GIFs: They’re not precious. People aren’t afraid to mess with them. So many animated GIFs are the result of people adding to or altering or juxtaposing existing media, which is sort of like a weird form of collaboration if you look at it from the right angle.
With all those things in mind, I started the challenge.
Some days the GIFs I made were about personal experiences or just broadly about feelings…
Some days they were a little less introspective and a little more political…
Since each of these were so small and self-contained (I worked on them once for a limited amount of time and then never returned to them), I felt free to make some that were purely formal or technological explorations, which is not typically my jam. I played around with the tools and applications to see the unexpected things I could do with them. Stakes were low, possibilities endless.
This project revived my passion for making things. Because of the medium’s limitations and my self-imposed one-GIF-per-day requirement, I couldn’t let what I made get too complex. The GIFs were quick, self-contained, and ultimately really joyful to create. I had to to embrace experimentation and overcome the fear of sharing "bad" design that plagues so many designers. If you force yourself to make and share something new every single day, guess what? Some of that stuff probably isn't going to be your best work, and that's all right. This is an attitude and approach that I've carried with me since starting my GIF project, and I think it's made me a much bolder and better designer.
Eventually, a cross-country move and a new job meant I was both more regularly inspired through my work and a whole lot busier, so I stopped making daily GIFs. But I have decided to keep up with weekly GIFs—and a lot of my colleagues in Chicago are now doing it with me. It sounds like a small project, but for us, it has made it easier to share half-baked ideas, inspire each other, and keep on making.
This revamped Apple monitor is a way for us to share the GIFs we make with our colleagues and visitors in the Chicago studio.