Explainer Videos: The Case for Lean 2D Animation

When designing an explainer video it can be difficult to resist the temptation to shoot for fancy animation, assuming you have the budget.

However, it’s important to keep in mind the purpose behind your explainer video, which is to get your viewers to understand your offering in as little time as possible.

If your explainer video has sophisticated animation and fancy transitions it might be cool and fun to watch, but your visitors likely won’t care. Think about what’s on your mind when you’re watching an explainer or product video. You want to get the information you need in as little time as possible.

However, when it comes to fancy design for the sake of design, it’s not simply a case of unnecessary. Cognitive Psychology actually supports the idea of keeping explanatory videos lean.

Essential vs. Incidental Processing

Cognitive psychologists use the term cognitive load to refer to the extent to which a particular task or presentation requires the doer or viewer to exercise deliberate control over working memory processes. The theory is useful because it helps educators avoid what is called cognitive overload, a situation where learning materials call upon the brain to use more cognitive resources than it has at its disposal.

When we experience cognitive overload during a presentation we are not able to fully take in the presentation’s message because there is too much to process.

Cognitive psychologists Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno published a study in 2003 which summarized data on those aspects of multimedia presentations that can cause cognitive overload.  Their study describes five scenarios that would cause cognitive overload and lists practical suggestions for reducing or eliminating the overload in each situation.

Mayer and Moreno break down the processing required to learn from a presentation into two components: essential processing, that is, processing of material which is directly related to the video’s main message; and incidental processing, or processing of material which is unrelated to the video’s main message.

The main point for us to take away from their study is the following (p. 48)1:

According to the cognitive theory of multimedia learning, adding interesting but extraneous material to a narrated animation may cause the learner to use limited cognitive resources on incidental processing, leaving less cognitive capacity for essential processing. As a result, the learner will be less likely to engage in the cognitive processes required for meaningful learning.

The authors back up this assertion with five laboratory studies which demonstrated better performance on problem-solving transfer tests after receiving a concise rather than an embellished narration.

Take a (Cognitive) Load Off

With the idea of incidental processing in mind, take a look at the following example of an explainer video that makes use of cool 3D animation and fancy transitions.

The artwork in this video is great and it’s fun to watch. However, from a cognitive load perspective there are at least three aspects of the video which seem to qualify as interesting, but extraneous.

1. The 3D animation.

There are definitely product demonstrations that call for 3D animation. For example, I recently saw an explainer video describing facial recognition software which made use of 3D animation to show how the software recognizes contours of the face. In this case, the 3D element was necessary.

However, many videos, including the one shown above, make use of 3D animation when, perhaps, it isn’t necessary.

What’s the problem with unnecessary 3D animation?

3D requires more processing. When your brain has to look for things like perspective and depth cues, it has less power to understand the message. When the 3D aspect is not necessary, it becomes extraneous and incidental and eats away at the viewer’s processing power for no good reason. The end result is that the viewer is left with less processing power to put towards the video’s main message.

2. The fancy transitions.

The fancy transitions in the video shown above make use of the morphing of one image into another. Each time this happens the brain is trying to figure out where the old image ends and where the new one begins. I know these types of transitions are all the rage and popular right now, and I really enjoy watching them, but they don’t always make for simple story telling.

Another potential issue with fancy transitions is that they sometimes require quick and confusing movement. In order to get one shape to morph into another shape there has to be some movement, and this movement takes time. In order to satisfy the short time requirements of most explainer videos, animators have to make these morphings go very quickly, and they can be hard to follow. In strong contrast, regular cut transitions require very little time and are not confusing.

This is not to say that smart transitions should never be used. However, when they are used, they should make sense and be easy to follow.

3. The Unnecessary Wow Factor

When something is really breathtaking we naturally focus on it. If you produce a gorgeous explainer video with incredible 3D animation and ridiculously smart morphing transitions, you may leave your viewer in awe. This might lead them to stop paying attention to the content of your video as the art critic part of their brain starts producing words like, “wow” and “that is cool”. As odd as it may sound, that is not what you want.

That is not to say that you should go as cheap as possible, because an unprofessional video will also produce thoughts, such as “this in not professional”, and could leave the viewer with a bad impression of your organization.

The Art of Lean

With all that you now know about cognitive load and incidental processing, have a look at Dropbox’s explainer video.

The images are easily recognizable, and make use of simple, 2D animation, the transitions are not too quick or confusing, and there is no obvious attempt to “wow” viewers with artistic prowess.

We can safely say that Dropbox’s explainer video is lean in the incidental processing department; it’s all about the message.

So, when you go to produce your next explainer video and are tempted to try and impress with fancy animation, remember cognitive load theory and what it says about incidental processing and remember your viewers. Your viewers want simple and quick information transfer and nothing more. When it comes to explainer videos more really is less.


1. Mayer, R. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52. Also available from: http://www.uky.edu/~gmswan3/544/9_ways_to_reduce_CL.pdf



  1. I think you vastly underestimate the mind’s ability to process 3D visual information. It’s evolved to do precisely that. What overloads the mind is not 3D but clutter and badly structured information flow and you can get that from both 2D and 3D.

    I also think you are looking at it from a developer’s perspective when you say 3D might “wow” viewers with artistic prowess. Viewers do not take consideration of the complexity and skill to achieve certain effects but simple if the onscreen events impress them or not. And as all decision making is triggered by emotional touch points the experience of “wow” can only be a good thing. In fact, “wow” is what gets people to share content and that is definitely something you want to achieve beside convincing people to buy your product.

    • Hey Philippe,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree that we naturally are able to process 3D visual info, but it likely takes more processing power, and when it is simulated by a computer, it is likely harder to process than a real-life 3D image.

      I’m not arguing against 3D, but I’m still partial to the idea that it could be better to save 3D for those videos that can really make use of it.

      I also agree with you about the emotional element in decision-making. However, I’m not a big fan of exploiting it because it is sometimes manipulative. When people experience emotions they believe the emotions are reflecting some truth about the world when it’s not always the case.

      Also, I think the reason for the “wow” is key, and not all sharing is equal. I would rather see a video shared among a smaller group that consists of a target audience than a larger group of random individuals. A great-solution-induced “wow” might cause the former whereas a visually-entertaining-induced “wow” might cause the latter.

      In short, I’m partial to simple explanations that get to the heart of product benefits, even though I know my work does sometimes attempt to evoke some type of emotional response.


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