How to Create the Illusion of Movement in Static Design

How to Create the Illusion of Movement in Static Design

Harnessing the power of illusory movement can produce dynamic images. We’ll discuss simple design techniques to bring static visuals to life.

Static images lack movement by definition. However, they can incorporate the illusion of movement via design. 

Movement is a core design principle many designers employ to bring an element of aliveness into their work. While it’s not possible to add actual movement to a static image, it is possible to trick the viewer’s eye into believing they see movement when, in reality, they don’t. 

Flowing Wave Simple design techniques can evoke an experience of movement. Image via contributor korkeng.

But, what are the strategies and techniques designers use to create a sense of movement in static design? And, why is it so important? Before we delve into some of the simple techniques creatives can utilize to evoke movement in their work, let’s first discuss the captivating effect movement has, and how it can bring still images to life.  

Why Movement Is Important 

Incorporating a sense of movement in design can transform a static image by making it feel more impactful, dynamic, and alive. Movement has a way of drawing in the attention of the viewer’s eye—converting a glance into a gaze as they’re taken on a journey via a predetermined path in the design composition. Creatives can control and force the progression of the viewer’s eyes in and around the design using eye travel—whether that be along a dotted or solid line or from darker to lighter elements. 

Fitness Training Creating a sense of movement. Image via Lucky Business.

Using the illusion of motion in design can also trigger a phenomenon referred to as kinesthetic empathy—a cognitive action where the viewer knowingly or unknowingly senses an action or motion they’re merely seeing. Rather than just observing the motion of a dancer or runner in the designer, the viewer can feel it.

Creating Movement in Design

Representing motion in static design can present a challenge for designers. However, there are some simple design techniques creatives can use to depict motion in a motionless image. 

Motion Lines

Adding motion lines behind a design element is one of the most widely-regarded visual cues to imply movement. This technique is perhaps the easiest and most intuitive approach to suggest a static design is in motion. Motion lines imply where the object or subject has traveled from and where the object or subject is traveling to. The lines appear parallel to the direction of the implied movement. This approach can be interpreted using a series of simple dot lines or by incorporating more stylized varieties—as is evident in the examples provided below.

Basketball PlayerBlue BoxMotion lines can imply where the object in the design is traveling from and to. Image via contributor anttoniart (left) and Pavlo S (right).

Speed Lines 

Think motion lines with an added element of speed! French poster artist Ernest Montaut is credited for creating speed lines—an art technique that uses streaks to covey the impression of speed and velocity. 

Colorful Light Trails Speed lines add an element of speed and velocity to a design. Image via contributor Zonda.

Motion Depicted in Matter 

When people, objects, and things move, they can visually disturb the elements of matter around them, whether that be the ripple effect caused by movement in water or the line-shaped vapor trails emitted from a moving aircraft in the sky. Demonstrating these environmental disturbances is a simple way of conveying movement. 

This visual depiction of movement is essentially an extension of motion lines, albeit a more elaborate version. They both visualize an entity moving through space, but contrary to motion lines (a simplified nod to movement), motion disturbing surrounding matter provides a more detailed visualization. 

Water Drops The disturbance of matter evokes a sense of movement in design. Image via contributor Marlene DeGrood.

Transparency

Overlapping layers of various transparencies is also a creative technique for generating a sense of movement in design. This technique can lead the viewer’s eye on a journey from the most transparent layers to the most opaque. In addition, layering differing opacities can also denote a range of motion, as demonstrated in the image of a woman exercising below. 

Paper-1.jpg?w=750" alt="Colorful Paper" data-id="169917" data-full-url="https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/05/Colorful-Paper-1.jpg" data-link="https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/?attachment_id=169917" class="wp-image-169917" />Woman ExercisingOverlapping layers creates movement. Images via Kilroy79 (left) and Everett Collection (right).

Freeze-Frame Effect 

Action can also be implied by employing the “freeze-frame” effect of an object in motion. This effect can be visualized as a bouncing ball suspended in mid-air, a runner taking the next step, or a swimmer launching off a diving board. Designing something already in motion leads the viewer to anticipate that the design element will continue this motion. The ball returns to the ground, the runner continues taking strides, and the swimmer dives into the pool in the imagination of the viewer. 

Other designs incorporate a freeze-frame sequence effect, visualizing a series of evolving frames to imply movement. Stylistically, it evokes the raw images of a stop motion animation. 

Ballet DancerSun SalutationsDesigning an object already in motion injects a sense of movement into the image. Image via contributor Master1305 (left) and Franzi (right).

Motion Blur Effect 

When an object is traveling at high speeds, it can appear blurry—exactly how fast-moving objects appear in blurred photographs. Why? Because the brain doesn’t see instantaneously. It takes about 100 milliseconds for the neurons in the brain to fully encode information. As a result, we often associate blurred images and edges with motion. Incorporating the motion blur effect in design implies the design is moving at high speeds while adding an element of liveliness to the design. 

Blur EffectBlurred Design ElementsBlurring designs while maintaining legibility can create the illusion of motion. Images via contributors Alhovik (left) and Uniyok (right).

Optical Illusion 

Seeing is believing, except when the mind can be tricked into believing what it sees. Regarded as one of the most dramatic examples of illusionary motion, optical illusions—which are more aptly known as visual illusions—can trick the brain into believing an image is in motion when in actuality, it’s not. Repetitive geometric patterns and other visual elements—such as light and color—can produce this visual experience of motion.  

Polka Dot BallSpin CirclesSpin IllusionOptical illusions send observers on a visual experience of motion. Images via contributors Alhovik, lotan, and Andrey Korshenkov.

Get Moving!

Now that we’ve explored the benefits of illusory movement to design and the techniques and strategies creatives can employ to achieve these effects, are you ready to get moving?

For more on design techniques, check out these articles:

5 Adobe Illustrator Vector Effects for Graphic Design10 Fresh, FREE, Fantastic Rainbow Color PalettesAstrology in Design: Why Brands are Looking to the Stars for InspirationEmerging Color Trends in Children’s Design2021’s Wedding Design Guide for Photographers and Designers

Cover image via Lucky Business.

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