The GIF's rise from the ashes

December 29, 2012

The animated GIF has a bad reputation—It’s that obnoxious bouncing emoji that distracted you when you were trying to take someone’s Geocities account seriously. It’s the pixelated “Under Construction” graphic with the twirling caution light. It’s everything obnoxious and irrelevant to the article you were trying to read.

Those days are gone my friend. Geocities has collapsed and the dust has settled. MySpace has done away with the horrific user-controlled aesthetics that once provided refuge for animated GIFs seeking asylum.

Today is a new day. One where we can use a GIF with pride and say “Look at how classy I am; I used an animated GIF!”

This new penchant for the animated GIF is so significant that the Oxford English Dictionary declared that the GIF was the word of the year for 2012, praising the once dishevelled image format for it’s return to the spotlight.

Why has our perception of the animated Graphic Interchange Format image changed? Well, there is no matter-of-fact answer, but several factors have contributed to the recent resurgence of the image format.

###Flash is Dead; Long live the GIF!

Flash, Adobe’s Web animation format is faltering due to Apple’s unwillingness to support it for their iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, and iPod). If the number one smart phone and tablet in the world won’t play a Flash file, what does a good Web designer do? He turns to the old stand-by, his pal, the GIF.

Adobe has lost some faith in their product too. They announced this year that they will stop supporting Flash for all future Android devices. This means, simply, that Flash is doomed to die on the Web, and ultimately, the GIF will step up to fill in the void.

###The unstoppable meme

Memes come and go, but their abilities to spread across the Web like a viral ad campaign on crack has allowed the GIF to piggyback on their success (even if the individual memes only last a few days or weeks). The GIFs simplicity lends itself well to the fast-paced churn of the meme.

The GIF is small, undemanding, and universal. A GIF file is, on average, a mere few kilobytes, so it is easy to email to others, spreading the meme quickly around the globe. A GIF requires no special plugins or extra tools for viewing; you can’t say that for Flash! Flash needs a plugin or an app to play it on your computer. Even a video, requires the correct codec and video player to be installed. GIFs need nothing more than a browser, and anyone using email or the Web has that in place already.

Creating an animated GIF is no problem at all, you simply need to download an application like Photoshop, or you can find a multitude of programs dedicated solely to the act of creating animated GIFs. On the iPhone alone, there are several options to get the job done.

The benefits that the GIF provide memes to propel them around the Internet have also made the it the first choice for disseminating time-based content across the Web. Reputable media outlets like the New York Times have embraced the GIF as an alternative to other time-based media (Flash, video, etc.) to accompany their articles online.

New York Times animated GIF This image accompanied the article _The Quiet Ones_ on the New York Times Web site.

###The GIF is no longer cheesy

It’s true that some animations may be hokey, cheesy, in bad taste, or downright disturbing, but may artisans of the GIF have learned the art of the craft.

There are countless examples of refined, thoughtfully designed GIFs. Cinemagraphs are the first major foray into artful animations. Seemingly simple scenes are given a breath of life as elements of the photograph begin to move in perpetuity.

Cinemagraph Cinemagraphs are an artful interpretation of the classic cheesy GIF.

GIFs have a multitude of uses, from showing simple step-by-step instructions, before-and-after comparisons, clips from a movie, a sports highlight, or any other newsworthy moment.

The ability to share a GIF with anyone that has access to a computer and the sheer simplicity of the creation process, leaves the GIF with a good chance of surviving on the Web for years to come, despite the next inevitable technology that tries to usurp it.


I had a Twitter conversation that I felt fit in here. I have provided it, appropriately, as an animated GIF

Twitter conversation the conversation is between me, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, arguably the best Type foundry, and Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary


Add to Instapaper | Send to Kindle