What Is a Storyboard, & Why Does Every Motion Graphic Need One?

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It’s a common practice for a designer or artist to sketch out their work before committing to an idea and rendering it out. But while this process may seem pretty straightforward when creating an infographic, motion graphics are a different story. How do you develop a moving visual narrative from page to screen? One of the most critical steps in doing so is creating a storyboard.

What Is a Storyboard?

A storyboard is a sequence of sketches meant to provide a visual reference for key scenes in a motion graphic. The storyboard is the second major step in the production of a motion graphic, but the first step in bringing the visual narrative to life. 

The sketches that make up a storyboard are derived from written descriptions of what is happening on-screen. These descriptions are typically included in the script and are referred to as the scene direction. 

The scene direction describes key details of each scene including subject, setting, and the general action on-screen. It gives enough information for the reader to picture at a high level what is happening on-screen as they read the script. However, since written descriptions are very much open to the interpretation of the reader, your design team needs a way to develop and clarify their specific vision. That’s where the storyboard comes in. 

The storyboard’s main purpose is to define a clear narrative direction for the motion graphic — something that can be understood by both the creative team and the client alike.

The creative team can use the storyboard to unify their disparate ideas into one cohesive narrative. It serves as a visual aid to clearly present their vision to the client for sign-off before continuing with production. 

What Does a Motion Graphic Storyboard Look Like?

Storyboards are typically made up of hand-drawn sketches and can be done in a fraction of the time that a full design takes. This allows the project team to develop and iterate on the visual narrative quickly and easily while still being able to clearly convey their ideas. 

It also offers the client an opportunity to request changes to the visual narrative early on in the process, before the creative team has invested too much time in creating full-fledged designs and animations. 

But how detailed should a storyboard be? Each sketch should elaborate on the scene direction, clearly showing the who, what, when, where and why of the scene. Since we’re still dealing with static drawings at this stage, the scene direction should be presented alongside the storyboard, since it includes descriptions of the action in each scene. Scene direction can be changed or refined as the sketches are produced, as the creative team may think of details that they hadn’t considered initially. 

The number of sketches needed depends on how many unique scenes your motion graphic will have and how much action is in each scene. If the action in a given scene is relatively simple, the designer might choose to sketch out just 1 key frame of that scene, most likely showing the result of the action described and all the involved elements. 

However, if the action is more complex, if there are many things happening at 1 time, or if a series of things are coming in and out of frame, the designer may choose to break that scene down into several sketches in order to show all of those key moments. It’s really up to the designer how many sketches they feel is needed to convey the idea of the scene. The more sketches there are, the clearer the idea will be. Storyboards for full-length Hollywood films can take up multiple walls of entire rooms! 

It’s important for the sake of efficiency to not get bogged down in the details when creating a storyboard. The objects and people on screen can be sketched out in their basic form at this stage. It doesn’t need to be pretty. The important thing is that the viewer can understand what is happening in the scene and what each object is. 

The sketch artist may even chose to block sections out and use placeholder shapes instead of drawing actual objects or people, so long as it won’t affect the readability of the sketch. On the same note, the art style intended for the final deliverable normally isn’t used by the artist doing the sketches — though it can be if you want to go a step further in conveying what the designed scenes may look like.

The takeaway from all of this is there really is no single answer to the question, “What is a storyboard?” Each one is different, optimized for a particular project’s unique needs. But the answer to “Why do I need a storyboard” remains the same: it keeps costs down while ensuring your motion graphic fully realizes your vision and helps to achieve your goals. In this sense, it’s a critical tool.  

An Example Storyboard & Motion Graphic 

Let’s look at an example of a storyboard and its fully designed slides side-by-side. Then we’ll view how the final motion graphic turned out. 

The storyboard below was created for a motion graphic for a PEMCO Insurance social-media campaign. This motion graphic focused on developing a plan for keeping your family safe if a house fire occurs.

storyboard wireframe of a house
storyboard wireframe of a pemco motion graphic

The sketches are boiled down to the basic elements of each scene, but they’re still drawn clearly and concisely. The scene direction below each sketch gives context for the action intended in each scene, and the voiceover copy is included below that. 

At the storyboard stage we want to focus on refining the basic elements of the visual narrative, making sure that our vision of the story was aligned with the client’s vision in terms of the general imagery and action. Imagining an entire motion graphic just from written descriptions can be a big ask for a client when they aren’t dealing with them on a daily basis. That’s why the storyboard is so essential in getting buy-in from your client before going any further in production. 

Now, view the final designed frames for the motion graphic:

finished Pemco infographic storyboard
Finished Pemco infographic storyboard

As you can see, the designer followed almost the exact composition of the storyboard sketches while fully rendering the artwork in the chosen art style, adding color, extra detail, and branded fonts for the on-screen text. 

Sometimes, the designer may need to adjust proportions slightly and may opt to add in some additional imagery for added visual interest. But as long as the design mirrors the overall composition of the storyboard and all of the key imagery is present, the storyboard has been effectively translated to design. 

Finally, take a look at how the final motion graphic brought all the elements of the storyboard and static design to life:

The storyboard is an invaluable tool for developing any visual narrative. It’s a standard practice in producing virtually all types of video media, from motion graphics to commercials, television shows to Hollywood films. They’re even used in static media such as picture books and comics. Knowing how they can help in bringing your vision to life will ensure your next project is a success. 

Jake Woodard

Author Jake Woodard

Jake Woodard is a digital producer and senior project manager at Killer Visual Strategies. A lifelong passion for art, illustration, and storytelling led him to pursue a BFA in art, while dabbling in many other storytelling disciplines such as film and writing. Jake also has more than 10 years of customer service experience in a variety of roles. After spending the fall of 2015 teaching English in Spain and traveling around the rest of Europe, Jake returned home to Seattle and began his career at Killer Infographics. He started as a project manager for static and interactive projects, then transitioned to the motion graphic team, eventually becoming a producer. Jake has managed and produced projects for a wide variety of clients, from nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies and everything in between. He continues to broaden and improve his skill sets by contributing design time to the marketing team when he can, and continually developing better partnerships with Killer’s clients.

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