A Visual Journey: Exploring Different Explainer Animation Design Styles


Often when potential customers come to us with an animated video brief for their business or organisation, they may not have seen many design styles in animated or explainer videos or have strong ideas about the look – with just their website colours and branding for style reference. We see this in our studio all the time.

And they may have only seen their competitor’s video productions, which isn’t always the best starting point if you want to differentiate!

But, did you know that different styles of illustration and design for animation can have a significant impact on the audience, and you can use it strategically to make them feel a certain way towards your company or product?

If you’re not sure what animation design style you’re after, this is fine; as an animated video company, it’s our job to find the right look that works for you!

Here are a few common explainer design styles you’ll come across, with examples, we’ll explain where they are most suitable, what the general cost implication is, and why you might use them in your marketing videos online.

Hand Crafted Style

A hand-drawn or hand crafted style gives a more organic and flowing feeling of animation, towards traditional style, but more modern. These videos are generally designed using brushes in photoshop (or similar) instead of a more regular vector / straight lines look that you see in some explainers. It gives the video a lot more texture and life.

This style is more labour intensive to draw and animate and requires a much higher skill level – you need an experienced illustrator (s) on the studio creative team.

But it can be effective, especially when selling to consumers. It comes across as friendly, approachable and unique looking – so you’ll stand out. For a real wow factor, it can be very much worth it. Personally, I love this style.

Hand crafted style explainer video
Video by Wonderlust 
Hand crafted promotional video
Video by Giant Ant

Flat Vector Style

The flat look in animation design is often what comes to mind as a kind of ‘standard explainer’. For me, it’s neither here nor there and is very common, it can help explain and promote, but it won’t stand out especially.

It’s usually made up of flat bold colours (no texture / shadow or gradient), and simple shapes, any characters or items are usually simplified quite a lot. This simple vector artwork is created in Illustrator or similar software.

These videos are often cheaper to produce, as there is less detail in the illustrations. Often, you’ll see these standard explainer animations have the same or similar artwork, as studios buy in stock imagery rather than custom design it to save on costs.

This may also mean the colours or design style aren’t very united, it depends how much they customise the artwork.

Futuristic / Conceptual Style

A conceptual/futuristic look is often characterised by colour gradients, dynamic movement, abstract shapes and usually good use of 3D space. They can be really quite abstract visually.

To create this takes some cool art direction (something a cheaper studio may not do much at all) and different thinking. This conceptual style can be great to stand out, explain something quite complex, and set you apart.

Usually, for this kind of animation, the video studio will be higher-end, with a more experienced creative team. And it often involves a lot of 3D animation mixed in with 2D, so this isn’t the cheapest option. But if you have a revolutionary product or service offering, this will help the viewer to believe you.

Conceptual style explainer video
Video by Digital Finch
Highly conceptual promotional video
Video by Oddfellows

Detailed Vector Style

A detailed vector drawing is still a vector-based design, but with much more detail and more organic touch. They are normally a bespoke design compared to a more basic vector or icon led video. You’ll see more colour variation, more organic shapes, and more thought of composition in general. These detailed scenes bring more realism to the animation, which helps with storytelling, and the use of light can also help absorb the viewer.

It’s not quite as labour intensive as an entirely hand-drawn video, but it is still a step above the standard and will be unique. It works as a good middle ground balancing cost and time.

Detailed vector style brand video
Video by Vidico 
Detailed vector style explainer video
Video by Digital Finch

Mixed Media Style

A mixed-media design approach is often quirky and works great for historical pieces, such as brand history, to create a sense of longevity. But it can be suitable for all kinds of industries and situations.

The mixed media/collage animation style is usually a mix of stock images, public realm images and video, and animation to create a kind of stop motion collage effect. They’re often going for a handcrafted look, but digitally.

It takes skill to create a cohesive look that isn’t too messy and doesn’t look like every other collage video you see!

Mixed media style brand video
Video by Psyop
Mixed media style animated video
Video by Individual

Character led Style

Using a well-designed and likeable character to tell a story is a script/concept choice, but it heavily impacts the design of your explainer video. You want the design to show the characters’ world, what they’re thinking and feeling, and you want the audience to relate

Generally, good character design and animation are more expensive – it takes a lot of time to get it right, but it’s much more engaging when done well. Generally, a character-led style video is either a detailed vector look or a more hand-drawn approach.

Character led style animated video
Video by Moth
character led animated video
Video by Giant Ant

Icon led Style

If you’re looking for cheap and cheerful, then an icon led video is a quick and straightforward way to do it.

The design is simplistic and often not bespoke, so it’s better suited to a short runtime (max 30 seconds) and easy to grasp concepts.

Simple icon videos are usually a kind of foot in the door explainer animation for companies just starting out, and can be handy for that purpose.

3D Style

3D in animation doesn’t always mean super-realism and built environments. It’s used in explainer videos fairly frequently, but you may not have noticed it as much (which is a good thing!). Short 3D scenes often sneak into 2D videos to give an extra element, but having a full 3D animated video can be quite powerful.

It’s definitely more unique and generally looks expensive and modern – if you want to give that vibe. 3D in itself is a very broad look, it can range from the very conceptual to more natural-looking scenes.

Budget wise, 3D animation is more expensive as it takes years of experience and skill to create balanced scenes with 3D motion, rigging, lighting setup and textures, as well as expensive software and equipment. It usually involves a creative team that works on separate elements, each being a specialist. The payoff can be great as if it’s done well, it will really stand out.

3D animated video with interesting use of texture – by Oddfellows
3D animated video – by Ordinary Folk

Cell / Traditional drawing Style

Finally, cell animation is the most traditional style of artwork. This is how all the classic Disney films were made, from Snow White to Jungle Book, The Aristocats and more. This is the origin of the animation design style of the handcrafted look, as mentioned in our first point.

It requires a very experienced and skilled traditional animator to draw each frame. This drawing can now be done digitally, but it is still extremely labour intensive, there can be 23 drawings per second for example.

The movement stands out and is completely seamless compared to other animations when done well. And complex character moves like a spin or any real movement in 3D space are much more possible and convincing.

Cell is not generally not that common for animated videos, because it is very high cost. But some top-end studios use cell animation in just part of the video, for a complex character turn or an incredible morphing sequence. This can raise the whole video to a new level with just a few spectacular scenes of animation, and can really look amazing if you need a wow factor.

Cell animated video by Golden Wolf
Cell animated video by Buck

So there are just some quick design ideas to think about. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should help you start to figure out what would work for you. It broadly depends on budget, and what kind of feeling you what to get across to the audience. With a good design and animation studio, you can also mix and match styles a little. For example, adding a few more detailed scenes into a simpler video, or touches of a 3D – this will keep costs down, but add a little extra wow factor.

If you’re looking for a marketing or explainer video for your company, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. To see some examples of our animated videos, head to the portfolio