“The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.”

If we want to put Theodore Roosevelt’s quote another way, learning the origins of a field helps give ourselves the best chance for success in that field. Discovering how something first came to be is key to understanding why it survived and thrived in the context of history. Yes, even for something as relatively new as animated explainer videos, looking at the roots of the genre can help us understand how to create better and more innovative videos that inspire more audiences. Because to ask ‘Where did explainer videos come from?’ is to look closely and ask ‘What makes an explainer video… an explainer video?’

unique origins

2007 – Whiteboard animation

Possibly the closest form of what we know today as an explainer video is whiteboard animation. Using drawn images to animate (sometimes in real-time) a concept, brand, or product, whiteboard videos carry all the same defining markers as other types of digital explainer videos.

Whiteboard animation first appeared in a major video advertising campaign in April 2007, with a series of videos from American package delivery company UPS. These short videos were used to explain different services the company offers – such as increased freight and delivery interception – and focussed benefits for the customer – like single pickups for multiple outbound deliveries and smart labels. The videos involved the artist acting as a live action host and narrator, while hand-drawing illustrative points (with some stunningly neat lines and shapes: https://youtu.be/I0nki9O4ivo) on a whiteboard. Amazingly these videos are still available to watch on YouTube to this day on the UPS WB Campaign channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDG-fEcwiRdWo20RPFtF_9A).

The popularity of this new video format was narrowed down to the almost hypnotic nature of watching the drawings unfold (check out this article from Slate released at the time which repeatedly describes the UPS doodling as “mesmerizing”: https://slate.com/business/2007/04/the-mesmerizing-ups-whiteboard-ads.html). This combined with the storytelling style of narration seemed to be a winning combination, unknowingly setting the format standard for what we now know as the animated explainer video genre.

2007-8 – Making videos ‘In Plain English’

With no time to rest, the same year and same month brought more innovative successes to the video advertising world which would eventually help evolve the animated explainer video to what it is today. A small Seattle company named Common Craft released a series of ‘In Plain English’ videos on YouTube aimed at giving simple explanations of up and coming technologies using paper cut-out drawings. The first of these covered topics like RSS, Wiki, and Blogs, and in 2008 they released the ‘Twitter in Plain English’ video (https://youtu.be/ddO9idmax0o), their most widely-known ‘In Plain English’ video to date.

Similarly to the UPS Whiteboard campaign, the ‘In Plain English’ videos used a distinctively concise yet unpretentious narration from the video creator themselves. This time however only the host’s hands showed on screen, pushing and pulling paper cartoon cut-outs in a snappy, animated way. The focus was purely on the simple illustrations and the simple narration, explaining new topics in a simple way. In hindsight it’s easy to see how the simple and jaunty style of ‘In Plain English’ videos was an immediate forebear of the explainer video script style, a claim Common Craft make for themselves on their website as “pioneers in the field of explainer videos” (https://www.commoncraft.com/about).

2007 – The rise of kinetic typography

While the illustration and script styles of future explainer videos were developing, another (now) staple of the explainer video world was also seeing a growing popularity online by early 2007. While kinetic typography had been a thing in feature film since Hitchcock’s North By Northwest in 1959, it was the late 2000’s where personal use and digital experimentation began to take off, especially for use in socio-political commentary (https://youtu.be/TOPJ90FRZHI), movie narration (https://youtu.be/uuiKJ0rRTAo), and song lyric videos (https://youtu.be/B009YeAoigs). It wouldn’t be long before the typography themes leaned more in the educational and creative non-fiction direction, using this technique along with (often celebrity) narration as an interesting way of, you guessed it, explaining large concepts in a bite-sized way (https://youtu.be/J7E-aoXLZGY).

2011 – Putting a name to it all

Despite all this innovation in the late 00’s, it wasn’t until the following decade that the term ‘explainer video’ actually came into common use. Google Trends shows worldwide use of the phrase taking off somewhere around late-2011 (https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=explainer%20video). Perhaps most interesting is the innate and longstanding link between explainer videos and animation, with the longer term ‘animated explainer video’ beginning its trending climb at exactly the same time (https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=animated%20explainer%20video&date=all). Despite explainer’s roots in live-action whiteboard drawings, digital vector-based animation soon became the medium of choice for many explainer producers and brands.

2012 – Animation innovation

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when makers of explainer videos first made the jump from whiteboard and cut-out style to digital animation. Examples from 2011, like the U.S. promo launch video for Spotify (https://vimeo.com/26427650), show a clear stylistic reference to the whiteboard and cut-out era despite being fully digitally animated. Textured sketchy line art on colour card backgrounds still prevailed, though the video experimented, appropriately for the company, with a music-only soundtrack instead of the usual narration.

For years after this digital animation rose as the go-to medium for explainer videos. 2012 saw a slew of vector style videos being spread around websites, YouTube, and social media, and not just for advertising new products and services. In late 2012 the now well-known TED-Ed channel collaborated with various animators to create a series of short educational explainer videos. Not only did these early videos explain a wide range of interesting topics in bite-sized ways (eg. ‘Why do Americans vote on Tuesdays?’, ‘How many universes are there’, and yes, even ‘How pandemics spread’: https://youtu.be/UG8YbNbdaco), they also presented the material in a wide array of digital animation styles by hiring different animators for different videos.

From live-drawn doodles to narration, motion text and vector art, the animated roots of several styles of YouTube-era videos have come together to create the genre we know today as the animated explainer video. The modern experimentation of animated texture and style we see today is a sign of great innovation still yet to come within the field, as explainer videos take on more and more uses and break new grounds with new audiences.

Written by Maree Railton.