Engage Learners with Instructional GIFs

You can’t really go anywhere on the internet without running into the ubiquitous animated GIF (graphical interchange format). Originating in 1987, GIFs shaped—and grew—with the internet in the following 30+ years (for those who missed the 90s or want to reminisce, the Internet Archive created a search for early GIFs).

GIFs evolved from simple, pixel-drawn frames to more sophisticated animations and video ranging from humorous to narrative to instructional. Now, it’s not unusually to send and receive GIFs in the office (depending on your workplace culture).

GIFs are popular because they are shareable. They reflect universal themes—some become so familiar they stand in for expressing certain emotions or reactions. They’re small, so they’re perfect for mobile devices and those who don’t have a lot of data.

No matter where you land in the great GIF pronunciation debate (I won’t judge, but Dave might (Ed Note: IT’S NOT PEANUT BUTTER!), they’re a useful education tool.

Animated GIFs for instruction

While some instructors use GIFs as an engagement tool, instructional GIFs also allow us to share complex visual information or concepts in a simple way.

Motion helps convey progression and meaning. According to Baskanderi (2017), “from reducing the cognitive load to improving decision making, meaningful animations can delight and inform users.” GIFs are a great way to share educational information; tell a story; and show continuity, relationships, or steps in a process.

GIFs look like video, but they function like static images to break up text, provide context, and enhance learning. You can use GIFs in presentations, documentation, tutorials, onboarding, and walkthroughs.

If you teach K-12, GIFs help you get around network settings blocking sites like YouTube. If you’re an instructor, you can encourage your learners to create their own GIFs to show their understanding of a topic or process (check out the Reddit subreddit r/educationalGIFs for ideas).

While individuals often make and share GIFs of copyrighted materials, companies and educators should be cautious of using GIFs even with fair use laws. If you’re using a GIF of material you created yourself, you should be okay.

Using GIFs in your eLearning

Like every tool, before you create your GIF you need to make sure it will help your learners reach the learning outcomes. Ask yourself why you’re using the GIF. What are you trying to communicate? Are your learners already familiar with the materials and just need a refresher? Or are the learners completely new to the topic? The answers to these questions will determine the type of GIF you create.

When Tara, Dave, and I gave our presentation at the UDL conference, we used GIFs in our slideshow. It allowed us to avoid awkward moments of switching between programs, windows, or tabs.

For example, Dave discussed the importance of using headings for accessibility. He provided a GIF showing the steps to add them in Microsoft Word.

GIF: Mouse pointer highlights “This is a Header text” then selects Header 1 from within the Style tab of Microsoft Word.

Similarly, when I talked about using active voice to remove barriers to learning, I shared a GIF that displayed Grammerly’s tip for finding passive voice by adding by zombies after the verb.

[GIF: The sentence “The house was attacked by zombies” transforms into “Zombies attacked the house.”]

Accessibility of instructional GIFs

GIFs can be found all over the internet, but it doesn’t mean they’re accessible. Those who struggle with seizures, motion sensitivity, or sensory issues have problems with certain types of GIFs. Flashing effects (defined as more than three times a second), high-intensity, parallax, motion effects may disorient some learners or cause seizures, so you should definitely avoid them.

And it’s not just these learners who struggle—an unhelpful or misplaced GIF can be distracting. Steven Lambert (2018) states “GIFs are notably problematic as our eyes are drawn towards movement, making it easy to be distracted by anything that updates or moves constantly.”

If you design with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 and inclusive design in mind, it’ll be easier to ensure you reach as many learners as possible.

Allow for user control

GIFs often play on an endless loop, but sometimes it makes sense to remove the looping to allow for the usability heuristic of user control. Content strategist Eileen Webb (2018) explains “Every reader’s triggers are unique: a movement that bothers you might be fine with me, or might be fine on my laptop but difficult on my phone. Providing element-level control means the user can stop any particular piece that’s giving them trouble.”

Depending on the tool (or if you work with a developer), you might be able to provide controls to start and stop the animation or hide all of the GIFs on the page. If the GIF does loop right away, you might define how many times it repeats so it’s not a distraction. It’s worth exploring the tool’s options to find out.

Still, a constant loop might convey an idea, so don’t discount it. And if you’re unable to stop looping, you might link to the GIF rather than placing it directly in the course or document.

Provide meaningful explanations and use alt text

As with images, don’t use a GIF without a text explanation. Also, provide alt text for non-sighted or low-vision users (Wendy covered some tips for writing useful alt text). When you write your alt text, describe the context and actions of the GIF. You’ll want to include any text in the animation as well.

Sometimes it’s merely a matter of letting the learner know what’s going on before they encounter a GIF. If you link to a GIF, indicate the media type in brackets and warn learners of any potential issues. (for example, my first website included this animation of a cat chasing a butterfly [GIF] (warning: potential cuteness overload).

Creating an animated GIF

GIFs can be animated like cartoons or made from a longer video or screencast. While there’s many free ways to create a GIF, our team uses TechSmith’s Snagit. I recommend their tutorial for creating an animated GIF as well as reading their posts about using GIFs in the workplace and using GIFs to hack learning.

When you record your GIF, keep the following in mind:

  • Use white space in your document: Like images and graphics, it’s easy to place too many on a page. Don’t use a GIF just to use it and include white space. And most importantly, use GIFs sparingly—too many will distract your learner.
  • Record useful information: GIFs are short, so they need to be meaningful.
  • Keep the background clean: Similarly, you don’t want to record unimportant information (or your cluttered desktop).
  • Script the frames you want to capture: Practice capturing the steps and record multiple takes if necessary.
  • Be consistent: Add a description of how/when/where to use a GIF to your style guide. Do you allow user control? How do you write GIF descriptions or alt text? How many GIFs are allowed on a page? Where should GIFs be placed?
  • Ask for feedback: As with any design, get feedback from the learner to make sure the GIF effectively expressed the information.

For further tips, explore Common Craft’s useful guide for creating explainer GIFs.

While GIFs are a powerful way to help learners grasp a concept or process, they’re underused in eLearning. Have you used them in your instructional materials? What worked well for you?


Baskanderi, N. (2017, February 22). UI animation: Please use responsibly. Retrieved from UX Collective: https://uxdesign.cc/ui-animation-please-use-responsibly-e707dbdb12d5

Lambert, S. (2018, April 9). Designing For accessibility and inclusion. Retrieved from Smashing Magazine: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/04/designing-accessibility-inclusion

Webb, E. (2018, March 1). Your interactive makes me sick. Retrieved from Source: https://source.opennews.org/articles/motion-sick/

Author: Jessica Bishop, Instructional Designer

Jessica is a designer and writer focused on learnability, storytelling, sensemaking, wayfinding, and removing barriers to learning. A Michigan native, she likes crafting, reading, walking, and spending way too much time in the distant corners of the internet. You can also find her at JessicaMBishop.com.

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