GIF Evolution Cover Photo

Ah, the animated GIF.

Whether it’s a tiny kitten scaring a large dog, or Taylor Swift dancing awkwardly at an awards show, there’s something about seeing a few seconds of time captured in an infinite loop that appeals to us.

Sometimes a situation becomes funnier the longer it plays out, like a Will Ferrell joke; or sometimes we notice details we hadn’t before, and we stare at it for five, or ten, or twenty loops before moving on to the next image.

A GIF can be entrancing and hypnotic when done well (see “Full English” image below) or irritating when done poorly (if the loop is off by a fraction of a second).

GIF Evolution - Full English
Image Source: Dribbble

But, where did all these wonderful images come from?

If you were born before 1990, you might remember web hosting services like GeoCities ruling the vast wilderness of the early-to-mid 1990s World Wide Web. Most of the webpages created were text, with maybe a couple graphics like buttons or logos.

In 1987, a CompuServe engineering team led by Steve Wilhite introduced a new file format: Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF. The GIF’s lossless compression was ideal for users with slow modems, the ability to have a transparent background was a godsend to early web designers, and the ability to hold multiple frames within a single image was an excellent bandwidth-friendly alternative to videos. Some of the most popular items to animate at that time were “Email Me!” mailboxes, flames, American flags, and the omnipresent “Under Construction” banners.

GIF Evolution - Under Construction
Image Source: 

Of course, like most popular trends (I’m looking at you, Auto Tune!), people went a bit overboard, and the use of animated GIFs on a webpage became synonymous with poor web design.

By the late 1990s, GIFs had fallen out of fashion, except for the occasional “viral” GIF, such as the Hamster Dance or the Dancing Baby. JPGs and PNGs were ruling the web, as photography and relatively higher resolution graphics became the norm. No one wanted to use animated GIFs anymore.

GIF Evolution - Rain Doctor Who
Image Source: ReactionGifs

In 2001, Max Goldberg launched a site called “You’re the Man Now, Dog” (which later became known as YTMND), where users could submit a still image or an animated GIF, with a looping audio clip. This was the source of many early-2000s memes, and it remained popular until around 2007, when video sharing sites like YouTube became more prevalent. YTMND was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the art of the GIF alive, albeit on life support.

GIF Evolution - Hang In There Kitten
Image Source: ReactionGifs

And then, in 2007, Tumblr happened.

The microblogging and social networking site allowed people to quickly and easily share images, both static and animated. Tumblr was also the first social site to allow image uploads of up to 2MB (most other sites had a limit of 1MB), which opened the door to larger GIFs, in both dimensions and file weight.

People could now share animated GIFs from their favorite movies or TV shows, often with text at the bottom displaying what the character is saying. And since there was no audio involved, and the images were loading quickly with the increased download speeds from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), people could watch GIFs at their job or at school.

GIF Evolution - Loki
Image Source: Tumblr

Over the next few years, GIFs slowly started to replace YouTube videos as the preferred method for viewing a short bit of action. Instead of having to sit through a two minute, 15MB video, you could now watch the “best” few seconds of the video on a constant, silent loop as an animated GIF; which loaded in a fraction of the time and didn’t eat up all your bandwidth.

GIF Evolution - Corgi Jump
Image Source: GIPHY

As the GIF regained its popularity, businesses began to take notice. Marketers and designers now had a little more wiggle room in regards to file weight, and mobile data networks were improving all the time. This allowed for some experimentation in letting a new generation of graphic designers showcase their skills with eye-catching animated images.

Image Source: Dribbble

Even professional photographers and fine artists were getting in on the game, creating gorgeous cinemagraphs and stereoscopic wigglegrams.

An animated GIF used to only be a medium for depicting something else, but now, digital artists like David Ope are creating animations where the final GIF is the purpose, not just a means of delivery. There are even awards, called GIFYS, which celebrate and acknowledge particular funny, clever, or well-done animated GIFs on the internet.

GIF Evolution - David Ope
Image Source: Tumblr

What’s next for the mighty GIF? It’s hard to say.

Artists, designers, and developers are still coming up with new ways to manipulate and display images online; and the tools to create these images are becoming more readily available and simpler to use. Maybe someday we’ll figure out how to get animated images into printed materials, like business cards, postcards, or Muggle newspapers.

GIF Evolution - Sirius Black
Image Source: Tumblr

An animated GIF of an animated GIF…how delightfully meta.

What do you love about the animated GIF? How has its evolution affected you?
Share with us in the comments!

About the Author: Ryan Sawyer is a Graphic Designer at Webs. When he’s not at a computer, he plays guitar, does stand-up, designs t-shirts, and has taken up whittling.

One Response

  1. Reply
    Mar 21, 2015 - 05:07 AM

    Thank you for writing it, so accurate.
    I remember the good old day with Geocities, lol .

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