Back to the future: Welcome back to the Gif.

Here’s something we don’t see all the time: an old, outdated format returning to glory after years hanging around on the sidelines. The humble animated GIF has been peering in as the new kids came in and replaced it, damn kids with their better quality and useful features. PNGs brought transparency, SVG appeared with the promise of animated wonaer, and the once universally loved and/or hated GIF slowly drifted out of use, dreaming of the good days gone by.

So now, much to the surprise of all of us this ageing format suddenly finds a new lease of life and is brought back into the fold – let back into the cool gang and allowed once more to strut it’s banana-suited stuff. It’s not a too dissimilar story for vinyl, currently receiving a deserved revival after cassette, CD, Minidisk (remember that?), and ‘insert digital audio file format of choice here’ appeared, disappeared, triumphed, tumbled etc. etc…

So what about the humble GIF? Back in the day the wonder of transparency in an image made them all the rage in the early days of the web, even if it did leave us with a pixilated fuzzy white line around the edge. That 256 colour limit? No problem, our screens weren’t going to notice the difference anyway, and we could play that fun game in photoshop where you tried to cut it down to as few colours as possible for a smaller file size as the majority of us were still on dial-up internet. Those were the days.

But the real treat – animation. We could animate right out of photoshop. No flash, no video – just awesome image to image looping animations. And boy did we animate:

So that was then, and what now? Exciting new format improvements meant a wealth of exciting new opportunities. PNG brought better transparency, and now animations. We can use sprites and CSS to do frame by frame, or even CSS3 is giving us some pretty handy tools. Then there’s the arrival of widely supported video, and the brave new world of SVG animation that brings with it the awe and wonder once reserved for a dancing banana.

Why are we talking about Gifs then?

Good point, why indeed. Well, the web is a mess. Different browsers support different things, different devices support different things from their desktop counterparts, and different tools have their own set of rules. But the more we get on, one of the few constants that’s supported are the real old school formats, such as our humble GIF. Flash on an iPad? Forget it. SVG on IE? No way. Gif me.

And then, with a slew of memes and the delight of repeating looping video shorts appearing – Vine, Instagram, the entirety of Reddit – the Gif found a natural home. It used to be a few simple frames, but processing tech and bandwidth have increased ten fold, now we can take a video loop and stick it in there. What’s more, we can layer things on top – and it’ll work everywhere. Things are looking up.

Then comes the real treat – animated emails. Email clients are used by everyone, everyday, and yet they remain the most archaic of the lot. Only the simplest forms of code are accepted in an email, forcing us to stick to super-clean, basic HTML to allow all those clients out there to see the same thing. And we all love a pretty email. So our hands are tied – no fancy SVG animations, no auto-playing video, but a GIF? Sure thing. And what better way to grab the attention of your customers than opening up an email to some moving, animated content? What? A video in an email? It’s been 20 years we’ve never seen anything like this – how the hell are they doing this?

From my personal experience the best examples I’ve seen of this come from Netflix and their promotion of the latest season of House of Cards. It’s awesome see above. My particular favourite loops the moving cityscape through the windows of the presidential motorcade the key characters up front just a static image. This is good stuff. If I wasn’t already chomping at the bit for more House of Cards this would have done the trick.

While using video converted to GIF is indeed an exciting arrival in email, a back to basics simple animation can be just as effective. GIFs are proving to be useful for demonstrating functionality or UI tweaks in apps, great for quickly educating users on new features. Check out these treats below.

So the real question is what can you do to grab attention, before your inbox becomes a crazed blurry mess of bouncing icons and moving video? What would really grab the attention of your customers, so when they open an email newsletter from you they are knocked socks-less? Simple can be effective see the above it doesn’t need to be a bespoke animated wonder, just a little movement to engage and surprise can make all the difference. Did it get you to read this article? If so, have a think about what you could do next time. If you want a hand coming up with ideas or implementing them get in touch, we’d be happy to put on our banana suit.

For more information on using animated GIFs in emails, see this awesome article below:

A Guide to Animated GIFs in Email