I have to be honest. I love my whiteboard. I love standing in front of it and writing down ideas, drawing thoughts and mapping out my mind with full knowledge of the fact the scribbles will be wiped away forever in due course.
I don’t have to worry about what file format my thoughts come out in, which software I need to use to make it look the way I want it to look. I don’t have to worry about the environmental impact of using and recycling paper, or having half-finished yet somewhat important sheets of A4 paper lurking around my desk for months.
It also doesn’t matter that the end result isn’t something I would show to clients. A whiteboard drawing is what it is; a passing thought jotted in ink which is soon to disappear from existence, as soon as the next point of discussion is due.
It’s easy to see why somebody would want to film this process and turn it into a video, which is why there’s a whole industry out there working to produce and help people produce whiteboard-style videos.
What is a whiteboard video?
‘Whiteboard videos’ are a common type of video style. They’re most often used by businesses to explain a product or service in a visual, graphic-driven way. Traditional whiteboard videos are live-action videos filmed with a camera, often showing the presenter in front of the whiteboard as they present to the camera. The second type of live-action whiteboard videos are filmed in a top-down style and focus on the narrator’s hands as they illustrate what is being said. The third type of whiteboard video is the animated whiteboard video, which is created by using 2D animation software to imitate the effect of the top-down style whiteboard video.
The evolution of the whiteboard style
Several years ago the ‘whiteboard’ style of video started to become popular online. For many creators it was a way of filming and presenting content that was traditionally delivered in a classroom environment, placing the viewer in the digital equivalent of a seat in audience. The most prolific example in my memory is Moz’s Whiteboard Friday series, which still runs to this day. All that anybody needs in order to create a video like this is a whiteboard, a camera and something interesting to say.
Although filming these videos in front of a physical whiteboard works well from a simplicity, time, and cost perspective, there are some downsides. Firstly, viewers can’t always see the content that was being shown to them, such as when the video is watched at lower resolutions or when the presenter stands in front of the whiteboard and obstructs the text. Secondly, whiteboards reflect strong lights like those used for filming (and even normal fluorescent lights overhead). If not lit correctly, the presenter will also cast shadows on the whiteboard’s surface. Then, to top things off, a physical whiteboard can also collect dirty smudges of ink after a few takes.
To get around these practicality issues, the top-down approach was born. Similar to the traditional whiteboard style, the top-down approach shows hand drawn illustrations filmed by a camera, but the camera focusses solely on the whiteboard or paper. The presenter is not visible and usually narrates the video with a voice-over. You can see an example of this style with this video by Minute Physics. Sometimes, rather than draw the illustrations live on camera, the narrator will move pre-drawn cutouts around on screen. The overall style is similar to how school teachers used overhead projectors in the days before digital projectors. The only problem, which is true for any kind of illustration, you have to be good at drawing to get a good result.
To avoid some of the hurdles that come with filming these videos in real life, a handful of tech-savvy content producers moved towards creating faux whiteboard-style videos in 2D animation software. Instead of needing to set up a camera, set up lights, record the presentation and get the drawings right, the animated style provided a good quality alternative while still getting the same, if not better, results. When produced by professional animators, the animated whiteboard videos included nice touches that the real-life whiteboard videos couldn’t, such as animated sequences for the characters that appeared on-screen.
As the animated whiteboard style became more popular, a variety of software (much of it free) started appearing to help automate the process and give less technically savvy people the means to create animated whiteboard videos using pre-made templates. Thanks to this software the process of creating whiteboard videos became easier. Anybody with an idea could turn their thoughts into a whiteboard video with ease, but at the expense of originality. Stock and royalty-free illustrations were repeatedly reused and the quality of the templates decreased as opportunists flooded the market with quickly put together options. As a result, the overall quality of animated whiteboard videos decreased.
What started as a way of providing digital educational and training resources in a cost effective and similar-to-life way and the whiteboard style became a cheap method of creating all kinds of videos, such as sales and promotional videos, which were not really right for the format. The issues that were once solved by the animated style have been overshadowed by the issues it faces on its own, and the original live action format shines superior thanks to the authenticity of the camera.
A photo of our set-up while filming a series of whiteboard videos for Sticky People. We used two cameras – one to capture the entire whiteboard and one to capture close-ups of what Neil, the presenter, was drawing. We cut between these to emphasise the details for users on smaller screens or lower bandwidth internet connections.
A case study of two animation styles
Some time ago we were approached by a client who was interested in creating a series of animated whiteboard videos to promote their various products. Although they had a fairly substantial budget, they were adamant that they wanted the whiteboard style. This didn’t seem like the best approach; If you want to create a promotional video, and if you have budget available, my advice is that it would make much more sense to produce something that can truly capture the spirit of your business or organisation, rather than mimic an often overused and cheap format. My initial feeling was that it would be far more effective to create a “proper” 2D animated video, such as this animated promotional video that we produced for Vimsy, as it would be much better for their needs.
Before returning to my client, to make sure that I wasn’t just speaking from the heart, I decided to do some research to see if there were any examples of video engagement trends that backed up my beliefs. I was fortunate enough to stumble across two competing Youtube channels; Kurzgesagt and Minute Physics. Kurzgesagt produces fully animated videos around science topics. Minute Physics produces animated whiteboard style videos. (Although it is worth noting that Minute Physics’ videos are not digitally animated; the style they use is called “stop motion” animation and is made by taking a series of still images and playing them back as a video, just like how Aardman Animation make Wallace and Gromit.)
Both of these Youtube channels appeal to a similar audience base, which is English speaking people with a mild interested in science. The content of the videos is also aimed at adults in that sense that neither is specifically aimed at children, and both producers’ videos tend to provide a surface level explanation of scientific topics as opposed to deep technical explorations. At the time of writing both channels have a fairly equally sized following on Youtube – Kurzgesagt has 5 million followers while Minute Physics has 4 million – and both channels have been releasing videos with similar regularity, at around three videos per month.
On average Minute Physics’ videos tend to reach between 500k and 2 million views. Their lowest view count in the past six months was 275k, which accounts to around 7% of their subscriber base. In the past year they have not reached their entire subscriber base of 3.6 million subscribers with any single video.
Kurzgesagt, on the other hand, tend to receive an average of 3-5million views per video. In the past year they have reached audiences the size of, or larger than, their subscriber count three times. Their least viewed video (and also their shortest video) reached 1million views.
The case for high quality animated content over whiteboard videos is clear in this example. Of course, the former does come at a higher cost.
Should I use the animated whiteboard style for my video?
As I explained earlier in this post, when the animated whiteboard format became popular an industry of tools emerged to create whiteboard style videos, including many free online generators. As a result, pretty much anybody can create a simple animated whiteboard video with a few clicks. In my opinion, whiteboard animations are over-saturated in the online video world and they aren’t particularly memorable. Can you remember what the last animated corporate whiteboard video you watched was about? Can you remember, from the top your head, a company that has used one effectively? If you’re like me you’ve seen so many that you’ve lost track.
For training and explainer videos, showing basic illustrations that coincide with a voice-over narration is far from a poor method of producing a video. But if you have a budget, an animated whiteboard video is one the least creative ways of educating your staff or customers. If an animation is what you require, my suggestion would be to create a 2D animated video that reflects your business and your brand fully, rather than mimicking what everybody else is doing. It’s much more memorable that way and your money will have been spent far more wisely.
With all of that said, I still believe there is merit in traditional whiteboard videos, in those which go back to the original format of filming a presenter in front of a whiteboard. One of the biggest complaints I have with animated whiteboard videos is that they lack personality and authenticity. If you or a member of your team presents your whiteboard videos then watching that video is a direct opportunity for your audience to get a feel of what your business does and who you are. The negatives of live action filming (shadows on the wall behind you or the light reflects on the whiteboard) can be excused because building a genuine relationship at scale is what using video is all about. You can’t cheat that with cheap software.