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Posted on:December 27, 2023 at 10:52 AM

Todd's Guide to Creating Video Tutorials

Part 5: Start building those visuals

If you’re going to be doing any kind of educational video, one where you’re trying to explain how something works, you’re going to want to have some visuals accompany your script.

And you’re probably expecting me to start my blog post with a chat about visual design, right? But I’m not! Instead, let me talk about what I think is one of the most underrated parts of visual components for videos, and that’s…

The importance of motion

I think most of us understand the value of a good visual aid or diagram. (“A picture is worth a thousand words” and all that) But just as important is the value of motion when added to those diagrams.

For instance, displaying certain elements at just the right time is a great way for people to understand that certain steps happen in a specific sequence.

And by fading in (or fading out) certain elements while you’re talking about them, you can make sure users are focused on the relevant part of your diagram, while still understanding how it fits into the larger picture.

And there’s no better way to communicate that certain bits of data are sent from one system to another than by actually showing that data traveling across the screen.

For example, let’s check out this animation, where we show the process for creating a Link token…

An animation showing how to create a link token

If I tried to show you all these steps at once in a static diagram, it would be a mess, and it would take you some time to figure out in what order things happen. Whereas with an animation, it’s pretty obvious the where and when the Link token is created, and how it gets back to your client.

So yes, having good-looking slides are important, but I think that if you can start to think about how your slides will look over time, that can help a lot in creating compelling visuals.

Okay, so now, let’s talk about…

Some actual advice

In no particular order, presented as a giant bullet point list!

Massively wordy slide, with lots of words and multi-level bullet points. Much less wordy slide, with a few words per bullet point. A slide with only two words on top and a big picture to accompany it.

If you think you're going to spend a lot of time on each bullet point, try splitting it into multiple slides.

Fancy animations!

Some of these animations would have been so much harder without Magic Move

Yeah, yeah, but how about some design advice?!

In terms of making good-looking slides, I actually don’t have a lot of great advice, because my visual design skills are kinda crap. Luckily, they don’t need to be that good because at Plaid, we have a design team with a bunch of very talented designers who have already done the hard work of creating a visual design style for us.

Fancy animations!

One slide from my 'master deck of graphics and animations that I might need later'

So, what’s my process like?

I usually do a “Super-duper ugly rough pass” of my slides when I’m first writing the script, so I have something to cut-and-paste into the right-hand column of the document.

Once the script is done and off for review (and I get a sense there aren’t major changes coming), I’ll take some time to put together a more complete version of my slides. It’s at this point I’ll work on adding the animations, figuring out transitions, and adding the bits that I hand-waved until later.

Usually at this point, I’ll realize there are a few graphics that I need that aren’t available, or have just really ugly placeholders. That’s when I reach out to my friendly neighborhood design contact!

When do I get an artist involved?

When my slides are in a “Nearly done except that I have one or two placeholder graphics” state, that’s when I’ll reach out to somebody on the design team and ask them to do a little ad-hoc design work. But your process will depend quite a bit on what kind of in-house art resources you have available, and how they like to work.

When I first started out at Plaid, and didn’t have a good repertoire yet of graphics, I regularly worked with an in-house designer. Typically I’d send her my slides (with a few comments pointing out what placeholder graphics needed to be adjusted) and in her spare time between other projects, she’d clean them up for me; rearranging the layout in places, adjusting font spacing, and adding graphics if I needed them.

That designer left the company after a year, but at that point I was more comfortable with our style * I also had lots of previous artwork I could copy-and-paste-and-adjust as needed . So these days I’m able to muddle through most of this on my own. But I still reach out to the design folks when I need a little extra help.

The biggest issue I’ve found is that it’s difficult for me to plan out in advance when I’m going to need any design help. So while the work itself is never too onerous, my requests still take the form of, “Hey! Can you drop whatever you’re doing to work on my project that I didn’t give you any heads-up about? Kthxbai.” I’m sure they hate this, but I haven’t figured out anything better at this point.

 Can I just have them create the whole thing for me?

Those of you who have lots of in-house art resources might be able to pass the entire script off to an animator and have them create the slides for you — that was something I often did at Google. But you need to be careful here.

Remember that you’re creating technical animations that have very specific timing elements, or need to be very precise in specific cases. And your artist, being an artistic type, likes to be creative! And they won’t always be sure where they can take artistic license, and where they have to stick to your designs.

So you should make sure that you over-communicate in any areas where the technical details matter, and be prepared for a couple of rounds of feedback.

For instance, this animation here? Where I’m trying show how SQL queries work? I probably went through about 5 iterations with the designer to get it to be accurate. (And even then, it’s not entirely correct.)

Luckily, after that first video, I settled on a much better workflow. I would animate any database-diagram animations in Keynote, then give them to the designer to replicate in After Effects. But for anything where they could be creative (like the little animated characters), I would just add a text description and let them do whatever they wanted.

It usually takes my designer about a week to turn around these slide improvements (like I said, it’s only a day of actual work, they need time to schedule it in). But I have plenty of other things to work on in the meantime.

Finding good art resources

Don’t have the time, budget, or resources to build all of your artwork in-house? Never fear! There’s a ton of good resources out there where you can get pretty good stock photos, illustrations, or animations to go along with your video.

Unsplash is a popular place for free photos, Envato Elements has a really nice subscription service for individual creators * Sadly, their pricing structure was such that I couldn't afford them because I work at a larger company. , Pixabay is a good place to find free content, and iStockPhoto is a great overall resource, too. Jeff Delaney (of fame) uses (which looks like it entered some kind of partnership with Envato), and at Plaid I mostly make use of good ol’ Adobe Stock.

A lot of these places have subscription services, which can save you money if you’re going to be using a lot of their content, but I use them infrequently enough that I generally just buy them as needed.

That said, if you decide to go the third party route, make sure these graphics fit the overall style that you or your company is trying to convey. If your design style is heavy Corporate Memphis, then you decide to throw some stock photographs into the mix, it’ll look weird.

But even more subtly, watch out for things like downloading images that have a lot of shading, if your images tend to be flat. Or downloading images where people are represented differently than the way your company typically does them.

So if you have the option (and a copy of Creative Cloud), I’d recommend downloading the Illustrator version of any stock art you purchase. I’ve found that, even with my crappy Adobe Illustrator skills, I’m able to do just enough to tweak a piece of vector graphic that a casual observer would think it’s part of our graphic repertoire * It doesn't fool our designers, tho. They notice right away. .

Anyway, once you’ve made (or purchased) your art, have put together a good first pass of your slides, and given them to your local artist to clean up, it’s time for our next step… doing the screen recording!

(Part 6 coming soon)

Hello world!