If you've come across cool effects on a website that react automatically or in response to your on-screen actions, you may be tempted to implement them on your own site.

Sometimes these effects are more functional than aesthetically pleasing. For instance, consider a situation where subsequent text on a form page might be set to reveal as you complete different steps.

Such effects make the website interactive, giving the visitor an overall satisfying experience (all factors considered). Having them on your site can help convert more qualified leads and create a following out of those who are yet to buy.

But first: how do you refer to these effects? There are two classifications. In the design world, they are referred to as transitions and animations.

You might have noticed that some effects seem more complex. JavaScript can be used to render these effects but today we'll talk about using them with CSS. In fact, CSS3 is arguably the more efficient method of setting them up.

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Besides these major differences, on the surface, CSS transition v. animation are quite similar:

  • You can specify properties that interpret changes and initiate a reaction.
  • You can set easing functions to control the rate at which property values change.
  • You can set the duration of the transition or animation.
  • You can collect data concerning the events that cause the transition or animation to launch and use it to improve your marketing campaign.
  • You can visualize property changes.

Before we look at the differences in more detail, here's a quick process to determine which type of effect to use:

  • Transitions are great if you're going for a simple action, such as a button zooming in on hover.
  • Complex animation will give you more flexibility. It allows you to set different stages that alter the behavior of the element multiple times during the animation.
  • CSS transitions will allow you to manipulate your effects with JavaScript.

The following breakdown of the differences between CSS transition vs animation will help you understand why they work better for different criteria.

CSS Transition vs Animation: Difference in Triggering

The main difference between CSS transitions vs animations is their trigger to play. A transition will only play if there is a change in a specific CSS property, like when the mouse hovers over the element.

For example, the :hover pseudo class is used to change the CSS property value, causing the element to react as desired.

On the other hand, animations don't require any explicit triggers. The animation starts playing automatically once it's defined.

CSS Transition vs Animation: Difference in Looping

When a transition is triggered, it runs once and stops because there are no properties to specify a repetition.

Sure, there's a not-so-straightforward way of playing with the transitionEnd event to achieve a loop, but why go through the trouble when you can simply use an animation?

You can easily set a CSS animation to loop, repeating as many times as you want. You can even set it to go on forever. You make this specification using the animation-iteration-count property, which lets you set its value in number of seconds or infinite.

CSS Transition vs Animation: Difference in Complexity

CSS makes it incredibly easy to set up both CSS transitions and CSS animations, so their complexity is based on their comparative flexibility. The more flexible, the more parts involved.

While CSS transitions run directly from the start to end-state, animations allow you to create in-between states where the behavior of the element changes. This gives you more control over the property values in animations.

You can define keyframes and set up as many as you want. When the animation plays, each will be hit at its turn and the property changes will be reflected in the element. With these capabilities, you can create HTML5 animations to rival those created by advanced tools like Flash.

CSS Transition vs Animation: Difference in Specifying Properties

When it comes to defining property values, CSS transitions are generally more "strict" than animations.

With the former, each property you want reflected must be specified. For instance, if you want your transition to affect the background color and width, you'd have to specify entries for both background-color and width properties.

Animations let you specify property values in each keyframe without having to declare them. The element smoothly changes behavior once the right keyframe is reached, even if the property wasn't listed at the start.

CSS Transition vs Animation: Difference in Interaction with JavaScript

Usually, your CSS transitions and animations will look great without the implementation of JavaScript. However, property values that are predefined in CSS may prove limiting for certain interactions. In such cases, you might want to resort to JavaScript. But what if you don't want to use JavaScript entirely?

It's possible to set up a hybrid approach that allows you to use CSS primarily, and manage the more difficult aspects with JavaScript. In such scenarios, CSS transitions are your friends. The process of changing a CSS animation in JavScript isn't usually worth the effort.

CSS Transition Examples

Below are two examples of a CSS transition. The graphic has two definite states and the animation alternates between them. Transitions can be useful but are more limited than CSS animations.

CSS transitions.

The following example shows the multiple states that the graphic passes through. The steam shrinks in size, ascends upwards, and fades away. This image is much more dynamic than a CSS transition.

CSS animations.

CSS transitions and animations have many similarities. However, it's clear that they also have significant differences that should guide how you use them on your website to improve your marketing efforts. Transitions are generally best for simple from-to movements, while animations are for more complex series of movements.

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Originally published Mar 25, 2020 1:16:33 PM, updated March 25 2020


CSS Animation