The creative legacy of Gifs: Past, present and future

The invention of the Gif transformed creative practices overnight, and gave birth to a whole new medium of expression. We dissect this history (or giftory?) speaking to experts and artists about the continued evolution of the funnest file type.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a Gif is worth 10 thousand. If you land on the right one, it can simultaneously communicate that ultra-specific nuance of emotion you’re feeling, while also showing the type of person you are and your personal tastes, and perhaps even making a culturally relevant quip – all in a 1-2 second video loop. You can’t do all that with a mere emoji. Its ubiquity and accessibility to the masses in today’s society has itself spurred a growing sector of creative practitioners for whom the Gif is a primary medium, arguably the most interacted with of all creative formats. But it was only around 2003-2004 that everyday people even began to be able to make and use Gifs, without fear of being sued (more on that drama soon). So it’s staggering to think how far it has evolved in the following 18 years: from a simple ‘under construction’ animation on a website homepage, to micro narratives that evoke universal sentiments or messages, individually viewed by billions of people worldwide.

In the early days of the internet, it wasn’t possible to host animation due to its file size. But, there was a demand for it that technologists were grappling to achieve. In 1987, CompuServe officially launched the Gif format, publishing the first ever animated Gif shortly afterwards: an image of a plane flying through the sky. The Gif format’s compression capabilities made it ideal for shrinking down little animations enough to be used on early web pages. This was around the time technologist Lisa Gelobter – who later went on to become the chief digital service officer of the US Government’s Department of Education under the Obama administration – was in the fledgling years of her career, working at Macromedia (later acquired by Adobe). Having spent her life using tech to impact change on the world (from working on the launch of Hulu to starting tEQuitable), she hastens to tell me there’s one thing she didn’t do. “There’s a rumour going around the internet that I invented the Gif. I didn’t!” she laughs. That is credited to Steve Wilhite, who was a computer scientist at CompuServe in the mid-80s. She does, however, remember the whole Gif debacle of the mid-90s very well, not least because it significantly impacted her own career.

When the web started to become mainstream around 1993, the Gif really took off. In 1994, CompuServe and Unisys (the company which licensed the technology Gifs relied upon) patented the Gif format and essentially said that, if anyone wanted to use Gifs, they would need to pay a licensing fee – a notion defiantly at odds with the democratic, open source ethos of the internet. “The web was still the web, and there was a rebellion,” Lisa recalls. “It was a massive scandal. Literally overnight, people stopped using Gifs.”

This essentially opened the door for Lisa and her colleagues at Macromedia, who were working as engineers on Shockwave, a program being used by developers to bring to life multimedia animated projects big and small: “not just video games but immersive experiences," says Lisa. "Like on Mac, you have the drawers where the user interface moves? Little animations that make the user experience delightful.” Lisa developed the compression technology that would allow someone to take an animation and make it small enough that they could distribute it over the web. She also wrote the first ActiveX control (basically an extension for the browser Internet Explorer) for Shockwave, bringing the technology to 70 million internet users. “We were the engine that powered most animation and multimedia on the web,” she summarises. “It was very cool.”


Copyright © Nichole Shinn, 2022

The impact this had on animation on the internet cannot be understated. “It was the coolest experience to live through because it gave designers this freedom, a brand spanking new set of tools. We powered the explosion of creativity on the web,” Lisa says. She remembers doing user research with designers and animators and literally getting standing ovations. “I was like, what’s happening?” she laughs. “We had liberated them; it’s like we invented paper and markers.” She likens it to how blogs democratised writing and journalism, likewise YouTube and video creation, in that it allowed creators to cut out the gatekeeping institutions in the middle and self-publish. “Each artistic medium has gone through this evolution, and Shockwave (and then later, Gifs) broadened horizons in animation.”

Meanwhile Gifs were still being created and used as a key part of early web designs – albeit further under the radar than they might have been without the patent debacle. Many of the first Gifs were both practical and expressive. For example, there were loading bars and under construction signs, such as the digging man icon – created by early Gif creator Steve Kangas – or “Welcome to my website!” banners. In 1994, web hosting service Yahoo! Geocities launched and motivated a tidal wave of web newbies to try their hand at making a website, with Gifs technically supported and offering lots of fun ways to make the page dance (quite literally, when the dancing baby arrived on the scene). And despite early web design manuals teaching users not to use too many Gifs for fear of being “visually confusing” and slowing down the page, creators garnished their sites liberally with as many Gifs as they could (see Cameron Askin’s online collage Cameron’s World for a fantastic, retina-melting compilation of early internet Gifs).

“There was a big demand for self-expression on the web,” explains Dani Newman, director of artist partnerships at Giphy. “Up to that point, we had newspapers, TV, radio… this was the first opportunity for user-generated content sharing.” Dani says the mid-90s saw the term “net artist” first pop up, defining a group of creatives that saw the internet as their canvas and Gifs as one of its most exciting new tools. In 1998, the Guggenheim commissioned its first internet-based art piece, Brandon by Shu Lea Cheang, which was a huge landmark in the journey of web-based creativity being taken seriously as an art form.

In parallel, brands were also early adopters of the Gif, Dani says, shown by the splash pages brands Pepsi and McDonald’s were making around 1995-1996 (which you can peruse to your nostalgic heart’s content on the Web Design Museum). As a result, there were also commercial creative studios making work in this space, such as Animation Factory, one of the first (if not the first) Gif production houses, which in the mid-late 90s was employing full-time animators and art directors to produce some of the “zaniest Gif content you can think of” for brands and clients, says Dani. “A lot of those weird old CGI Gifs would have been born out of that project,” she continues, highlighting a fascinating Reply All episode on its history. “The former employees describe the company as being super free, the mandate being ‘make the Gifs the world wants to see’.”


Copyright © Nichole Shinn, 2022

In 2004, the patent expired on Gifs and became free to use, therefore reemerging from the fringes into the mainstream web, which was now a completely transformed creative landscape compared to when Gifs was first born. Tumblr arrived in 2007 when blogging was already massive, but the difference with this early social media platform (launched the year after Twitter’s 2006 birthday) was that it allowed users to post multimedia content. “Communities would flock to [places like Tumblr] and share what they were making. It was one of the earliest places artists would organise,” says Dani. “Tumblr was my most vivid memory of getting interested in Gifs, because artists were so open about how the sausage was made. They were so willing to share.”

Since then, the way Gifs have evolved creatively, and in their influence on popular culture, has snowballed exponentially – given an almighty push by the introduction of stickers on Facebook in 2015 and Instagram in 2018. Dani heads up the team at Giphy which commissions artists to create original, free-to-use Gif artworks for its platform, and is constantly looking to hold a mirror up to current culture and society. “We’re always working to give the people what they want,” she says. This can mean tapping into visual trends, such as the unwaveringly popular Y2K aesthetic with all its glitter and sheen, or responding to world events. “We did a study in the first months of Covid, where we saw a 30 per cent increase in Gifs saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’, because people’s relationships were shifting to digital,” Dani notes.

Giphy Studios now works with “every kind of artist” – not just animators – from VR specialists to performance artists and painters, looking to “expand the medium” of Gif creation. Part of Gifs’ appeal as a medium, she says, is because “the Gif is a very quick, low commitment, easy way to tell a story”, and an accessible entry point for creatives, like illustrators, to get into animation. “It’s also a great way for artists to interact with their fans,” Dani says. “Creatives can pull out characters or elements of their work that fans identify with, and fans can use it in a story or to express themselves; it’s that interaction that’s appealing.”

One such artist is Erma Fiend, one of the most successful contemporary Gif artists around; their 300-or-so Gifs on Giphy has amassed a whopping 16.4 billion views. Known for their B-movie horror aesthetic, self-portraits and social commentary around gender inclusive topics – plus some hypnotic anthropomorphised chicken nuggets – Erma is testament to how both powerful and entertaining the medium of Gifs can be. The artist never studied animation formally but always enjoyed experimenting with stop motion and special effects, though couldn’t find an outlet for it outside the time-consuming and daunting idea of creating a short film, or scenes for music videos. It was, eventually, a Halloween Gif open call hosted by Giphy that gave Erma a “low stakes” and small-scale way to put their experiments into fully realised, looping short scenes – which they describe rather poetically as “breathing images” and “film Haikus”.

“It let me bring what I love about animation into a more feasible form,” Erma says, “where I could polish and perfect my own technique in a way that was contained and didn't have to be contingent on a larger production.”

The Halloween theme itself prompted Erma to apply various techniques they enjoyed animating with, such as claymation, pixilation (stop motion with people), hand-drawn animation and performance art, to explore gory body horror and B-movie-esque effects in miniature moving vignettes. This became the artist’s signature aesthetic, and might not have been if it weren’t for coming to life in Gif form, mainly because Erma shoots highly detailed, deeply tactile scenes at a high-frame rate of 24-30 frames per second, giving it a “manic energy”, that would be too arduous to create at a larger scale, they explain. “If I was animating two minutes of original content I probably wouldn't put the same level of detail into every single frame. But with a Gif, it’s about creating this undulating effect – if a face is melting, you get to watch it on repeat and see different things the more you watch it.”


Copyright © Nichole Shinn, 2022

Erma also notes that Gifs’ short, isolated format, and being able to make one full piece in a day, is “a powerful medium for self-expression” which has allowed the artist to explore many more themes and concepts than would’ve otherwise been possible. This has been of personal importance to Erma, who admits “my own journey as a trans person has shifted largely because I started doing Gif art, and had an outlet for making these self portraits. You’re watching this depiction of a human form that’s morphing and changing shape and coming apart and coming back together, but it feels like there’s a wholeness, a static nature to it, in an unchanging way.”

Both for the Gif artists and the people using those artworks in their everyday conversations, it is Gifs’ relatable, expressive quality that makes them so captivating – ”like a higher dimension emoji!” Erma quips, an isolated narrative that can “capture a mood and communicate it so simply”. And while Gifs as we know them continue to be universally adopted as a vital tool of modern communication and storytelling, those at the forefront of Gifdom are looking to broaden the medium further. Giphy has recently introduced sound effects and music to some of its Gifs, and continues to work with a widening range of artists to diversify the genre. Erma is looking for ways to bring Gifs into the physical world, through flipbooks and lenticular prints, or children’s ebooks, with a dream to use Gifs as educational tools for kids. Meanwhile other creators are experimenting with how to make Gifs more interactive and responsive in digital design. One thing’s for sure, if the history of the Gif is anything to go by, the future of the format is exciting and full of untapped creative potential.

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Copyright © Nichole Shinn, 2022

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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