Why liquid abstract grabs our attention and soothes our brains

How creatives can use the cutting-edge liquid abstract trend to connect with audiences in a distraction-filled world

Acrylic colors in water. Abstract background.

Imagine the peaceful curves of liquid smoke drifting across your screen, the shifting electric yellow blobs of a lava lamp, or the gentle drift of underwater plants in an unseen current. All of these images fall into a unique category of soothing, elemental motion. We are instinctively attracted to liquid abstract forms, whether we notice them in a fish tank at the dentist’s office or as transposing shapes in an engrossing screen saver. Why do we find this type of motion so inherently mesmerizing? Why are our brains calmed by liquid abstract movement?

These questions are particularly relevant for artists who want to use the most innovative motion graphics trends of 2020 and beyond. As one of our top four motion trends for ad campaigns, social media, and design, liquid abstract offers designers ways to cut through the noise of our digital world and engage viewers on a primal level. When you slow down the hyper energy of these natural forms, you find the space for a satisfying display with a subliminally calming effect that captures our attention.

Image source: Adobe Stock / docoptic.

The other side of stress response

Typically, advertisers associate liquid movement with action. You can see an example of this in Gatorade’s Fierce television commercial. An exploding Gatorade bottle splashes baseball players in roiling whirls of liquid flowing off their bodies, invigorating the pitcher’s throw and the batter’s hit. The baseball shreds from the force, becoming a screaming head, trailing a rush of red Gatorade like a blazing comet.

In Clear Channel’s artwork exhibition, “The Emotional Art Gallery,” artist Susi Sie created an abstract piece full of blistering orange bubbles and surging fluids to energize Stockholm commuters. Another artist’s work, a strangely satisfying video loop of cables intertwining and endlessly rising like ice cream pressing into a cone, is meant to be calming. Both are abstract representations of this elemental motion trend, but with wildly different emotional results.

According to Dr. Christopher Lynn, associate professor at the University of Alabama and a specialist in biocultural medical anthropology, high-energy sensory input and slower, soothing stimuli are two sides of the same coin. “Relaxation response isn’t a neurological system over here, and stress response is a neurological system over here; they are two sides of the same integrated networks of systems. They are autonomic nervous system responses. So, what turns our stress response on, and what turns it off? That’s what we are keying in on here.”

When we talk about using liquid abstract in design, there is a spectrum of movement that influences our brains in different ways. We tend to find languid, shifting patterns to be relaxing while volatile splashes or rapid flickering will ramp up our drive for activity. Fascinated by what causes relaxation and what captures our focused attention, Dr. Lynn set out to understand why our brains respond in this way. In a study exploring the influence of watching campfire on our ability to relax, Dr. Lynn discovered that our blood pressure actually decreases when we watch the movement of flames in a hearth fire. He believes that our brains evolved to find this stimulus calming because early humans gathered around communal fires for cooking, warmth, and safety.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Amgun.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Marc Arginteanu agrees. “It actually has a built-in effect in the brain,” he explains. This campfire effect can induce a state of relaxation and increase the dopamine levels in our brains. Like Dr. Lynn, Dr. Arginteanu believes we evolved to feel safe from danger when we watch flickering firelight, and this feeling translates to all soothing, fluid patterns.

We even connect these feelings of warmth and safety with kinship. “Because we are social animals, the fact that everyone communally gathered around a fire, just looking at that fire, just watching the abstract and ever-shifting pattern of a fire, gives us the feeling of community and not just physical warmth, but social warmth,” Dr. Arginteanu says.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Adrian Grosu.

Tapping into our need for relaxation

So, how do we use these positive feelings for maximum impact in motion design? One way is to give viewers a break from frantic action. Incorporate the reassuring natural elements of liquid abstract where jarring imagery is at its peak. Create a welcome distraction in our increasingly chaotic world. A softer, serene video on social media can break through the clatter by providing a meditative focus to the viewer. Creatives can incorporate a comforting essence by using liquid motion details in scene transitions or in background scenery.

Fluid and bubbles have long been used in sensory aids for children to focus their attention and keep them calm. These same elements can be compelling focal points for an audience, whether as a moving element in a logo’s design or as a full, multi-sensory digital experience. The Sound Brewery Project commercial for Nastro Azzurro Beer is an example of how facets from all senses can blend together to build on these properties and spotlight a product’s unique features. Mixing the organic ingredients of the beer, state of the art technology, and kinetic fluid to create rhythmic sounds and music, the commercial demonstrates a novel approach to this motion trend.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Lightleak Films.

In working with patients with brain injuries, Dr. Arginteanu has found abstract sensory experiences help his patients concentrate and meditate. “Not everyone can do meditation, they’re just not built for it, so those people who don’t have the concentration ability to do meditation, sometimes they’ll be able to sit in front of a campfire or a fire by their fireplace and just sort of watch the flames. It has a very meditative effect. Not only with the lights flickering, but also the sound you hear when a log pops.”

According to Dr. Lynn, first, the motion grabs our attention. Once we are focused, our brain’s reaction depends on the stimuli. “All you’re doing with something more dynamic is turning up the volume. A large fire that’s burning out of control is not relaxing. Bring that sucker down and put it in your hearth, and now it’s relaxing. We’re talking about the exact same systems, just the context is important.” To tap into our meditative response, creatives will want to feature smooth, mellow examples of liquid abstract.

Image source: Adobe Stock / arzawen.

Dr. Arginteanu says, “Even if you talk about [liquid abstract] in terms of the stress of daily life, it alleviates it on a deeper level.”

These soothing motion graphics can be employed to ease tension in a disordered atmosphere or, due to their reassuring nature, even be used to reinforce a brand’s authority and inspire confidence. Our psychological response to find relief, pleasure, and social spirit in these forms means that artists have many avenues to explore the softer side of abstract flow.

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