Netflix’s design docuseries Abstract: The Art of Design
recently took viewers behind the scenes at Instagram to explore the work of Ian Spalter, then head of Instagram Design and now head of Instagram Japan. Through the years, Ian’s work has heavily influenced digital culture, from how he experiments with new product designs to how he manages the responsibility of designing for a global population. Take a moment to see how he approached the Instagram redesign and how he continues to find fresh inspiration.
Design is about solving a problem
A Commodore 64 and Star Wars are some of Ian’s earliest design inspirations. As Ian puts it, he was fascinated by the creativity that “went into inventing something that didn’t exist before.”
In 2015, Ian came to Instagram as Head of Design and set out to modernize the Instagram app and logo, which at the time resembled a mid-century point and shoot camera.
Ian began his work on redesigning Instagram’s app and logo the same way he tackles any design project—by defining the problem and why it needed to be solved. “Instagram knew it had already evolved from where it started, and it was time to signal that the change was coming.”
“The first step was to look at what existed at that moment,” Ian says. “The logo was a very round shape, with these candy-like features in the lens, the color almost brown like a teddy bear, and on top of the teddy bear, a rainbow. How do you go beyond that? What’s important about this? What is actually essential?”
To answer his own questions, Ian asked the entire Instagram team to take 10 seconds to sketch the existing logo from memory during a company meeting. “What’s really interesting was the range of stuff we got. It was helpful for us to understand that there was a rainbow thing that was starting to pop through. We knew the top section and lens would be important, but we learned that the rainbow was really baked into people’s memory.”
From there, the team looked at early evolutions and created countless variations of the existing logo to ultimately design the version used today. “You scan to look for something that’s interesting and stays with you, that looks beyond a bunch of shapes put together. You make a bunch of bad stuff, and that’s just part of the problem-solving process.”
“You make a bunch of bad stuff, and that’s just part of the problem-solving process.”
Designing at scale for a global population comes with great responsibility
While Instagram Design team members have the rare opportunity to create and refine a platform that over a billion people use, working at this kind of scale also presents unique challenges. One of the biggest is understanding the potential impact on society in the future.
“Being at the center of so many connections and memories really adds to the sense of responsibility we have,” Ian notes. “A focus on people and human needs has been something consistent throughout my work. It’s not just communicating a message, but trying to connect with a human need or desire, something that’s core to who they are as people. Making large changes to a big platform will always be uncomfortable, so you have to make sure you’re not making completely emotional decisions.”
“Making large changes to a big platform will always be uncomfortable, so you have to make sure you’re not making completely emotional decisions.”
He goes on to explain that the physical world has gravity and momentum, and designing digital products for screens has nuances. How should an experience feel? How quickly should it move or flow? It’s not just about getting these aspects right for the moments unfolding in the present, but being forward-thinking enough to design for the future.
“I've really benefited from working in the space and seeing these technologies evolve,” he reflects. “It's given me a tremendous perspective. At its core, Instagram is about visual communication. It’s really important for us to have a clear point of view about where we want these tools to take us.”
Good design is never finished
Creating digital products people love calls for constant iteration while following a creative process. Reflecting on areas of design work and his own personal evolution, Ian says that visualizing the process in different ways has helped him transform his iterative approach over time.
“I’ve found that thinking about comedy has helped me see points of connection between what it is that I and my teams do everyday, and what comedians do every day,” he notes. “Stand-up comedians are in a position where they have to come up with ways to make people laugh. They may work on the same bit multiple times a night in different clubs, telling the same jokes in slightly different ways, taking that feedback and slightly adjusting it until it’s in tune.”
The audience’s reaction to each comedy set is a valuable cue Ian takes back to his team’s drawing board. “It’s really interesting to have a laugh be a data point because it’s something emotional—the laugh is a metric,” he explains. “When I bring it back to what we do, there are plenty of areas in the product where we try out things to a limited audience and we get back data to understand how that audience uses a certain feature. We make changes based on that feedback. Design is never done and can continue to evolve over time. The first launch may just be the first step.”
“Design is never done and can continue to evolve over time.”
Stepping out of your comfort zone is the key to making new mental connections
Breaking free from a regular routine is one of Ian’s favorite ways to find inspiration, and travel has become one of his go-to strategies for enhancing his awareness of the world and how people experience it. “With travel, I started to get windows into different perspectives, like what ‘normal’ is in another place,” Ian shares. “Maybe it’s the flavor of potato chips in London, or what a manhole cover looks like in Japan. As a designer, you’re already attuned to look at those details, but then to see how other people have dealt with that solution is inspirational. I feel like it hacks my brain a bit to see reality in a different way.”
“With travel, I started to get windows into different perspectives, like what ‘normal’ is in another place.”
As a designer, it’s important to realize that the deep impact that comes from stepping away can be more subtle, rather than a lightbulb moment. “It’s less about ‘Oh, Eureka! I had this amazing idea about this next thing’,” Ian offers. “That’s not what you want. You just want it to flow through you to create the space in your mind so when you come back to those things, there’s more room to breathe and see different connections than you saw before.”
Ian and his family moved to Japan in the summer of 2019. “When you think about things we value as an Instagram Design team, and things I value personally around attention to detail and craft, there are probably very few cultures that hold that up as high as Japanese culture,” Ian says. “We’re inundated with so much information that you need to give yourself space to experience the world in an unmediated way. It clears out a lot of the noise and gives me the capacity to be creative, to be a better dad, a better husband, or a better boss.”
Photo Credit: Netflix Abstract Design Team