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Instagram's Abomination is a three-part series on interface design aesthetics at Instagram.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you are by now aware that Instagram has updated their app icon. Since the brand launch last Wednesday, there has been an explosion of negativity toward the redesign. There was a buffet of memes about the rebrand, though you've probably seen enough of them by now. Nearly every designer (and even some non-designers) had a redesign to share, and that's a great thing.
But this has not just been your run of the mill response–it has exceeded the reactions to some of the biggest redesigns in recent times.
The negative backlash might seem odd, given that Instagram's new icon differs little aesthetically from the rest of the icons on our smartphone home screens, most of which were updated back after June 2013 along with the introduction of Apple's iOS 7.
Clearly, the reaction could not be explained away as but 'the shock of the new,' as Armin Vit posited when he claimed "About 75% of the negative reaction will be simply to the fact that it has changed."
I cannot emphasize this point enough–Instagram's designers most assuredly felt they had picked a relatively safe choice.
As such, I was not surprised to receive a deluge of reader requests, eager to get a comprehensive analysis of what was going on behind not just the redesign, but also the reaction.
oh god Eli Schiff is gonna be so upset— gold (@jongold) May 11, 2016
sure thing eli pic.twitter.com/BL1awrU7M3— Scott ☠ (@scott_riley) May 13, 2016
A Long Time Coming
Many criticized me claiming my comparison was dishonest & Instagram wasn't changing their icon. They can wait and see pic.twitter.com/tcFYanPjGh— Eli Schiff (@eli_schiff) June 23, 2015
In response to my predictions in mid-2015 that Instagram would undoubtedly change their icon, some have recently claimed that I "called it," joking that I was like "Nostradamus." As far as I'm concerned, the change was inevitable.
A Principled Approach?
To most, including ardent minimalists, the 2016 icon redesign came as a shock. This view is somewhat understandable, given that the flagship Instagram app icon had not seen a major update in almost five years. Up until a week ago, it seemed the post-iOS 7 window of opportunity had passed for Instagram to change their icon.
The most common theory as to why Instagram had retained their dimensional icon was that they were holding to a principled approach. The argument went that they stuck with their icon out of respect for not just the immense brand recognition it had accrued, but also for the aesthetic tradition of dimensionality it emerged from. This was plausible to many, including those who strongly disagree with those alleged principles. After all, Instagram was the only remaining tech unicorn to not update their icon.
On the other hand, there was significant resentment among modernist designers and journalists who felt that Instagram had not sufficiently prostrated itself to the cathedral of modernism. Since 2013, designers and journalists proceeded to shame Instagram for not keeping up with trends. As the whig historians at WIRED put it, "Why the thorough makeover? Because it was time."
This sense of urgency was also strong among designers. Consider the case made by Emanuel Sá, the designer behind UI design tool Sketch, "Instagram new icon is awful but at this point I'll take anything." Sá's is not a unique position. For contemporary designers, having a hideous brand is today more permissible than retaining brand aesthetics that were the height of design technique not three years ago.
At the time, designer Jad Limcaco happened upon a hidden icon for Instagram. Minimalists were overjoyed with the icon, but their hopes would soon be dashed as it turned out the icon was simply for an internal beta.
Despite these numerous occurrences, many assumed it was all inconsequential. No matter how the app looked, the icon was still dimensional. But the truth is, the assumption that Instagram had some sort of principled approach to UI aesthetics couldn't have been further from the truth.
This should have been expected. Users be damned, an aesthetic paradigm shift had occurred, and for the overwhelming majority of designers bent on conformity, there simply was no going back.
Constraints on Autonomy
In the aftermath of the launch, legions came to the quick apologetic aid of Instagram designers. Designer Bryn Jackson implored observers to "Have some fucking empathy. Everyone is trying hard." Similarly, Harold Emsheimer recommended that we, "Try to remember there are people behind every design. People that worked long and hard with constraints you’ll never know about." In this case, I will explore some of those constraints.
If we reason according to parsimony, the most plausible explanation for the delay in rebranding was Instagram's 2012 acquisition by Facebook, which provided just the right amount of additional bureaucracy to slow Instagram's intended modernist redesign efforts.
The premise that red tape delayed the redesign seems to be born out in interviews about the icon process, which reveal that "The team labored over it for nine months."
The team considered 300 icons in all–that's one hundred more than Uber did in their meandering logo design process. According to Ian Spalter, Instagram's Head of Design, the rejected icon drafts shown in Instagram's launch materials were only a "small sample." One wonders, why were hundreds of options even necessary?
After months of design work, they spent months more doing qualitative research into whether people could recognize the icon as Instagram, and to see if it evoked the upbeat chumminess of the old icon—a slow, painstaking process meant to root the entire design in a logic that the entire company could grok.
More from Fast.Co,
It's telling that the video announcing the new icon is mostly devoted to going through all the discarded icon concepts—a subtle cue to anyone that watches, which says, "Hey, we did a ton of work and this didn't happen by accident!"
Funny how if someone perceives that a design didn't take much work, it's not good. How do I make something look like it took A LOT of work? Meanwhile, we praise so many industry professionals (athletes, singers, actors, models, dancers) when their work appears effortless.
It turns out Instagram had trapped itself in the case study paradox. They intended to use the redesign case study as an opportunity to show how much work they put into the process, but in the end, the effort in the process was totally incongruent with the impact of the resulting icon–thereby making the icon itself appear that much less impressive.
Ellison continued discussing the critical response,
reminder: a lot of people don't care about making things better. They care about showing how clever they are. Approaching things meaningfully and critically is about genuinely wanting things to be better.
Here, Ellison is unintentionally on to something. Instagram's appeal to cleverness in over the top video introduction was indeed used as misdirection with regard to the icon. Instead of the nine-month process being seen as evidence of the designers' disorganization and lack of agency, it was transmuted into a virtuous example of prolific creativity.
Many more came to Instagram's defense. Square's Design Director, Jonathan Paull, made the following argument: "Can you just not? The Instagram update has been out for a hot sec and had a year of design work put into it. Your shit session is invalid." Funny then that Square would post this later that day:
v excited about our upcoming rebrand pic.twitter.com/jprMWTp4CW— Cash (@SquareCash) May 11, 2016
Paull's colleague at Square, Robert Anderson, had this to say: "Logos are the easiest thing to have an opinion on." Perhaps he is right, we really shouldn't trust our lying eyes.
In a piece that expertly walked the line of Poe's Law, but revealed itself to be absurdly genuine, designer Algert Sula shouted, "The new Instagram icon is genius! And it doesn’t deserve scrutiny." Sula is 100% correct, no logo deserves scrutiny.
Craig Hockenberry of the Iconfactory similarly claimed that those who criticized the icon had a "Total disregard for the process."
Hockenberry's was a timely remark, given that Instagram's Spalter was quite effusive about his feelings on the subjects of micromanagement as it relates to process:
A lot of the process was figuring what to keep and let go…The company had to see that it wasn’t designers working in a corner on whatever they liked.
As is the tradition, "All those [icon] explorations were actually up on the walls all over their office" for all to see and give their two cents–pure design by committee.
Indeed, as many designers themselves will tell you, the worst possible work environment is one in which visual designers are permitted actual autonomy over their domain. One should be surprised the process was stopped at such a low number of icons as 300!