Instagram's Abomination is a three-part series on interface design aesthetics at Instagram. If you haven't already, read Part I before continuing.
Since Instagram launched their rebrand, there has been a predictable pattern of people dismissing all discussion of their icon as navel gazing decadence.
Instagram changed their logo!!!! THIS MATTERS!!!! IT MATTERS A LOT AND ITS HORRIBLE!!! -Real life people being serious— Philip DeFranco (@PhillyD) May 11, 2016
This type of ignorance is unfortunate when it comes from a layman. But when designers engage in this sort of anti-aestheticism, claiming it drags down the design community, it is completely self-defeating. Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering exposes where this position emerges from:
If you want your stakeholders to stop thinking design is only about aesthetics, stop reacting to the aesthetics of every new design idea.
Whether the news cycle is zero sum is a discussion for another day. But despite designers wishing to suppress criticism and downplay the significance of the icon, the company and its users clearly think otherwise. For my part, I intend to continue to take aesthetics seriously.
It is a lesser known fact that CEO Kevin Systrom illustrated the first icon for Instagram, directly referencing and cropping the Polaroid OneStep SX-70. Systrom recounted how the cropped icon came to be,
The initial icon was a rendering of an actual camera…At that point, you have to realize, we had 80 users and I really just liked the idea of having a retro camera stand for Instagram.
Two weeks after launching the app, Systrom was invited for a feature in the App Store. Things got pushed to the last minute, and Systrom realized he needed an icon that would go beyond the existing Polaroid branding.
While looking through the work of friend and beta tester Cole Rise, Systrom saw a Bell & Howell camera icon Rise had drawn for a personal project. He quickly called up Rise and asked if it would be possible to come up with an icon design for Instagram–but he would only have one hour.
Jacked up on "coffee and panic," Rise set about recycling elements from his Bell & Howell icon into the Instagram 1.0.3 icon. After 45 minutes, he delivered, and just in the nick of time.
Rise later consulted with Instagram and the company went on to name the "Rise" filter after him. But more importantly, his icon and its rainbow stripes would capture the imagination of millions in the years to come, even after many revisions and improvements.
It might not have been the best-executed icon ever drawn, but it was iconic and beloved by many. Take ADR Studio's concept Polaroid Socialcam, which sought to bring the Instagram camera to life.
Every companion or clone camera app that used Instagram's stripe motif–and there were many–served to reinforce its prestige. It only made sense that the modernist Instagram team would seek to dilute that brand value to the point of nonrecognition.
Van Damme's Glyph
Beyond the iconic Instagram app icon, one overlooked piece of branding was the 2012 glyph icon by Tim van Damme. In its own way, it was just as iconic as the dimensional Rise icon, given that it was plastered on nearly every site's social media links section, as well as the tab bar in the app.
Even if Instagram were completely determined to rid itself of all depth, this glyph would have been a great middle ground to maintain their brand legacy while satisfying the modernist requirement for reduction.
Skeuomorphism defined Instagram
Earlier in this series I spoke to a theory that was widely held in the design community. The theory held that Instagram maintained their dimensional icon due to an adherence to a 'principled approach,' which predictably turned out to be false. Yet I never elaborated on what exactly that approach might have been.
When the new icon arrived, there was an undercurrent of discussion about the term 'skeuomorphism' and its apparent newfound absence from the app. Articles claimed Instagram was "saying goodbye" to skeuomorphism. Consider The Atlantic's reporting on the original skeuomorphic icon,
Skeuomorphism is impressed all over its original mark. The pixel-tuned detail, the rainbow flourish, the leather…The new icon, meanwhile, is everything an icon is supposed to be in 2016: flat, minimalist.
The truth is, the Instagram app was and still remains skeuomorphic. It may well be flat and minimal now, but it continues to make reference to the formal and instrumental elements of existing objects, whether they be tools like cameras or artifacts like Polaroid film.
These changes from dimensional to flat interfaces had long been set in stone, ever since 2013 when all app design was flattened according to modernist tenets. Instagram's icon was just a little slow on the uptake.
So what then have we lost in adopting this ideology of flatness? We've lost yet another synergy between the form and content of interfaces. Modernism has instead required that the interface object be abstracted from its instant camera referent, and all other referents. If you ever thought modernist designers believed form follows function, you were wrong.
The hypocrisy of our times is that overt skeuomorphic representation has been arbitrarily confined to content–to the photos we take and the filters we apply to them.
It happened that the artificial filter presets weren't dynamic–a filter looked the same no matter which picture you applied it to. But for users, this was beside the point–there was no arbitrary 'authentic' state to strive towards–they simply wanted to achieve an aesthetic.
If the modern minimalists were consistent, they would advocate Instagram removing the filter functionality entirely, which I should note would not completely remove skeuomorphic reference.
Of course they will not do this, because their ideology is contradictory to its core–their aim is simply to remove artistry in interface design. For what else is Instagram but a final case study in the joys of skeuomorphism, made sterile?
To understand why the 'principled approach' theory seemed justified, one has to know what the previous dimensional design stood for in the mental models of users.
Instagram spoke to its intention and purpose at every stage, starting with its icon. And though many minimalists claimed the icon was kitschy due to its overt skeuomorphism, this criticism was misplaced. Its kitsch necessarily came from its referent, the Polaroid camera.
Instagram took the ritual of instant photography, and introduced it to the digital format with the enduring appeal of overt skeuomorphs. Previously with its icon and UI designs, and today only in the photo filters, the software played to a wabi sabi desire to bring meaning to the impermanence of everyday life. In the end, Instagram's "community-driven" decisions make clear it was unaware of the value it offered.