Ian Spalter: Insights From Instagram’s Head of Design

This interview originally appeared on techcrunch.com, and was conducted by Jared Erondu and Bobby Ghoshal, the hosts of High Resolution. This is an abridged version of the original interview.

Ian Spalter, the current Head of Design at Instagram, has been living and breathing design for years, making his way around both the client-side and agency world and contributing to creative solutions for some of the most significant design problems to date. A former design leader for YouTube, Foursquare, and Nike+ Fuelband and Running, Spalter has a wealth of experience across a variety of industries.

Credit: Christophe Wu

This diverse experience has given Spalter unparalleled insight into the key differences between the two environments, including the pros and cons of working on each side. Here, Spalter illuminates some of those differences for young designers looking to start their careers or change directions. He also describes some of the behavior-centric work he’s done for Instagram and Nike+ Fuelband, and paints a picture of his beliefs regarding the ideal designer skillset.

What’s one thing about design that’s clear to you, but that you don’t think is as clear to other people?

To me, the way you structure your company is equal to or more important than any sort of process or talent when it comes to the quality of output. So, where does design sit within your organization? Is it something that’s equal to technology, engineering, and product, or is it something that sits under those functions? How do you incentivize and reward people? Do you reward based off of the amount of work or how quickly it’s done, or do you actually reward people based on a [measurement of] the quality of what gets out there?

There are all of these other things that you don’t usually learn in design school – everything that happens before what we consider to be a part of the normal design process – that I think have a huge impact on the quality of work that comes out.

How is the design team structured and organized at Instagram?

It’s kind of a generalist pool of designers. They spend a lot of their time working either in an environment like Sketch, doing a layout piece, or actually working in a prototype environment, like Origami Studio. Each designer is usually dedicated to a particular pillar or product area, be it creating content for Instagram, like Stories, or working on our business platform side. There is a whole suite of tools that we offer for businesses, and we have designers focused on them. Our research is similar as well; it focuses on a particular pillar so that we have good, healthy collaboration between product engineering, design, research, content strategies, and other pieces.

How did your team come to the decision to create the Stories function?

We always start with problems. The problem we were trying to solve with this was the overall quality bar. We found that people felt pressure to only ever post the best photo on Instagram, so we wanted to loosen that up and to make users feel like they could share whatever they want, as often they would want. That was what we were trying to crack. We actually did not start with the stories format or anything. We looked at it from a lot of different angles, but we really just focused on the question, “How do we allow you to feel comfortable with sharing whatever you want to share, whenever you want to share it?”

We eventually landed on the format because it did solve a lot of those problems, but that need was just the starting point. You can’t graft a new organ to this surface and ecosystem and just expect it to work. That almost always fails. You have to really get into the details of how you make that integration happen. We had a tremendous amount of work to do to get those details right in order for the feature to be successful, and the goal was for it to feel like something that had always belonged there. And if you weren’t ready to use it, you didn’t have to.

Aside from the Stories feature, a lot of change has happened with Instagram lately. There has been a lot innovation in a very short period of time. What was the force behind all of this change?

There were a couple things. I think the company got to a place of maturity where we could do more than one thing at once, and there was a recognition that we could do more and that we needed to evolve. Making the commitment to change something was fundamental. Redesigning the app icon gave us the confidence to say, “Okay, well what else can we push on?”

That is the number one rule: You have to continue to evolve. I think what allowed us to do it well was that we picked the right problems to focus on and we defined them really well. From a planning standpoint, we made sure that we were not taking on too much at once. Sometimes, when you tie too many things together, you cannot really execute on anything well. Once we launched Stories, there was a lot that could follow behind it, and we had the momentum to keep it going.

Before you joined Instagram, you had a chance at R/GA to work on what may be the first truly consumerized, commercialized wearable, the Nike+ FuelBand. How did you approach that project?

Before we had done FuelBand, Nike+ had already been there. When I came in, we had done a redesign of the web property, and then we actually took Nike+ Running and made it a complete experience using a GPS chip in phones. The whole Nike+ Running experience was a good precursor because we learned about what it means when you can track your data and have social experiences with that. How does it change your behavior? What’s important about that?

So it was kind of a good learning ground to take to the FuelBand world, which is a lot more about what we call “the everyday athlete.” There is a lot of learning there, thinking about how this product fits into someone’s day and what it takes to motivate people. Having a goal sounds obvious now, but having a goal that you’re looking at everyday matters a lot.

A lot of R/GA’s contributions were in the UI of the mobile app, but they also considered that longitudinal experience. One of the principles that we had, which became my sort of a mantra, was “phone, keys, wallet, FuelBand.” This device is another thing you have to carry with you, so how do we make sure that you want to? We had to think about what it would take for this to be a desirable thing, because at that point, it was kind of like a scarlet letter to wear a pedometer. It was something your doctor might make you wear or a reminder that you were overweight as opposed to something that you actually wanted to wear.

What are some of the opportunity costs to starting out your career in an agency versus starting client-side or with a startup?

We have to take into account the context of the time. When I started, there weren’t a lot of design opportunities within software. Because design practice within software organizations is a bit more mature now, you can actually have a full career working within that industry – whether it’s in the startup world or in larger technical companies.

I think the opportunity cost of starting on the agency side is that it is different to be in an environment where the ideas matter more than their execution, delivery, and impact. The types of people that you collaborate with are different, and how you measure whether something is a good piece of work is very different between the worlds. A good piece of work in the agency world might be something the client really liked or something that sold through work and attracted new business, whereas a good piece of work at Instagram might be something that’s smaller but has a great material impact on the business.

As the landscape and responsibilities with design continue to evolve, what are some changes that you think will need to happen in the agency world?

I think agencies are getting smaller and more nimble. Having real technical prowess is a baseline for all agencies at this time. One good thing is that being able to tell great stories is becoming more important. It’s just a different format. Agencies are becoming more agile and having less overhead, and every agency, if they have a small specialty, is trying to branch into something else.

But there’s always going to be a role for people who are great storytellers and great communicators, as well as for people who are specialists in certain domains of graphic art, communications, etc. In-house teams may not be able to support those roles completely. I think there will be room for smaller boutique shops that are just killers in a certain area, but I think larger agencies will struggle a little bit.

What do you mean when you say “storytelling”? What is storytelling to you when it comes to design?

To me, every story has an arc. There’s some setup, a crisis, and some sort of resolution. Storytelling – at least, when you’re presenting a design – is how you’re framing up the work and configuring your audience to evaluate what you’re about to show them. It’s kind of the moment of crisis when you actually show the work. If you skip the storytelling aspect and just show the work, your client won’t know how to evaluate it.

You need to make that audience want to come along on that journey. From there, they’ll be better set up to evaluate the work in the way you want them to. The resolution, of course, is that you get the feedback or decision you were looking for.

What qualities do you look for in a strong designer?

At Instagram, we look for product sense. Product thinking means that before you even get down to pixels, you really break down the given problem, and then consider how you will go about solving that from a product lens. That’s key to having a larger impact; it’s key to going from zero to one on something and to having the conversations you need to have with fairly bright product managers and engineers.

I think having a great sense of craft and really caring about the details is important, but I think you need to have a good balance between solving a problem and solving it extremely well. You should have the ability to adapt to a prototyping culture.

Self-awareness is also a big one, which kind of goes back to culture. You should know where you are, where you’re going, where you’re weak, and what you’re trying to build.

When you are the only designer in a company, how do you convince the business of the value of design?

You leave.

That is a great answer.

In lieu of that – because you might need a job – I think that you should be well versed in the business problems. If you are the only designer, you are not just a designer – you’re you. Don’t just come back to, “I just do the layout, I just copy in images, or I just design the UI,” but really get in there and meet with the people who are thinking about the business. That should allow you to find new opportunities to add value or insert design into places where folks may not expect it to add value.

Can you tell us anything about what Instagram will be taking on next?

We are very interested in helping people express themselves. We feel like what’s most important is that the connection gets made between people. If I share something with you, it shouldn’t have an equality bar, but it should create a moment between us; there is some sort of understanding with us, and our relationships are actually stronger as a result. That’s what we are optimizing for. We want to give users a palate to work with to express what they’re feeling at any given moment. We’re even interested in products that are already out there, like Live, that give you that kind of real-time kind of connection. We are excited about that world.

the author

Taylor Dennis

Taylor Dennis is a writer and editor based out of Toronto, ON. She is currently a senior editor at Idea Couture.

You can read more of her personal and professional work at taylordenniswrites.com.