Now that the dust has finally settled around Instagram’s controversial new app icon, it’s time to take a relatively level-headed look at the changes the company made to both their app icon and interface.
Many users were shocked and outraged at the new icon. Instagram themselves describe it as: “inspired by the previous app icon, [it] represents a simpler camera and the rainbow design lives on in gradient form.”
As you can see, it’s a fundamentally different icon from their previous one, and the initial backlash the company faced alone demonstrates how important app icons are to the user experience (no doubt users will be similarly outraged a couple of years down the line when the new icon changes to something else without warning.) Users felt initially uncomfortable as they struggled to get to grips with an icon which had previously remained the same throughout the app’s five year reign over the photo sharing market – but the public response was a lot bigger than that. People were actively vocal about their hatred for the new icon. Why?
Although described as ‘loud’, ‘gross’, and ‘bold’, it’s not a bad icon, aesthetically speaking. As the company’s head of design, Ian Spalter explains, the design team actually went through quite a rigorous and novel process for designing the new icon. Arguing that the app had evolved beyond a simple photo sharing app towards a diverse multimedia community, he recounts the team’s efforts to reflect this change in character visually through a new interface and app icon.“The original icon’s skeuomorphic style had the benefit of making it feel tangible despite being pixels, and our initial efforts involved trying to modernise it as it was,” Ian explains. The team “arrived at a brighter, flatter option”, but were unhappy with the result – “these early ‘flattening’ explorations lacked the visual weight of the original”, so they went back to the drawing board, turning their focus to “what it was people loved about the original.”
The team asked people at the company to draw the original icon from memory in 5 seconds or less in order to reduce it to its most basic and powerful elements. “Almost all of them drew the rainbow, the lens, and the viewfinder,” he recounts. What followed were literally hundreds of icon designs focused on bringing these memorable visual features into focus. Eventually, however, the team landed on “a glyph that still suggests a camera, but also sets the groundwork for years to come.”
What we’re left with is a bright, colourful app icon using a rainbow gradient as its most easily noticeable feature. This builds recognisability on a home screen without being ostentatious, thanks to the minimalist white camera design. The app icon itself contrasts with the app’s interface changes, which is now primarily monochrome rather than using orange and blue like the previous design. Ian explains the motivation was to bring user’s colourful content to the fore and enabling users to inject colour into the interface.
So what can we learn from this? Well, firstly, users hate change – but they’ll get over it. Sometimes it pays to rock the boat, and taking risks is what keeps design innovative. What we can really take away from the new app icon design is perhaps a new style of icons – a style that is loud, bright, and colourful, while still remaining minimalist.
The team’s drafting process goes against conventional wisdom (many of us prefer to produce one solution, rather than hundreds), but at the same time, it represents a successful attempt to get at the essence of what makes an icon good. The team distilled the icon to its most socially recognisable features, making it one of the most noticeable and usable icons on any user’s home screen.
The app interface changes are also novel, perhaps pointing at a new sort of minimalist design style which takes a laissez-faire visual approach: it is users, not designers, who are now encouraged to make an interface dynamic, unique, and colourful – it is responsive visual interface design. Could 2016 be the year this responsive style of design moves from the web to dominate the app interface mainstream? Only time will tell.