Instagram Ends the Nostalgia Era
The app’s new icon shows what has changed about mobile technology.
Millions of iPhone and Android users might get a fright this week, as they glance down at their home screen to ogle their friends’s photos. Where before they had tapped on a friendly and venerable cartoon of a camera, now they’ll behold a smear of fuchsia and creamsicle and the barest geometric hint at a lens.
Instagram, the tenth-most popular app in the United States, has changed its icon.
People rarely respond well to dramatic design changes, and they did not seem to take well to Instagram’s. “The Great Instagram Logo Freakout of 2016,” huffed The New York Times. “A travesty,” blared AdWeek. Before the release, Fast Company asked Ian Spalter, the app’s design director, about what he would do if the launch went poorly. “Maybe I’ll take a vacation,” he said. “In a bunker.”
He need not go underground yet. I cannot remember a single rebranding that has ever been well received on its first day. (Which is a little odd—lots of people take interest in design as amateurs, and new icons and major interface changes are the closest thing design has to an album or movie release.) It’s a fun and rote exercise, actually, the logo-hype cycle. If you’re a journalist, you can announce the new logo, cite all the angry tweets, and allude to how logos have to stand the test of time and how that time is longer than a few hours on Twitter, et cetera.
By the time people have drawn more considered opinions of the new design, folks beyond the professional design community have maybe forgotten that it ever happened. As Armin Vit says at Brand New, 200 million people tapping on your logo every day is “the kind of brand engagement that Coca-Cola or Nike would kill for.”
“It will only be a matter of time— three months, probably—before this is known, recognized, and considered as the Instagram app icon,” he adds.
Also, in defense of the cycle, some of the angry tweets are actually pretty funny.
But I digress. I don’t know if I’ll ever love this new Instagram icon—I didn’t ever adore the old one, honestly—but I still think it’s instructive insofar as it hints at key ways that mass-appeal consumer technology has changed through the smartphone era.
The new logo draws inspiration from current iconographic fashion trends as clearly as the old one did. Instagram debuted in 2010, and turn-of-the-decade skeuomorphism is impressed all over its original mark. The pixel-tuned detail, the rainbow flourish, the leather that’s as luxurious and approachable as the early iPhone itself: It exudes all the delighted optimism of early-2010s tech.
The new icon, meanwhile, is everything an icon is supposed to be in 2016: flat, minimalist, fluorescent, and confident. In probably the most important branding move of the whole redesign, Instagram brought its new gradient to its family of associated apps: Hyperlapse, Boomerang, and Layout. They look much more Instagram-adjacent now than the old ones did.
But there’s a broader change afoot than adherence to whatever the trend of the moment is. More than any other previous UI shift, the new icons divorce Instagram from its backward-looking past.
When it debuted, Instagram pitched itself as comfortable nostalgia. Into the anxious and frenetic early 2010s it rolled—that cheerful logo and the names of its filters recalling the Polaroid SX-70 and the other classic 1960s point-and-shoots. (The importance of the midcentury photography industry to the modern-day mobile business is hard to understate: One Apple designer or another is always praising the Leica.) It appealed not because it tried to guess at the future, but because it alluded to the warmth, neighborliness, and material permanence of an impossible past. Also, the filters made once-crappy smartphone photos look passable.
Now, Instagram doesn’t need to appeal to any of that. It’s just… Instagram. In my estimation, it’s the only social network that most people still genuinely like to use. (And they don’t need to use filters anymore.) The app’s new interface, which was also redesigned, has dropped nearly every reference to its design antecedents. The interface is black and white, and the icons for each feature are the thin and simplified manifestations of their underlying metaphor. The “discover” feature tab, for instance, is barely a magnifying glass—it’s a circle with a little line coming out of it.
So it is with the app’s icon itself. Some have wondered why Instagram didn’t retain more of the original “camera” logo in its minimalist update:
But the camera to which this new icon is alluding—it’s barely even a camera. The designer Craig Mod has written about the “networked lens,” his name for an image sensor hooked up to the Internet and a type of object that he believes will succeed and augment cameras. I’ve written about how, until there is a major new change in function or form, new iPhones and Androids will only remain compelling for their updated photographic specs.
The new Instagram logo is two circles in a square, one of the most basic iconographic representations of a camera-like object that I can fathom. Two circles and a square represent a lens, a light source, and a web connection—except even the web connection is implicit. Once, Instagram attracted users by constantly citing precedent, by reminding users of their predecessors, by dunking every feature in a warm bowl of chunky nostalgia. Now, Instagram’s just some lines on a screen. You know what to do with it.