Instagram's design fail of the year

May 18th 2016, 20:04 | Written by Konstantin Koll

It has been a very interesting week for UI design afficinados, as Instagram has changed their app icon to what could very well be the most epic design fail of the year. Here's an in-depth article on what went wrong, with some vital lessons to learn.

As you might know, I'm a very strong opponent of Flat Design, and for some good reasons. In case you'd like to read more, here's a list of previous blog posts I've written on UI and brand design:

New Instagram logo

A week ago, many of you might have woken up and stared at your smartphones in disbelief: Instagram had updated the logo and UI of their app! The beloved retro camera icon got replaced by a new, more colorful and flat icon:

It's pretty easy to imagine the sheer size of the shitstorm Instagram had to endure during the past days: people are ranting all over Twitter, Reddit and other media channels, the app has fallen to a measly 2½ star rating in Apple's App Store, and many experts are calling the new logo generic, faceless and the most epic design fail of 2016. I'll spare you the numerous tweets and GIFs that have popped up all over and ridicule the new logo—instead, let's add some depth to the discussion.

Dissecting “Creating a new look” by Ian Spalter

Ian Spalter is Instagram's Head of Design, and he has published this article on the new Instagram design. Some things jump into my eye as so obviously wrong:

“When Instagram was founded, it was a place to easily edit and share photos. Five years later, things have evolved.” So what exactly is Instagram in your view? An app to order delivery food? Of course Instagram is still a community to enjoy and share photographs and videos!

“Whether it's a #myinstagramlogo art piece or an Instagram cake, we feel lucky to have an icon that people love and want to make their own. Between the round shape with grippy textures, teddy-bear brown, candied lens, and rainbow, there’s a lot to love.” Exactly, there are companies who would kill to have a logo that people use for their birthday cakes! The brown retro camera, said to be created in a mere 45 minutes, is a classic that people love all over. They feel emotionally attached to it.

“If you abstract too much, the glyph doesn't feel tied to the history and soul of Instagram.” Taking photographs and applying retro filters to turn them into authentic mementos is the soul of Instagram. The old icon was reflective of just that.

The fierce resistance that has met new designs lately, including Instagram, is usually dismissed as a general resistance against any change in general. But this is utterly wrong, people do embrace change when it is perceived as improvement. The point is, designers are as much out of touch with their customers as politicians are with voters. And instead of admitting this, both fall into patterns of denial.

Flat Design is wrong

I strongly believe that realistic UIs, such as iOS 6, are the way to design icons and UIs. Please watch this video, if you haven't already—Neven Mrgan compares skeumorphism to classic cars:

People love details, textures, shadows and reflections because they make things look like a lot of work has been put into them. Using these elements gives users delight, just like all the chrome on a classic car from the 1950s and 1960s. They are also vital elements to structure things, because they make use of our inherent understanding of 3D structures—you easily recognize a beautifully rendered 3D button as something to press, whereas you have to guess what a flat rectangle does. With flat design, all this is gone—they have arrived at the 1970s boxes on wheels. If Instagram had the new icon from the beginning, people would have mistaken it for any other cheap garbage app in the App Store.

So to conclude, the new icon eradicates the soul of Instagram, does not build on what made the app great, all the retro charm is gone, and Instagram does not stand out any more. Lastly, as Melanie Curtin points out, the rebrand is like 22-year-olds getting “preventative Botox”: completely unnecessary.

I hope the Instagram design fail will lead to a broad discussion on Skeumorphism vs Flat Design! Luckily, the trend is already beginning to reverse, as several articles (1 2 3) are pointing out. It's about time to end the Flat Design travesty!

Flat Design lets products fail

You might dismiss this discussion as just a matter of taste. But in reality, it has much more impact: UI design contributes to a software's success, or can lead to its downfall. Here are just a few examples:

  • We all know that Windows 10 is about to fail, badly. While most analysts attribute this to the post PC market, I believe much of it has to do with UI design: who the hell wants to trade the beautiful Aero Glas windows with a flat, white user interface? Heck, even Ubuntu Linux and its Unity desktop look better than Windows 10! Add severe privacy concerns, forced updates and almost forced cloud integration to the mix, and you end up with a certain fail.
  • Windows Phone was the first mobile OS to introduce a flat design with colored tiles. Who owns a Windows smartphone? Right, it has about 1% market share. Incidentially, Microsoft has just sold part of its phone business today.
  • Do you know the iOS app Hipstamatic? It features a beautiful retro camera to take pictures with different lens, film and flash effects—all of them with a nice background story. Up until version 280, Hipstamatic had a beaufitul skeuomorphic design. Version 300 went all flat, alienating the users. The massive backslash and drop in usage forced the company to at least introduce a “classic mode” for its app.

Update policies

With Instagram, things get even worse. Many people had their iPhones set to automatically update all apps, so the new design caught them by surprise. There is no way to downgrade apps to earlier versions, at least not without a jailbreak. To keep the classic car metaphor, it's like getting your beautiful '64 Pontiac exchanged for a Toyota overnight, without any way to get back what you wanted in the first place. It's totally understandable that people are taking their torches and spades to revolt against Instagram. As Melanie Curtin puts it, people want to feel included in, not dictated to.

Lessons learnt

As you might know, we're currently redesigning Flightmap. But fear not, we're actually doing it right! First of all, we're not forcing you to update, and there are no automatic updates. Flightmap will notify you that a new version is available—unless searching for updates has been turned off. You'll always have to install an update yourself. Yes, that is a bit cumbersome, but we feel that's a small price to pay to always be in charge of your computer.

Second, we are not creating another Flat Design abonimation, but a beautiful skeuomorphic UI that will give users delight. I won't go into any details here—if you're interested in the thought process behind our user interface, please click here. Below are a few early screenshots. Please note that these screenshots are preliminary, and details may change until the release this summer.

Third, as always, we're inviting your comments and feedback.

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