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Ian Spalter: Find the Grind that is Your Personal Fairytale

Instagram's head of design, Ian Spalter, has numerous management tools in his belt to get the best work out of his team—from Monopoly brainstorm sessions to timeboxing. But, for Spalter, the most important tool is obsession. In an interview with 99U, he remembers learning early that the things you're willing to waste time and energy on might just be the key to ultimate success.

Welcome to Instagram! Step right up and take a selfie! Tucked right inside the front door of Instagram’s new office building on Facebook’s Menlo Park campus is an on-brand, magenta-shaded installation where visitors can snap a photo of their beautiful mugs – make sure to get the Instagram logo in the background! – and post them on Instagram, naturally, for a meta social media moment.

The entire three-story building is a real life interpretation of the app. It has everything from wall-sized picture frames displaying Instagram images from around the world to its own Blue Bottle Coffee outpost to an offering of free candy-colored toothbrushes in the bathroom. (Hey, it’s nice to have options.) If Instagram is a platform for sharing fairy tales, then this physical manifestation of that digital world seems to check many of the boxes for a nice, happy existence.

Over the last two years, Instagram has grown from 400 million users to some 700 million today. It might be the hottest brand on the planet (even if your mom is now on it or your feed is filled with baby pics), a platform that is becoming the world’s greatest collection of images, available to view for free at the tap of a button.

As Instagram has grown its user base, the company has also increased its number of staff designers tenfold, jumping from seven to 70 since Ian Spalter, the new head of design, took over the job in 2015. Spalter arrived from YouTube, and before that Foursquare, with the objective of developing a suite of tools for users so Instagram could continue to evolve from its photo booth roots to a visual hub for all kinds of shared experiences.

Ninety Nine U sat down with Spalter at Instagram’s new office to discuss his strategy behind building out the design team, the importance of a logo when customer-brand interactions are starting to take place beyond a screen, and how he nurtures his own creativity, for a special interaction-design version of our magazine powered by our friends at Adobe XD.

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Ian Spalter photographed in and around Instagram’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

What impact has the user growth over the last two years had on the design team?

I inherited a small team of talented people, so my job was to not screw that up. When you have a really small team, folks can work on lots of things. And as you get bigger, you have to create areas of focus but you still want to enable people to solve different parts of the problem spaces. You have to define those problem spaces fairly broadly. An example would be growth. We have a team that is just focused on growth, but within that you’ve got everything from helping users get in the door, registration, helping users get set up and orientated with what Instagram is, and then if people fall off Instagram, actually helping them come back in. Then we have a team that is focused on giving you the tools for expression: posting to your feed, Stories, or using direct messaging. Then we have a team that’s thinking about connecting you with interests and passions and surfacing that stuff. How you do find new, great stuff on Instagram? These are fairly broad problem spaces that you can build entire teams around to obsess about outside of any one feature, because we want people thinking about the features we haven’t developed yet.

Much has been said about the Instagram logo. How important is a logo in this day and age?

It would depend on what the brand is and what you mean to people. What was interesting about [the new Instagram logo] is that no matter what we launched, we had hundreds of millions of people tapping it every day, making an association between that mark and the experience known as Instagram. And so you have a tremendous responsibility to get it right. On the other side, people are going to use Instagram regardless of what the doorway looks like. The importance of having this one kind of mark or moment will start to fade and the brand experience will be the thing, more so than a particular symbol. I think it will take time for that to really change.

What you’ve seen is a lot of marks getting very simple, and part of that is that they become adaptable to the places where they may show up. It’s not just the bottle with the wrapper on it that is the moment. The logo is a lot more fluid, so I think the fluidity piece is important in figuring out how you create a mark or a system of marks that are fluid. But once you start to get into, say, Voice UI, how important is the logo at that point? Or if you get into things that are three dimensions, how important is a mark?


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You’ve worked for both agencies and in-house. Compare those two experiences.

When you work in an agency, you get a great breadth or range of work and a range of different types of brands, and that’s really educational and valuable. But in the end, I like the marathon ability to invest and go deeper. I feel like the trend right now is moving more things in-house, which overall is a good thing, because I think that means a lot of companies are learning to inject creativity and design into what they do as a company.

More and more companies are incorporating design into their process, and as the future unfolds, creativity is going to matter. Machines will be good at doing repetitive tasks that are based off of recognizing a pattern and then repeating it. But those who have trained themselves to be creative and invent the next thing will have longevity. Software will get very good at optimizing along a certain path, but actually finding a new path takes people still, and probably will for a while. The folks who are able to make intuitive leaps and be creative and generative will probably be better off. That’s true not just for designers. It’s true for every working person.

What’s one thing you do to nurture your own creativity?

That’s mostly at home, being able to tinker with ideas with my kids, whether it’s playing with marble runs or watercolor painting or things like that. I think those are the places where I get to play.


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When you were the head of design at Foursquare, you asked your designers and engineers to draw the person they envision using the product. And then you also did an exercise where you used a Monopoly board to brainstorm the person’s user check-in moment. Why?

The first exercise was more of an empathy-building exercise: a shortcut to imagining in your mind who you want to actually have a great experience and what you want them to feel. That helps people get beyond themselves. Then the Monopoly one was an exercise where we were looking into redesigning the post-check-in screen, with a prompt for doing a team sketching exercise. The way it worked is that the designer wrote a bunch of different common scenarios – checking into a bar that your friend told you about, going to a local coffee shop. And they would shout it out almost like a game of Bingo. Everyone has about ten seconds to sketch out the scenario. What you got from that is people had the scenario in their mind, a person in their mind, and then they had ten seconds to say: “This is what we should see in this moment.”

Why the decision to do it on paper versus sharing this verbally?

Drawing is a commitment – especially if I gave you a Sharpie and I only gave you ten seconds. You’ve got to get to the shorthand of what’s important really fast. When you describe it, you could use all sorts of words, but it’s hard for me to understand what you really mean. Drawing gives us a point of reference to then have a conversation. Also, it’s fun to get people out of their comfort zones – most people are trained not to be comfortable with drawing.

You have a background in cultural studies. How does that influence how you see the world and how you design?

The cultural studies I got into are on the clinical science side, so Freud, Saussure, and Marx made up the school, and that helped me with thinking – coming at problems from different angles and appreciating what that brings. But more importantly is that I went to a school called Hampshire College in Massachusetts – a pretty young college. You could put together your own major; they had been doing that since they started in the ’70s, and that taught me a lot about being a self-starter and going from zero to one. Starting from something amorphous and figuring out a way to make something concrete gave me a good advantage going into more entrepreneurial environments, being comfortable when things aren’t figured out, and enjoying the process of working through that uncertainty to get to something good.


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What advice would you have for somebody who didn’t go to a Stanford about breaking into a Facebook or Instagram?

The most important thing is to find a certain aspect that you can really obsess about and lose time in. For me in college, I discovered that being in a computer lab doing graphics work was something I could spend 12 hours on. That was key. And from there, I was able to find an internship and start to get into the industry. But I think what matters most is figuring out what you feel passion about to grind hard on and begin making work and then leveraging that work and starting to connect with people who are doing that work, knocking on enough doors to hopefully get an internship and start to make your passion your profession.


This interview was originally published in 99U’s special issue for Adobe XD.


Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at 

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