Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-down 2 arrow-right arrow-right 2 Line Created with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter

Ian Spalter: Why Designers Should Work Like Comedians

About this talk

Big data has never been bigger, but Instagram’s Ian Spalter warns that while data “can inspire” it “will not save you”. Spalter has found unlikely inspiration from the process of professional comedians: the ability to take raw data and contextualize, iterate, and most importantly, understand the difference between “good laughs” and “bad laughs”.

Ian Spalter, Head of Design, Instagram

Ian Spalter is Head of Design at Instagram, where he leads the team responsible for all things design ranging from cross-platform app experiences to brand & identity. Spalter was previously a Senior UX Manager at YouTube, and prior to that, Director of UX and Design at Foursquare. He also spent four years at R/GA where he oversaw design development projects such as the Nike+ Fuelband and Nike Running, Basketball, and Training products.

Spalter was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York and graduated from Hampshire College.

Full Transcript


Good morning everybody. My name’s Ian. I’m the director of design at Instagram. But fun fact about me: Instagram is actually my side gig. My main job is to raise four little children with my wife out in California. [APPLAUSE] And I’m actually from New York. I’m from New Rochelle, New York, which is just above the City which is also the hometown of the rap group Brand Nubian. Don’t know if anyone is a Brand Nubian fan. I’m aging myself, I know, but [APPLAUSE] Thank you, my people. I appreciate it. [LAUGHTER]

All right, so this morning has been about how to fix design. And I have a pretty good range of experiences actually. So, I started about nine years ago working on Nike at R/GA, which is based in New York City and got to work on a range of experiences around digital sport tracking. So the first run tracking stuff, to FuelBand, and then left R/GA to go to Foursquare to lead the design team there, then took my whole family out to California to work at YouTube, and over the past two years been building the team at Instagram.

So, when I think about how to fix design, my mind goes to this relationship between design and data; this constant conversation that’s happening. Now, this is not a new topic. It’s been kind of a hot button thing for the past few years, but it’s one that I think is only going to become more relevant over time. Particularly as businesses become very data driven in their decision making. So, when I reflect on experiences like working for a brand like Nike which is very design driven.; they’ve got a CEO who is a designer; they’re known for designing great products, or YouTube which is a lot more data driven, but is on track to eclipse TV viewing when it comes to video watch time. Both of these companies are very successful, but you know, I think they’re things you can learn from both, and try to create a hybrid model, which is sort of what I try to do in my work.

So usually when we talk about design and data, you get this dichotomy, which kind of plays out something like this: design is considered to be subjective, whereas data objective, design is about intuition, whereas data is about facts, design can be about art or more associated with art, whereas data associated with science, design is about feelings, data is about statistics, design is about puppies and all that’s good in the world, and data is about politicians. [LAUGHTER] So, I’m playing into some stereotypes here, but there are real tensions that do play themselves out on a daily basis, certainly in my world. But I think there’s real magic to be found in connecting intuition with statistics, or with art and science.

And no matter what you’re designing, whether you’re designing new theme park experiences, or maybe working on an autonomous car experience, or thinking about how to respond to market trends in fashion and get new product out to stores quickly, or you’re in architecture—at this point, data is part of the conversation, so I think it’s really important for designers to think how they can kind of refine their tool box in this new world. So, when I think about more of the data driven environments that I’ve worked in, a couple of thoughts come to mind. The first: data lies. And by this I don’t mean that people use data to lie, that does happen, but more frequently what happens (in my world at least) you might launch a new feature, and you see a graph move right? Now half the time it’s because there’s some logging error, but there’s also some times when you’ve actually changed behavior. But when you look a little bit deeper you see that you maybe only changed behavior for one particular audience and you might have had an adverse effect on another. Point is that it takes a lot of time and rigor to unpack and understand what the data is really telling you. And even once you do that, you may not really know why it happened and you certainly don’t know how you’ve made people feel, with the changes you’ve made.

On the flip side, data does keep you honest. When you’re designing for 700 million people, like we do at Instagram, you’ve got to have some really healthy feedback mechanisms to help you understand if you’re really on track, if you’re really trying to make the experience better. And then the best case is: data can inspire. It can help you unearth new opportunities, new problems to be solved, or it can actually really help you find the right constraints to be creative within. But in the end, data’s not going to save you. You can’t A/B test your way to a product vision. You’re going to have to take some creative leaps, which may have more to do with intuition than with something more scientific.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I like to take inspiration from industries that have nothing to do with mine. You know, different kind of creative disciplines that I can learn from that are pretty disconnected from what I do every day. So, the past couple years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of comedy. So, about three years ago, I started listening to the WTF podcast. Does anyone listen to the WTF podcast? Show of hands. [APPLAUSE] Really good. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It’s gotten really big; he interviewed Obama recently, or not so recently. About three years ago, when it started, I started listening to Marc Maron who—he’s been a comic for a long time—he has lots of friends who are comedians, so he was able to bring them into his garage and have these really personal, in-depth conversations with comedians and talk about their evolution—both from a craft perspective: how they’ve evolved their comedic voice, all the way up to how their career has evolved over time. And so, it’s really insightful, enjoyable interviews, but what I started to find, is there’s a lot of overlap between the comedic development process and the design development process.

So to get into this, I want to introduce you to my current favorite comedian. [VIDEO CLIP] Did you hear about the cheese factory of France that blew up? There was “debris” everywhere. [END OF VIDEO CLIP] [LAUGHTER] So that’s my son, Leo, he’s actually not a very good comedian yet. But he’s learning to tell jokes, and so it’s been really interesting to help him, or to observe him start to work through the idea of comedic timing and setting up jokes the right way and to kind of learn the craft of it. A master of this arguably, is Jerry Seinfeld. And so, I what to play a clip from a New York Times interview they did where they allowed him to break down one of his jokes. The joke is about Pop-Tarts but he goes into depth in terms of how he weaves together language to make the joke land well. [VIDEO CLIP] It was the Sixties and we had toast. We had orange juice that was frozen years in advance that you had to hack away at with a knife to get a couple of drops and it felt like you were committing a murder before you got on your school bus. So, in the midst of that dark and hopeless moment, the Pop-Tart suddenly appeared in the supermarket and we just stared at it like and alien spacecraft and we were like, we were like chimps in the dirt playing sticks. What makes that joke, is you get chimps, dirt, playing, and sticks. In seven words, four of them are funny. Chimps—chimps are funny, [LAUGHS] Then there’s the trying to figure out as a kid, how did they know that there would be a need for a frosted fruit filled heatable rectangle in the same shape as the box it comes in? And with the same nutrition as the box it comes in. In the midst of that darkness and hopelessness, the Kellogg’s Pop-Tart appears, and they always laugh there because that indicates “Oh he’s telling us a story”. And then my next joke that I want to get to is chimps in the dirt with sticks. So now, I’m looking for the connective tissue that gives me that really tight, smooth link, like a jigsaw puzzle link. And if it’s too long, if it’s just a split second too long, you will shave letters off of words. You count syllables, you know to get it just. It’s more like song writing. [END OF VIDEO CLIP]

So it’s interesting right? It should probably sound familiar to designers in the room. To think about just trying to get the details right, to get things to just line up perfectly right. So much intentionality and craft that’s going into one joke. And it’s particularly impressive given the humble beginnings of most comedians. You’re just someone who thinks they’re funny who’s getting up in front of a group of strangers to make them laugh for a couple of minutes, kind of like what I’m doing now, but over time, they get used to getting up in front of a group of people and they start to learn how to piece together a bit. And they start to figure out the craft. This is comedian Hannibal Buress who’s more established, talking a little bit about his early days as a stand-up.

[VIDEO CLIP] Do you still enjoy preforming comedy in clubs? Yeah! I was at the Comedy Cellar last night. Yeah, I enjoy it, I enjoy the – I like doing comedy. I don’t perform as much as I did when I was you know in my mid-twenties, when I was trying to go up and do, you know, fifteen, twenty sets in a night. But, the vibe is still fun, and just to, you know, share your ideas immediately. You know, I could come up with something today and then go to the comedy club and try it and see if it works, if it doesn’t work, shift it, if it does work, you know, try it at another show. And you could build an entire bit over the course of the night. So it’s just a very gratifying art form for that, just get good ideas out. [END OF VIDEO CLIP]

So he’s getting up fifteen to twenty times a night and probably half of them bombing, working on one joke. And so, it’s a very familiar process to me because when we do design work—it’s very familiar—whether you’re iterating internally doing critiques, or you’re putting something out there, seeing if people actually use it. In the comedic world over time you learn to put together jokes and you learn to get up in front of larger and larger audiences. And if you’re good, those audiences start to come to you. They start to know what your comedy’s about, and they look forward to coming to a show. And so, you might call this a type of Product/market fit right? You’re finding your audience. Sometimes, you even get exposed to new audiences off the back of others. So, Louis C.K. used to open up for Jerry Seinfeld and had to learn new skills. And in these larger venues, this is often where we see like the comedy specials right? And Chris Rock says it takes him about two hundred shows before he gets to that hour of comedy. And the whole time he’s going to these clubs and bombing, right? He’s doing the same process all stand ups do on the road to building this hour of comedy that he can then sell to an HBO or a Netflix.

So the metric, the whole time they’re optimizing for is laughs. They’re trying to make more people laugh, more often. But the good comedians start to make or find a difference between good laughs and bad laughs. They start to get really good at making people laugh, but they get really picky about what laughs they’re actually going for, which is kind of another level of craft. This is Louie CK just talking about bits that he leaves out of his acts. [VIDEO CLIP] I started deciding “what am I going to stop doing?” There are bits that I got to through technician work, and through survival instinct, that I don’t believe in. I’ve had bits that kill and I get rid of them. Then you’re good! Because I just realizing that. But then you agree with me. And I think, I think “this bit…” two against two. “This bit is working because I know how to do stand up, it’s not working because it’s something that’s’ important to me and, and I don’t need it. [END OF VIDEO CLIP]

So he’s talking about principle, right? You know, getting to the point where you have these operating principles that help you determine what stays in and what stays out. And when you think about some of the most successful comedians, they’re defined not only by the jokes they do tell, but perhaps, to a greater extent, the jokes they leave out, the ones that they don’t. So, this idea of differentiating via the principles that you set up, I think is an important concept. So again, the metric is laughs, but the real goal is this emotional connection, some sort of emotional resonance. And I think these principles also help you get closer to the specific emotional resonance you’re looking for.

Now this is particularly relevant for some work that we’ve been doing at Instagram recently. We started playing in this face filter space, these AR things that you put on your face before you take a selfie. And, in our creative development process, of course we got into the details on how to make a cute koala, right, and how to get the fur right and those such things, but quickly it became clear, that we need to actually just focus on whether it made people laugh. Whether it was fun to kind of put on. And so, we went through a very similar process of trying things: figuring out whether the ears are flipping enough, or in the right times etc. and doing that same sort of iterative process across a number of different face filters, to try and just get the feel right; to make it feel like something that you’d want to share with folks. And I think this is only going to be a more prevalent sort of creative challenge for designers.

When you think about other kind of emerging technologies, whether it’s AR, VR, or it’s voice UI or those sorts of things, these platforms are going to reach a certain level of maturity. And they’ll have a certain amount of utility. But, to be able to differentiate, you’re going to have to come up with a point of view or a personality, right? And that’s going to take a different sort of skill set. You’re going to have to optimize for this kind of emotional connection. And so, ultimately, I think when you’re thinking about working with data and design, I think you still have to hold onto those creative muscles, right? You still have to make those strong. But you also need to develop some really strong working principles as an organization, which really help guide how you’re going to measure those creative decisions. What data you’re actually going to pay attention to to ultimately make an emotional connection. So, in the end, maybe to fix design, designers just need to become better comedians. [LAUGHTER] Thanks.


More talks like this

Liz Jackson
Julia Kaganskiy
Scott Belsky
Natasha Jen
Steve Selzer
Visit the 99U Conference site