What We Can Learn From the Creative Process of Instagram’s New App Icon Design

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Change is one of the most divisive things in the design world, especially when it comes to popular digital services. Generally, people don’t react well to it, at least initially. Honestly though, I can see why that is in the case of the Instagram icon redesign but more on my thoughts later.

Let’s take a look behind-the-scenes to see what they did, so you can learn from it and improve your work.

The Counter-productive Effect of Creative Freedom

Before I react to a redesign of something popular, I like to try to find the reasons behind the change. That’s not always possible of course but thankfully Instagram have given us a helpful peek behind the curtain:

Since these early ‘flattening’ explorations lacked the visual weight of the original, we turned our focus to figuring out exactly what people loved about the classic icon and how we could carry that over. Anecdotally, we knew that people loved the rainbow and the camera lens was a key visual element. As a part of our process, we also asked people at the company to draw the Instagram icon from memory in 5 seconds. Almost all of them drew the rainbow, lens, and viewfinder.

With this insight, we decided to translate these elements into a more modern app icon that strikes a balance between recognition and versatility.

Before they even begin designing or getting any ideas onto paper, they defined a goal for the project, giving them a clear direction to head in.

Having all the freedom in the world at the start of a design project can actually be counterproductive. We like to think creative freedom gives us the best chance to create great work, but it can help to set some constraints, at least at the beginning of the project, to reduce the threat of the blank page syndrome and get the design work off to the best possible start.

This constraint can be set by yourself, as Instagram have done. They decided to discover what was the most memorable aspect of the original icon to keep for the transition from their skeuomorphic past to the adoption of flat design we see now.

Notice that without this constraint, they felt like they had failed in that transition:

Since these early ‘flattening’ explorations lacked the visual weight of the original, we turned our focus to figuring out exactly what people loved about the classic icon and how we could carry that over.

As soon as they figured out the goals, they began making some real progress. From then on, as you’ll see in the images below, they race towards the final design, visually represented in the video by the icons speeding up as they travel across the screen.


In a video included in the blog post, we can see a number of sketches and mockups of all types of variations of camera designs based on the original icon classic look.

Here are some stills from the video so you can have a quick glance at just how much work has gone into the new design:

Some images are blurred because they move at a fast pace in the video but you can more or less make them out

Whatever you think of the new Instagram icon, they arrived there through a process of experimentation and iteration. In my opinion they chose the best result out of everything they created. If they hadn’t created so much work then the final design would definitely be worse (at least from the sketches and mockups they’ve shared publicly).

Notice that I’m not saying experimenting without a true goal isn’t useful. You can experiment your way to discovering the goal. The Instagram team did that in a way by simply replicating the old icon in a flat style. They realised it wasn’t a good option to pursue and looked for another solution.

Quantity Leads to Quality

We know that quantity leads to quality and we can see that Instagram have poured their efforts into many different concepts and variations of mockups. I took the time to capture the majority of designs from the video so you can see at a quick glance just how many there are.

Not only have they experimented but they have experimented at scale, increasing their chances of creating great work.

Why a Good Process is Critical

If you want to see what it looks like without such processes in place, look no further than the attempts at redesigns on dribble. At the time of writing, there isn’t anything better than Instagram’s creation and there certainly isn’t anything that really makes you think.

The distinct lack of imagination is because they haven’t gone through the same rigorous design process. Understandably so because these aren’t paid jobs. They’re just fun pieces of work but they do effectively demonstrate the results of a weak design process.

Did they Achieve their Goal?

Personally, I think they did. However, I think they could have reached their goal without losing as much character and uniqueness of the original. The new version is a bit generic. It doesn’t quite have the same impact as the iconic original.

I certainly like the playfulness brought out in the colour and the squircle shape of the camera though. It works well because Instagram is all about sharing fun and interesting moments visually.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.