Instagram testing monochrome design; discussing the tab bar

Casey Newton, The Verge:

The result is a design that feels more modern, but also perhaps less distinctive than the current version of the app.

I have a lot of thoughts on this matter. (I questioned a co-worker — our resident UI/UX guy — on this subject and pretty soon a lot of people chimed in. The discussion ended, through a sequence of hops, on me telling our UI/UX-guy about 4chan…story for another day.) If you haven’t already, you should click through to The Verge’s post and look at the new design. Pay close attention to the feature image — Instagram’s current design — and then the redesign.

First, this makes Instagram look so much like Safari when it was redesigned for iOS 7. Especially, the top part of the Explore tab.

Good design is widely thought of as one that recedes to make way for the content (I like to put it thus: good design is invisible). The new Instagram design embodies that philosophy. You look at Instagram now (let’s consider the Home feed), and while you scroll through pictures, you’re constantly aware that you’re in the Instagram app. Such is the prominence of the Instagram logo, the blue bar up top, the blue usernames and the pronounced bottom tab-bar controller. It’s a constant reminder — ‘You’re in Instagram’, whether you realise it or not.
The new design makes pictures stand out. ‘You’re in Instagram, viewing pictures’ isn’t the focus. Instead, it’s ‘You’re viewing this picture; you’re seeing it in Instagram’[1].

My second thought is a form of meta debate. Until now Instagram has, mostly, paved its own way with its design. Times when it’s conformed to Apple’s guidelines seem like by-products — ‘Create your own design and embellish it with your platform vendor’s guidelines’, not the other way around. An example would be the swipe-to-go-back gesture when viewing a picture through the Explore tab. This is what led to the Instagram design becoming iconic and, as I said, quite prominent .
So which way should a company, just starting out, head towards? A neutral design that sticks close to the platform’s (or an existing norm’s) ways and be familiar, safe, intergral to the platform/norm and as a result focus on the content of your app, or pave its own way with its design, be bold, take risks and have the ‘I can glance over your shoulder and know you’re using [said app]’ notion going for you.

(A good contrast here would be Tweetbot for iOS. Tweetbot is an excellent design, end to end. But it’s an excellent design for iOS. A relatively unfamiliar user couldn’t glance over and know it’s Tweetbot the way they would Facebook or Instagram. Also, put Tweetbot as-is on an Android phone and it’ll look way out of place. Instagram is essentially the same on both platforms.)

My last point isn’t particularly to do with Instagram. For some context, here’s John Gruber’s thoughts on the redesign:

I’ve been using Instagram since the day it shipped, and I’m still thrown off by the way the camera tab always looks selected because it has a blue background

Open Tweetbot and notice the way the tab bar — the bar at the bottom — works. (If you don’t own Tweetbot, fire up the Music app…and buy Tweetbot). Of the 4/5 tabs, the one that is selected is highlighted. The others are grey in colour while the selected tab embodies the app’s primary colour: pink-ish for Apple Music and blue for Tweetbot. But aren’t the other tabs actually the actionable icons? They’re the buttons you can tap on to perform an action — switching views. And aren’t buttons usually the app’s primary color?

Per tradition, it’s all the other tabs — apart from the one you’ve selected — that should be blue (let’s assume that’s the primary color, for convenience) since they’re actionable. Apple’s tab bar controller breaks that tradition and I see why — It’s less of a distraction; it’s a ‘Here’s where you are’ approach instead of ‘Here’s where you can go’.

This traditional click-based method stood out to me a few days ago while designing our app and I’ve been able to understand the tab-bar controller better since. I wanted to bring some attention towards it since I find it fascinating.


1. I’m purposely being verbose. 

In Uncategorized by Mayur Dhaka