Ian Spalter

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Ian Spalter

Head of Design, Instagram

twitter: @ianspalter

Designer • Illustrator

Tell me about your early years and where you come from.

I grew up in New Rochelle, New York. Like a lot of people in our line of work, I grew up playing with Legos, drawing, and doing old-school programming on a Commodore 64. As a kid, I was into SciFi and watched a lot of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

How did you first get interested in design?

Industrial design was my gateway - I took a drafting course in middle school and started reading Frog Design’s column in Audio-Visual Interiors magazine. In college, I got back into design through classes in HCI and multimedia. I also spent a lot of time after-hours in the computer lab and interned at some early boutique web design companies.

Instagram Lobby

Tell me about the work you've done?

As the Head of Design at Instagram, I lead the team responsible for all things design ranging from cross-platform app experiences to brand & identity. Before Instagram, I was Sr. UX Manager at YouTube, and prior to that, Director of UX & Design at Foursquare. I also spent four years at R/GA where I oversaw design development projects such as the Nike+ Fuelband and Nike Running, Basketball, and Training products. If you look at my career so far, I've spent half of it at an agency and half at startups and larger tech companies—and I spend time thinking about what one can teach the other.

What are you working on right now, either for work or yourself?

At Instagram, we're focused on building products and experiences that help people share all their moments - their highlights and everything in between. What's most important is the connection - it's not about hitting a quality bar, it's about creating a moment between people. So we want to give you a palette you can use to express yourself in any given moment.

What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?

My first big one was launching the early social media site blackplanet.com.

Nike+ Fuelband

Next, I would say launching the Nike+ GPS app and the Nike+ Fuelband. We redesigned the Nike+ web property, and took Nike+ Running and made it a full experience using the GPS chip in phones. This experience was a good precursor to the Fuelband because we learned what it means to track your data and have social experiences with it, and how that changes your behavior. It was a good learning ground for the Fuelband world, which was more about the everyday athlete. It sounds obvious now, but having a goal that you're looking at every day matters a lot. One of the mantras we had was “phone, keys, wallet, Fuelband.” How do you make sure people want to take it with them, and make it part of the rhythm of your daily life? Before the Fuelband it was kind of a scarlet letter to wear a pedometer, rather than something you want to wear and is rewarding.

I'm also really proud of the design team we've built at Instagram. The team helped ship more in the last six months than in the previous five and a half years. Between the new app icon, new app design, Stories, Live, and Direct, we changed so much about the app, but managed to keep it feeling like Instagram.

What are you doing that's special that sets you apart from your peers.

In my early career, I benefitted from working in some pretty diverse environments that allowed me to build up my skill set in a supportive way. Even in tech companies, which like to pride themselves on being meritocracies, there's always a level of awareness and an additional layer of challenge that you have to manage — “being the only one,” etc. You have to balance out being your whole self with just doing the job.

If you're just getting started, focus on your craft and executing really well. If you're more established, focus on finding the deepest pool to jump into.

What are your biggest motivators? 

My family and a desire to be undeniably great at what I do.

How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?

For a long time my family had no idea what I actually did - but now they think it's pretty cool.

What do you love most about working in design?

Technology, and the design that makes it accessible, move culture forward. I love that as designers we get to shape the future and work around creative people all day.

What would you like to see changed about the design field?

I would like to increase the diversity of people choosing design as their field and to help people understand design as a career path they can progress through for their whole lives, as you would if you were an engineer or a doctor.

How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?

As designers I think we can focus on increasing the empathy we have for outliers and look at outliers as an opportunity, not a hindrance.

Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you think you'll stay in design?

I still see myself working in design, hopefully, surrounded by people far more talented than I am, working on problems that will help and/or inspire people.

What advice would you give to folks from a similar background who are in design or hoping to get into it?

If you're just getting started, focus on your craft and executing really well. If you're more established, focus on finding the deepest pool to jump into.