Moving away from its iconic Polaroid camera representation, Instagram recently evolved its primary logo, which sits on 400 million phones.  The previous logo featured the Jobs-ian skeuomorphic design aesthetic, and was sorely in need of a new look. The simplified new look carries forth the core equities of the past icon in a fresh way.

The logo was announced via a nicely produced video and blog post that outlined the strategic rationale behind the new look and user interface. Without a doubt, the merits of Instagram’s new look will be debated. Any sort of change upsets people, and we all know what the haters are gonna do.

In their short lives, nearly all of the most popular apps have evolved their icons and design language, some more successfully than others. At some point, most companies are faced with the challenge of updating their visual brand identity. They can apply important lessons learned from these high-profile redesigns as they undergo their own business and brand evolution.

  1. Purpose and clarity are vital when a brand changes its core visual. Unlike the Uber redesign announcement that spewed over-intellectualized baloney about atoms and molecules, the power of the Instagram introductory video is that it communicates so much without saying anything. The analog qualities of the app itself come through in the video, while showing the rigor and exploration the Instagram design team went through to come to the final solution.

In contrast to Uber’s dubious redesign, the new icon has a tie back to the highly recognizable core of Instagram’s past design. It amplifies the distinctive rainbow stripe by transforming it into a vibrant color array that will stand out against other apps, and help connect it to Instagram’s other properties, Layout and Boomerang.  The retro look of the Polaroid camera worked for Instagram when it was only putting retro filters on photos. Now that Instagram has moved into video and other aspects of storytelling, it makes logical sense to evolve the brand.  UPS took off its iconic package logo when it wanted to move beyond shipping and into logistics. Instagram’s business is evolving beyond Polaroid filters. Business changes should be reflected in the expression of the brand.

  1. When taking on dramatic change, brands should embrace an open dialog and engage with the critics. When Airbnb evolved its amateurish logo to the suggestive Belo logo, there was outrage. But by dealing with the critics with wit and engaging in a dialog with users, the new look stuck and a year later everyone is over it. A company’s design sensibility effectively encompasses all aspects of the brand, and elevates the holistic user experience. When Starbucks evolved its iconic Siren, the company was transparent about what it was doing and why, offering honest conversation with customers about the change. As a result, Starbucks had much more success than Gap and Tropicana when they introduced new branding without explanation or transparency with customers.
  1. Leave the designing to designers. Unlike Marissa Mayer’s involvement in the dreadful Yahoo logotype or Uber’s CEO designing nonsensical symbols, Instagram’s design team clearly thought through the process and produced a nice looking identity system and introductory video. There is a role for the C-suite to play in the design process, but it should not be at the expense of developing an impactful design. One would have to assume Uber and Yahoo were victims of a “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation, where the intelligent design thinkers within the organization were not able to counter the CEOs who fancied themselves talented designers.

When brands unveil new icons and design systems, there are always going to be reactionaries who like the status quo and cling to the familiar. But successful brands constantly change and evolve along with their customers’ needs. A new logo is not the answer unless the business has a new story to tell, but at that time, a very visible signal change is extraordinarily effective.

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