It all begins with a flick of the thumb. Simple gesture, casual almost.
Shapes appear, colours shift. A dachshund sitting in a pool donut appears in the palm of your hand like magic. It has a hundred thousand likes, but more importantly it has your complete attention. You tap, and a little heart appears. The effects are immediate: pulse quickens and breathing shallows.
This interaction happens a million times with a million different pictures: A pitbull wearing a scarf; a meerkat playing the trumpet. This is Instagram. We love cute animals… but anything would work. The machine is so finely tuned that a photo of a half-eaten pizza would demand as much attention as that dachshund. In fact, photos of half eaten pizzas regularly do.
But would the pizza or the dachshund rate if it were framed on your living room wall? Would it demand such attention on the front of a postcard? Probably not. The content might be the same but the experience isn't.
There's an interesting thread to pick at here. Viewing a picture on a wall is so different than viewing that picture on a computer screen, or on a mobile device, or in a photo album. A story read on a Kindle is different than the same story in a paperback. The details matter. The surface matters. The context matters.
Art museums exemplify this. Anyone￼ who has been to an art museum will tell you that there is something visceral about seeing a piece of art in person. Most of us would not know if we were looking at an authentic piece of art. Museums find out that their “authentic” art is counterfeit all the time… in fact, a museum in Southern France recently discovered that over half of its collection was fake. The authenticity is only important insofar as it adds something to the experience of viewing art in a museum or gallery — and that experience is an amalgam of many things: walls, lights, grandiosity, notions of privilege and status, et cetera.
Back to Instagram, that little technicolor pimple. The experience of consuming media on Instagram is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is an engineered thing. Consider its design:
Images bleed from edge-to-edge, interface chrome is minimal, composed mainly of thin lines that nearly disappear in comparison to large, vivid, full-bleed photographs and videos. Instagram, with its filters, compels us to produce such colourful media. We are complicit in the cycle.
And the images, they go on forever. No tapping of ‘next’, no pages to locate oneself by, just an eternal feed with no beginning and no end. No pause button either, the content shifts each time you re-open the app.
Narrative text sits so close to images that it is impossible to miss — you must consume them both in one big gulp. Mixed media stories make far more compelling experiences than orphaned media do.
Social triggers are glued to images. It is impossible to look at a photograph without also seeing the likes, the comments, the reactions. These build a narrative, and they compel us to participate; to interact. They fire little neurons and cause our brains to pump happy chemicals. They incite our tribal need to belong, and our emotional impulses to react.
The controls themselves encourage us to share; to overshare; to create similar experiences for others. Who benefits from all this creation? Mostly the shareholders of Instagram — but that’s another story.
All of this design and engineering amounts to a sort of wrapper. Our devices themselves are another layer still. Those shiny, glossy surfaces, begging to be touched. hundreds of pixels crammed impossibly into every inch of glass — so sharp you can almost reach in and touch them; invisible bezels, shiny edges. Just the feel of the object in-hand is enough to make those little neurons buzz.
With all of these layers, can we really distinguish between the wrapper and the wrapped? Probably not.
All of this is to say, a photograph on Instagram is so much more than a simple collection of colours and lines. It is a veritable dinner-plate of experiential stimuli, and each time we tap on that neon camera, we are opening our mouths wide and consuming. What are we consuming? The content certainly, but also the interface that surrounds it, the medium upon which we encounter it, and the interactions that surround the encounter.
Books are no different. Words are wrapped in design, and design is wrapped in material.
A book has a tactile weight and quality that is both familiar and myriad: unlike phones, books come in millions of shapes and sizes: a cornucopia of bindings, covers, and papers — but the feeling of a stack of sheets, wrapped and bound, is familiar. Reading a book has a quality to it that is also both distinct and myriad — distinct because all books have edges, discernible beginnings and discernible ends, and myriad because each book is unique in its construction and design.
The design of a book, in many ways, is the same as the design of an app. Fonts set tone, feeling, mood. They stand out and demand attention, or blend in and let us lose ourselves in text. Leading and line width and type size create colour on the page. They let text breath big and wide, or create compact, dense blocks.
Margins breath too. Big wide margins can call attention to small, tight blocks of text or can balance big wide ones. They can feel expansive and huge, relaxed, or small, narrow, and insignificant. They can urge us to dwell or they can hurry us forward.
Paper is just another surface: coated or uncoated, glossy or matte, textured or smooth, it communicates with our eyes and with our fingers. Papers can change colours in photographs or alter the appearance and feeling of text. Paper can create or destroy mood. Cover papers rest in our hands as we read. They are the first things we touch when we pick up books and the last things we feel when we close them.
When I worked for Kindle in Seattle designing interfaces, there was always lots of talk of margins, font sizes, serifs and apertures, screen resolution. I remember a particularly heated debate over whether we would animate the transitions from page to page. Would pages “flip” skeuomorphically? Would they glide? Would they fade? This conversation itself was probably misguided: we often talked of building a better book, but the Kindle wasn’t a book. It wasn’t even a digital book. Rather, it was a small computer built for reading text. Of all of the feedback that we received, the comments that stuck with me most were that people loved their Kindles, but they enjoyed reading stories in books more. There was just “something” about reading real books they loved. Adding skeuomorphic transitions wouldn’t change that, because the surface was different. The experience was different. What they loved was all of the sensory elements and material interactions that a kindle simply did not have — could never have.
Books, devices, apps. What are we do to with so many options? We have so many ways to consume, and now, more than ever, media is fluid. The technology around us enables; it encourages us to translate from one surface to another. So why settle? Print out that Instagram photo of the dachshund in the pool donut. Frame it. Step back, enjoy your art. Take it out of the frame and put it in a book, then photograph that book and put it back on Instagram.