“Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it – a key procedure of a modern society. In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinction between beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad.“
Susan Sontag, On Photography, In Plato’s Cave Essay 1977.
In 2020 it is estimated 3.6 billion people worldwide have social media. Instagram is set to surpass 111 million users this year and 95 million images and videos get posted to Instagram every day. There was a time when our intake of media content was heavily edited and produced, be it television, art and galleries or print media. For a while now, everyone and anyone can contribute to the endless photographic archive of the world’s history. We are in a time where a restaurant review on Facebook from my sister has more clout than a review from Tom Parker-Bowles. Social media has become the new word of mouth and if you are a brand, a hotel, a restaurant or a commercial space trying to promote and sell yourself why not speak a thousand words with one image.
Well, it’s not that easy. As more and more brands start to focus on the next generation of target audiences, Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2015), the focus is to have someone unknowingly promote you visually. To find the space you offer so interesting they can recommend it not just to a close friend but the potential millions of followers they may have (the average Instagram following is around 150 people per user). A photograph of a well-designed restaurant is never going to go viral, not these days, but that’s not what we are trying to achieve here. What we are trying to do is create the illusive Instagramable moment.
I will let you in on a little secret. I love to see some of the commercial spaces I have designed pop up on Instagram, to see a user using the space how you intended. To see how a space might have changed long after our involvement, or even just to see what a user deemed the best thing to photograph within the space. Do you know who else loves to see it pop up? The brand, be it a hotel, a lounge and restaurant or other outlet offerings in the commercial sector. If you ‘the Instagrammer” deem a space worthy of appearing on your feed, you are consciously or subconsciously recommending that brand to your friends, family and following.
Remember when you found out Tyler Durden was the narrator, or that Mrs Voorhees was the one getting a bit carried away at camp, well if you’re like me, these plot twists stay with you. It’s obvious when you look back at it, but at the time you had it all figured out. I have a plot twist coming, borderline gaslighting, so hear me out. As someone who (like most millennials) enjoys posting original content on social media, there’s nothing more devastating than to realise that thousands of other happy snappers have taken a virtually identical photo. And it’s not because what you have captured is the definition of beautiful or interesting, it’s because what you have photographed has been designed to be photographed, promoted and unknowingly recommended online by you.
Before we get into it, I’m going to say “Instagram” a lot, and while I do mainly mean Instagram, I’m also referring to several platforms, western, eastern and global. Video-based, image-based and text-based. I’m going to talk about why brands seem more and more interested in designing the ‘Instagram moment”. I will not be talking about the lucrative world of the social media influence, not because I don’t know much about that world, I was once invited to the preview of American Gothic’s first trip to the UK, just because I have over 10,000 twitter followers. No, I’m going to talk about the person who sits in a coffee shop taking a picture of their oat milk flat white against a distressed timber backdrop and posts it on the internet, humbly sharing their day to day lives without realising they are advertising on behalf of companies.
Now this all sounds very sinister, but it’s not when you think about it. A contributor to the continually evolving content on Instagram, has an inkling of there part of the machine, they know what they are doing. Making sure certain things fit in the frame, that if you are in the shot, you look your best. Your food is on point or the lighting is just right. And that’s fine. Sure, another generation has their opinion, the baby boomers think the millennials are obsessed with phones and the Gen Z’s think us millennials are oversharing. But it’s fine. The reason no one talks about the free advertising hidden in Instagram content, is that no one wants to admit that they have been duped into contributing to it.
I see something. It’s pretty so I take a picture. I upload it to Instagram, and I get a few likes because the viewer also agrees that it’s pretty. But if the image isn’t of nature and it’s of a restaurant I visited or a hotel lobby that was meticulously designed, then I’m most likely not the only one who thought it was pretty and posted it on the internet. And when I’m confronted by a stream of semi identical images I’ve published. “I’m not that original am I’?
A brand wants to create an Instagram moment because when a person interacts with the image on Instagram, they are getting a glimpse into the space. Again, the brands I’m referring to are space-related, built environment brands, not makeup or bottled water but a brand that may typically appear as a backdrop of an Instagram image, or a sculptural piece that will be photographed because of its worth on Instagram. The reason brands are keen on utilising this Instagramable moment is because if they are smart about it, they have full control over how it’s presented.
Let’s take Beyonce in this instance as a brand rather than a person – it’s the world we live in now. When Beyonce goes on tour the live performance is an Instagramable moment. But in 2013 as part of the Mrs Carter world tour, Beyonce publicly banned photos been taken by the press and the audience. The reason for this was not because she demanded the audience just watch rather than put the camera up, that will act as a barrier between themselves and the performance, it was to control how the show and the brand will be perceived to the outside world. The brand wanted the final say on the images. When you are performing live, there is a possibility that you may not be photographed from the most flattering angle or with the right lighting.
Each O2 arena show in London during March was attended by 99,183 people. If 78% of the adult UK population have smartphones with cameras, and each person took just one photo from that performance, this would equate to 77,362 photographs of the Beyonce brand being taken that hadn’t been approved, checked and verified. In a fast-paced and sometimes vindictive media cycle, a bad photo of Beyonce could be a week’s worth of unwanted news.
With this in mind, why would a brand that inhabits space be so keen on achieving this Instagramable moment, when one can never be 100% sure of how it will reverberate around social media? With the right thought, good design, and clean execution, you can be 100% sure it is captured exactly how you want it to be.
To approach an Instagramable moment as a built piece within a space, is no different from designing a piece of joinery, a bar or even a bathroom. If we imagine our Instagramable moment is a black box so the item itself is nothing special, as a designer, we need to make sure all elements of the design bring enticement. How will the user interact with this piece, move around the space and view it, be it in person or through a lens? How will it be lit to make sure it is captured at its best from every angle?
When the public decides its best angle, you need to make sure each angle is worthy. How will it fit within its context, will you make sure all focus is on the object or is it a subtle element to only be noticed by the select few, popping up in the background of a few photos from nights out. And all this just to make sure our black box is ready to be captured. Now what if the black box is something more representational of a brand, What if it’s the huge W outside the W hotels. Or a comical chair in the shape of a high heel, or even the atrium in the Scarf Hall Liberty London. All these designer elements appear countlessly in Instagram photos for people to promote where they have been, but the reaction sometimes created is that the viewer also wants to experience this in person.
Advertising is a lucrative business, when done well it comes with a big price tag. Word of mouth can also be hard to achieve in the early stage of a brand, or a new venture or offshoot of an established brand. You need to get the word out, and if you are let’s say a hotel, who depends on global reach in different territories, the old style of word of mouth is a difficult tool to master. But with the right architectural design be it interior or exterior, the right atmosphere that can be photographed and promoted, shared and liked by thousands within seconds, and all completely free.
InsideOut recently conducted a study on networking between different generations. When asked “can you remember a good example of an Instagramable moment?”, the audience of mixed age all commented with confusion and repulsion of the idea of something designed specifically for Instagram. In January 2020, INEWS published an article “Restaurants could start painting their walls brown as an anti-Instagram measure” which included quotes such as “Anti-Instagram interiors are predicted to be one of the top restaurant trends of 2020”.
The report from global forecaster J Walter Thompson predicts “what wasn’t predicted was the global pandemic about to hit each country, sector and person very differently and as we start to return to a more sociable way of life, and have witnessed many restaurants, bar and hotels having a refurb during the lockdown, we haven’t seen many brown walls. We haven’t seen the requirement to suppress the Instagram interior moment and that’s because even if the sector wasn’t in trouble it has always relied on word of mouth, and in 2020 the meaning word of mouth has changed a little. Its visual and it’s online.”