Whenever I get a few steps past security at the office of Instagram in Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay Area, I glance to my right to see who’s posing by the cartoon clouds. Usually it’s a giddy relative of an employee, or a visitor who is feeling important because they know someone who works at the company. Sometimes it’s an engineer on her last day or a parent who has brought his child to work. The clouds are cumulus, made up of large white bulbous plastic bubbles, set against a faux sunset, with the orange hue blending into pink. A white plastic model of the Instagram logo is set in one corner, providing a watermark for each photo before it’s even taken. This has become the most Instagrammed part of the office.
Instagram treats its office as a showcase and the clouds are a can’t-miss spectacle. The installation serves as a recruiting tool, a focus of corporate pride and an experience for all the heads-of-brand and celebrities who drift in. Last year Instagram bosses wanted to demolish the structure and replace it with a scene of a UFO landing, but staff objected. Instead they doubled down on the skyscape, expanding the space so a whole team of engineers could ’gram there simultaneously. Pink and orange lights enhanced the sunset backdrop even further.
Instagram employees love to explain the subtle ways in which their headquarters differs from that of Facebook, its parent company. Instagram believes that it is a fundamentally creative operation, led by designers and curators – and sees Facebook as the province of engineers who single-mindedly try to capture users’ attention by any means possible.
The contrast in approach is manifested most clearly in their respective decor. Facebook plasters its walls with motivational posters, bearing slogans such as “Done is better than perfect” and “This journey is only 1% finished”. The unvarnished surfaces, exposed ventilation, concrete and metal fittings show a company with bigger things to worry about than polished interiors. Any employee or visitor can scrawl their thoughts on a Facebook “wall” in chalk, reflecting the way people communicate on the social network – some would say it’s democratic, others that it’s a free-for-all.
Instagram’s walls, by contrast, are painted white. Photos and art produced by its own users hang in orderly frames that mimic the endless boxes of the social platform’s feed. Facebook puts wastepaper bins under the desks, so staff don’t need to break off during a coding spree, whereas Instagram hides its bins in sleek wooden drawers, like a Victorian lady embarrassed that her table is showing some ankle. Instagram staff want their cafeteria to cook food that demands to be photographed. An employee complained to a manager when the potato salad was unappetisingly pale.
It’s no surprise that Instagram, a network populated by meticulous curators and filter fiends, cares about its office appearance. But the effort it puts into its design has a more profound purpose. The company, which Facebook bought in 2012, was initially based within Facebook (it had only 13 employees at the time). It didn’t get its own headquarters until 2016, by which point it had hundreds of staff. The distinctive design was a statement of independence: this was a community of artists, not hackers.
With the purchase of Instagram, Facebook began to propound a corporate vision in which big companies could exist quasi-independently within it. As Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple expanded their businesses into adjacent industries, startups began to dream less of competing with them and more of being acquired by them – a deal made even sweeter by the prospect of relative autonomy. Amazon bought Whole Foods, and Google acquired so many firms that it felt compelled to rebrand the holding company as Alphabet.
In practice, newly acquired companies were given varying degrees of latitude. The Amazonification of Whole Foods happened seemingly overnight in 2017, with yellow “Prime” branding peppering the store aisles. By contrast WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired in 2014, demanded longer bathroom doors and conference rooms that only its employees could use.
Instagram has always been a poster child for the company within the Company, and its design alludes to its distinctive culture. I spotted conference rooms in the New York office that were called Rainbow Bagel and Rich Dogs of Instagram, references to trends on the app; there’s a mirror on the stairs that visitors and employees can use for their outfit-of-the-day selfies. Versace was asked to design a room on the 14th floor of the office, complete with vintage pieces and upholstery.
Ever since acquiring Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has courted other companies by dangling the prospect that, if they submit to him, they might have a status as elevated as Instagram. WhatsApp and Oculus rushed into his embrace; Snapchat declined. Yet for all the glitzy decor, Zuckerberg’s promises of independence have begun to seem unconvincing. Instagram’s founders left the company in 2018, frustrated by Facebook’s tightening control. The tagline now reads “Instagram from Facebook”. At a time when Facebook’s reputation was taking a beating, Zuckerberg wanted to cream off the credit for Instagram’s success. Facebook staff now dominate Instagram’s executive team; Instagram’s head no longer has the title of chief executive.
Instagram’s latest design gem is a “light forest”, a set of rectangular plastic columns outside one of the lobbies in the San Francisco office. If you touch the columns, they glow neon and play a sound recorded by an app user. If three people touch them, an animation takes over. As Benjamin King, Instagram’s art director, puts it, “instead of having a consumption moment” – their lingo for taking pictures – “we wanted a creation moment”, by which they mean recording a video. But when Instagram’s offices closed because of the coronavirus outbreak the forest fell dark, while the platform itself lights up with the selfies of the self-isolating and the ad revenue keeps accruing to Facebook. Which just goes to show that the man may treat founders to all the bespoke furniture they like – but he still owns their product.•