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Poster by Rajan Mithra@VCBay

Open Instagram, and one of the first things you see are people posing in front of walls with angel-like wings painted on them or photos of neon signs with “deep” quotes or random mirror selfies. In the decade since its launch, Instagram has grown by leaps and bounds, from its humble beginnings as a photo filter app to a vast social media network with a billion monthly active users. Instagram’s influence on the real world has grown in tandem with its users. Photos on Instagram with their carefully staged, colour-corrected, glossy-looking aesthetic have performed so well that they’ve become synonymous with the platform and have slowly crept into the real world. So what is the extent of Instagram’s influence on the real world? Is the Instagram aesthetic on its way out? How has it affected us?

Judge a Book by its Cover

Instagram has a thriving community of book lovers, with hashtags such as #bookstagram being the most popular with a whopping 64 million posts. Other popular hashtags include #booklover (24 million) and #bookworm (23 million). Instagram has influenced books in various ways:

Book Covers: While the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” might hold true in certain cases, many of us do judge the book by its cover, and a survey by, a UK online marketplace, proves that theory. Of the 2201 people who were surveyed, 44% said they chose to buy a book just because of its cover. The two most popular book covers on Instagram were Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas. The Harry Potter series was the most Instagrammed book series overall.

A well-designed book cover is an added bonus for someone looking to post it on Instagram and score some likes. So what makes for the perfect book cover, and has Instagram influenced book covers?

While book cover preferences vary, there are some common attributes: 

  • Minimalist
  • Title-focussed 
  • Beautifully designed
  • Faceless

With regard to the last point, covers with real-life people are generally frowned upon.

To address the latter part of the question, Instagram does seem to have some influence on the book covers, especially with indie and smaller publishers. The broader industry has also taken note of Instagram as they’ve hosted panels on the topic. But when it comes to major publishers, Instagram’s influence seems less pronounced as major publishers are more concerned with branding and budget, among other business and legal issues.

Book Stores: Since Amazon’s launch nearly three decades ago, the traditional book publishing industry has been decimated, pushing giant bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders out of business. And Kindle’s launch in 2007 seemed like the final nail in the coffin, but that has not been the case. Independent bookstores, with the help of social media, especially Instagram seem to be growing; from 2009 to 2015, the number of independent bookstores grew by 35 per cent, according to the American Booksellers Association. 

With an increasing number of people documenting the bookstores they visit and the books they read, independent bookstores have experienced renewed interest. The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, USA, which opened in 2011, is one of the most Instagrammable bookstores and is a bookstagrammer’s dream. The massive two-story, 22,000-square-foot store features book tunnels that are made for the gram.

Screenshot from Last Bookstore's Instagram Page
Screenshot from Last Bookstore’s Instagram Page

Libraries: Libraries are generally seen as relics of the past, and when you think of librarians, you think of an old person wearing glasses asking you to “shhhhhh”. It’s time to change that mindset as libraries and librarians have entered the Insta age. Some of the largest libraries in the US have amassed large followings on Instagram; the New York Public Library has 468,000 followers, the Library of Congress has 93,000 followers, and the San Francisco Public Library has 32,000 followers. If you want to explore more libraries, there’s also #librariesofinstagram with more than 897,000 posts. 

In August 2018, Instagram followers of the New York Public Library (NYPL) were in for a treat as the full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland popped up on the NYPL’s Story section. 

Screenshot from Mother New York's Instagram Page
Screenshot from Mother New York’s Instagram Page

To reach beyond its walls and convince more people to read books, NYPL set out on a project named Insta Novels and collaborated with design agency Mother New York. The novels were a roaring success, and more than 300,000 people have since read the Insta Novels. NYPL went on to add more classics to the Story section, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. 

So what were the important points that were considered while designing Insta Novels?

  • Legibility was emphasized, and the text had to be the right size- not so small that the readers would find it difficult to read and not so large that each story would take too many screens to complete. 
  • For the Background colour, they chose warm cream to make reading easier on the eyes, and the preferred font was Georgia.
  • They also got creative by sprinkling small animations on the bottom right of the pages throughout the book. 
  • They engaged a different designer to illustrate the cover to make it visually appealing with compelling animations.

Museum of Ice Cream

The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), dreamed up by Maryellis Bunn, is the latest trend in photogenic pop-up experiences inspired by Instagram aesthetics with their bright colour palettes, neon signs, and shareable murals. MOIC, which started out as a pop-up installation in New York in 2016, has drawn in celebrities like Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry and has now expanded to Austin, Texas and Singapore. It is primarily credited with popularising pop-up installations leading to similar installations such as the Museum of Pizza, the Museum of Selfies, Happy Place, The Dream Machine, Candytopia and The Future of Sports

Screenshot from the Museum of Ice Cream's Instagram Page
Screenshot from the Museum of Ice Cream’s Instagram Page

These pop-up installations can be best described as mini-Disney lands for the Instagram audience. Visitors are generally charged anywhere from US$ 15 to US$ 38 per person, and more often than not, the pop-up installations feature an average of nine to ten elaborately designed rooms with mirrors, giant sets and a pool. During the hour-long experience, visitors are offered sugar-laden treats, which function as an incentive to explore the remaining rooms. At least a few of the rooms have sponsored experiences baked into them. From a room of xylophone chimes to a disco-themed dance room, almost everything is designed to be touched and played with.

The Mall of the Future

Shopping: Generally, consumers believe in the experiences and recommendations of people they may not know personally, and social media has capitalised on it. Despite the pandemic, 2020 was the biggest mobile shopping year on record, with people spending 82 billion hours in shopping apps representing a 30% y-o-y growth. Americans alone spent US$ 53.2 billion on mobile between November 1st and December 9th. 

Line chart depicting the usage of social media platforms

According to the NPD Group’s survey, Facebook (41%), Instagram (35%), and Pinterest (21%) are the top destinations where consumers learn about or discover fashion brands and retailers. And when it comes to actual purchases, around 51% said Facebook and Instagram content resulted in buying products.

Over the years, Instagram has increasingly turned into an endless shopping experience, almost like a mall. With Facebook cracking its whip, Instagram has doubled the number of ads on the platform and has introduced Checkout, which makes it easier for users to purchase products right from brand posts and influencers without ever exiting the app.

Department stores: Department stores have been on a decline for the past few decades and have in recent years resembled ghost towns. To avoid following in the footsteps of Sears, Macy’s rolled out its first Instagram friendly in-house concept store- “Story” in 2019. The size of the stores range from 1,500 sq. ft. to 7,500 sq. ft. The store exists only within Macy’s locations and is not a standalone store. Nordstrom has also taken a similar route and has introduced “PopIn@Nordstrom,” a series of curated pop-up shops that rotate every month. Like Story, each store is based on a different theme (K-beauty) or a collaboration (Everlane), and they are obviously Instagrammable. The stores are unlike the mannequin jungles that we have been exposed to and are instead designed more like art installations

Screenshot from Starbucks's Instagram Page
Screenshot from Starbucks’s Instagram Page

Products: Instagrammable products are created for the sole purpose of being photographed or displayed on Instagram. They are aesthetically pleasing, brightly coloured, interestingly shaped and are overall attractive. The fact that such a category exists is indicative of Instagram’s prominence. International coffee chain Starbucks is a pioneer in this space, and its Unicorn Frappuccino went viral on Instagram. The iconic multi-coloured coffee drink with its pink-blue creamy layers captivated the Insta audience leading to 20,000+ posts with the hashtags #unicornfrap and #unicornfrappe, and it even earned some major press coverage.

Instagrammable products are an ideal way to appeal to young, appearance-oriented users, and there are a multitude of products in this category ranging from Glamglow’s #glittermask to Sugar Factory’s decadent shakes and burgers.


During the BI era (Before Insta :p), restaurants considered the space’s effect on their occupants and were designed to entice drivers to pull off the highway and eat there. But in the Instagram era, restaurant owners have to concern themselves with how their restaurant looks in photos. This was a natural reaction as people often post about their experiences on Insta and tag the restaurant, which serves as a significant and free promotional opportunity.

With this in mind, restaurant owners are commissioning neon signs (what’s with neon signs?), painting intricate murals, and embedding floor tiles with branded greetings, all in the pursuit of Insta mentions. 

One such restaurant is San Francisco-based Cuban restaurant- Media Noche. The restaurant is a visual treat with its mural of pink flamingos, beautiful old tiles with pink-and-green floral designs, light blue exterior wall with what seems like bougainvillaea painted on them and banana-print wallpaper in the bathrooms. 

Since it opened in March 2017, Media Noche has been a social media magnet, drawing in San Francisco’s Instagram influencers and scrolling through its feed reveals that its iconic tiles are as popular as its food.

Screenshot from Media Noche's Instagram Page
Screenshot from Media Noche’s Instagram Page

New York-based restaurant Motel Morris became famous among the Insta crowd for a weird reason- its bathrooms. The restaurant, which first opened its doors in April 2018, had designed its bathroom to resemble the 1950s with its floral wallpaper, a mounted telephone, an old hairdryer and vintage motel lounge chairs. 

Gone are the days where bathrooms were an afterthought; in the Insta age, businesses from restaurants to yoga studios want their bathrooms to look attractive. From covering it with cute wallpaper to loading them with mirrors, owners are doing everything they can to induce customers to take photos in their bathrooms.

From Instagram pages dedicated to bathrooms such as iluvbathrooms and Bathrooms of Insta to Vogue’s carefully curated list of the most Instagrammable bathrooms in London, bathrooms are getting the star treatment (finally?). 

So what makes for the perfect Instagram restaurant?

  • Eye-catching wallpaper or wall art
  • Good lighting
  • Beautiful floor tiles
  • Signature dishes and pretty plates
  • Colourful exterior wall
  • Neon signs
  • Instagram kits with miniature tripods
  • Bathrooms with plenty of mirrors and cute wallpaper

Instagram Broke Us

Instagram, which started out as a photo filter app, has turned into a full-fledged virtual mall. It has moved away from focussing on people and moments and has instead focussed on commodifying the data generated by its users to manipulate them into buying products on its platform. 

According to the advertising agency DDB, Instagram’s aesthetic seems to have peaked around mid-2018. That’s not surprising; how many times do you have to see the same rainbow-coloured food, neon signs and decorative tiles before you get tired of them? What was once a novelty has quickly become passé

From taking photos in pop-up installations to posing in front of a wall adorned with murals, there’s a sense of superficiality and hollowness to prioritising the act of taking photos to actually living the experience. In a way, Instagram has forced us to believe that the very act of taking photos will spark joy, and it has in the process flattened our lived experiences. All this has taken a toll on us, making us more lonely, depressed and anxious. So in our mad pursuit of meaningless Instagram likes, have we lost ourselves?

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Rajan writes about the startup ecosystem on VCBay. He is a Master of Business Finance graduate from XIM University and has cleared CFA's Level II exam. Rajan is passionate about data viz and business journalism.



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