With over 20 years of design experience, Ian Spalter's storied career has taken him all around the globe. He got his start at R/GA, where he was the creative lead for the Nike+ digital sport business. As the former head of design at Foursquare, UX lead at YouTube, and head of design at Instagram, Ian has worked with iconic brands that influence how people share, travel, and express creativity. Ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Ian and I sat down to discuss his current role as Instagram's head of Japan and the importance of inclusive, globally-minded design today.
"We've gone from what we should build to how we should build — not just thinking about design as a standalone, but about the team as a whole."
When I asked him about what's changed at Instagram since he joined in 2015, he summed it up succinctly. "We've gone from what we should build to how we should build — not just thinking about design as a standalone, but about the team as a whole." In my work at GV advising portfolio founders on design, I often notice the same thing: Startups are often focused on what to design, when how we design is just as critical.
As to where the original inspiration for design comes from, Ian emphasized the importance of mixing things up. "I have been tremendously inspired by living outside of where I'm from. Living outside of your comfort zone rewires your brain," he said.
I also asked him about designing for an international footprint and when it feels right to design for a global audience. "You will gain a lot from taking a more global perspective early," he explained. "Be able to speak the language of more people around the world." And when the business grows and is ready for a bigger phase, he said, "There's a lot of value in longitudinal research. What if we spend three months or six months in a region? When you're embedded in a market, experiencing challenges first-hand, it gives you more wisdom and knowledge to impact more people — and you gain critical insights that can shape the future of your product."
In addition to designing for a global audience, Ian emphasized the importance of inclusive design. "We underestimate how to design more inclusively, and I'd love to see the industry do better," he said. "It takes a long time for organizations to rewire their defaults. All my experiences have helped me think outside of myself more, and we can never do enough of that."