Engagement In the Grid: 3 Ways Creative Professionals Can Approach Their Instagram Feeds
Geoff Levy / Director & Photographer
From about the moment I was introduced to Instagram, I’ve had contention with it. What it meant to be a photographer on a platform that was quickly becoming the forefront of image sharing meant deciding one of two actions: either call the bluff of its potential or buy in and figure out how to be a part of it. A lot of photographers, like myself, made the jump from places like flickr and 500px to the then solely-squared image grids, as it appeared that audiences were rapidly growing there. It became a place not just for photographers but for anyone with a creative capacity to get to know the format to help tell their story. Designers, authors, poets, athletes, brands, celebrities – you name it. Instagram has found its way to the center of the arts community.
Call me dramatic, but Instagram has nailed excitement in sharing more than any other platform before it. And as much as new algorithms make us scoff, new features incite a groan of feared obsolescence, and feed disconnection gets preached, it’s safe to say that Instagram firmly has us by the neck skin. In the creative community, we’re both continued active participants and investors in its value.
I’ve had many conversations with friends and people I respect about the pitfalls of over-participation, and how the best medicine they’ve found is to sever ties with Instagram. While I’ve taken data-fasts before (especially from Instagram), I’ve found that a complete embargo just does not feel right. To not be a part of it feels like missing out on a larger conversation in the new age of the internet. There are numerous talents I’ve been inspired by, friends I’ve made, cultural issues I now am much more involved in – all because of Instagram. It has also provided me with a deep appreciation of the layered humor buried within meme culture. Lolz aside, having access to the platform has undoubtedly influenced my work and knowledge as a creator. I can be grateful for that.
This is a bit of brass tacks in regards to Instagram: it’s relevant, professionally speaking. It is a very engaged-in platform where media is consumed and exhibited both by other artists and those who hire us to make work. Photo editors, art producers, and hiring creatives all cross-reference artists’ handles when researching. Some even check it first, prioritizing it above the average portfolio website. After all, it’s expected to show the most current display of that person’s work, as well as a candid sensibility and that artist’s personality; all of this is important when choosing to work with someone new.
Since companies are so wary of being dragged by users, they must do some screening into their content creators and make sure their presence isn’t a radical departure from brand agnosticism. They want to both background check us as well as see how we can make Instagram-friendly work. As annoying as it may be, a lot of us are being contracted to make things that will ultimately end up on Instagram. Artistic integrity aside, it’s tough shit if you don’t believe your presence there matters.
But we should not divorce the relevance and positive from the wearing mental effects it’s had on us. It’s safe to say that there has been a societal unconscious influence thanks to Instagram, but that’s too broad strokes to cover in one written piece. Instead, in the spirit of Working Not Working, this article aims to focus on the specific methodology of engagement the creative community has and can take on Instagram, while also considering the personal effects that engagement in the platform can cause.
If you’re wondering why the two are intertwined, my response is this: when I only use Instagram recreationally, I end up feeling separate from how I could be using it strategically, alienated from the arresting user experiences displayed in multiple-thousand follower accounts. When I view it only from a strategic lens, I fail to associate it with influence and recreation – traits that are authentically enjoyable parts of the platform. I think we should be mindful of our engagement on Instagram, having tentpoles of how to both execute and digest.
And so, how do you it? How does one Instagram? How does one build a brand, maintain a personality, create a vehicle for work exhibition, and demonstrate growth all in a format that appears rigid but has also allowed more people than ever to creatively express themselves. Oh, and enjoy it?
I’d like to simplify the question into: How do you create a set of rules that both encourages engagement in the platform and allows you to keep an appropriate mental and emotional distance?
While it may be a psychiatric mistake to confuse an Instagram following with a new-world currency, I believe a healthier professional and mental partitioning can take place. One that lets the creative control their behavior on the platform, and not feel like they are part of a system that dictates the work they make. A way to set rules for oneself when engaging in the content creation. And with this, I’d like to present some schools of thought when approaching your feed as a creative.
The first would be to establish aesthetic themes that allow people to digest your sensibilities from thumbnail view. This often involves planning how future posts will play off of current and past ones, if only from seeing the zoomed-out grid, seeing the feed as an infinite game of tic-tac-toe, where each post contrasts the previous one, while still having a connective theme. To your typical travel-blogger, this pattern could look like: selfie - landscape - selfie - food item - selfie - airplane window. This may sound uninspired, but it truly works to establish a consistency. In that consistency: a formulaic trust in the account. When digested in a regular feed on the vertically-scrolling home screen, the posts feel individually interesting and non-reliant on the content surrounding it. But when zoomed out, we realize the greater narrative as the posts aesthetically play off their surroundings. As posts become buried, they become woven into the infinite fabric of an account’s identity.
While this sounds formulaic, there are still infinite ways to customize in this format and find creative opportunities. Aesthetic changes can gradient in a way that feels both like a natural growth and conscious artistic design choice. Multiple photos from a single shoot can live two posts over from each other, nodding at a third image that can nod back at them both. This can be thematically expansive.
Think: a portrait shot on a tan background next to a tan landscape shot in the dessert. Now you’ve drawn an intention between your produced image and one that you found, if only by color palette but potentially more. The following post can be a departure or gradation from this triptych. At least there will be a dialogue between the images surrounding these posts – an inevitable expansion of how those images inform those around them. If played and planned correctly, the conversation will be continuous.
The second is to subvert the single-image posts. This is something I do myself, as I make an infinite mosaic scrapbook. This allows me to tie multiple styles of images together under a uniformed display approach. It’s a way to let formatting and editing be an aesthetic staple, as opposed to just the images themselves dictating the layout. The deeper idea at play here is to demonstrate an understanding of the format. Acknowledge the obvious rules and the resulting expectations, and then disrupt them. Destabilize these rules, ignore them, and create your own principles where posts bleed into each other. Create a narrative between two images (or more) in a single piece of content. This isn’t just limited to collaging but is open to anything that blends across multiple posts. A reference is Anderson Paak’s account, whose posts are a gradient of interconnected art pieces. Each post individually has relevance while contributing to the larger aesthetic narrative of the artist. This methodology is a true challenge to play in but can be gratifying once a creative solution emerges.
The third is to not buy in, to not take the aesthetic rules too seriously, and to simply make your account an honest reflection of yourself. Do not focus on your creative identity but instead trust that this will come across no matter what you do, if only by minding a couple of basic rules like posting content that is inherently interesting as well as authentically in your voice. You don’t worry about the narrative formed between multiple posts but rather demonstrate your avatar as a candid personality who just so happens to create. You’d give the sense that you’re the person someone would rather get a beer with than envy creation from. It’d be a display of levity – one that’s hard for most people to exude. At least at this point, I do not associate with this myself but recognize it commonly in more mature artists. A person that comes to mind is the remarkable photographer Cass Bird. Her account partly shows her work (which also displays a spectacular merriment and lightness), but more often her posts show her intimate relationship with her family. Her admiration for her partner, her adoration of her children, the authenticity of her friendships – all in beautiful moments proudly displayed on an account that seems not overly considered.
If you’re a person that is looking to boycott the platform and poke holes in the mental health repercussions of playing the game, then this writing hasn’t been for you. While I salute you, this article is meant to conjure thought-starters for those who decide to engage in Instagram. We can grab a beer with our phones down to discuss toxicity another time, but this is an aim to curb curmudgeon philosophies and instead play ball in a way that feels good to us and reframes Instagram as a place of good for ourselves and our potential audiences. Separate from content planning strategies, I cannot change nor convince anyone to alter their mental engagement with the platform, but I do encourage checking in with your own brain to ask what engagement in Instagram is doing for it.
As a final sermon, I’ll say this: in our practice as artists, we should always be creating work with staying power. Work with communication and emotional value greater than gridded thumbnails and square layouts. Don’t let the term “content” cheapen your art. All art can be content (if posted), but not all content is art. Don’t ignore the presence of contextualizing your work for the easy grasp of the masses, but also don’t let it drive the importance of what you make. Partition what you make for yourself from what you make for the internet. Just because you’re unsure how it will be received on social media doesn’t mean that the seed of the idea that’s scratching at your soul doesn’t have a home. Instagram isn’t a parameter for your art; it’s a visible publication platform. Use it as you may but in a healthy, holistic context that doesn’t touch the reasons you create nor your psyche.
Geoff Levy is New York-based director and photographer. Prior to pursuing freelance commercial and editorial work, Geoff worked as an art director for advertising giant Ogilvy, where he collected awards for Cannes Lions, One Show, and Clio Awards. His client list includes Google, Adidas, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Ikea and his work has been featured in publications such as Paper Magazine, Elle, Fast Company, and The Atlantic.
Models: Cesar Ernesto & Dominique shaw / Director: Geoff Levy / Cinematographer: Chris Tharp / Editor: Andrew Nemirosky / Stylist: Dominick Barcelona / Prop Stylist: Caylah Leas / Art Director: Gabriela Damato / Assistant: Joe Perri