The Instagram Effect

The Instagram Effect: Commercial Real Estate in the Age of the Selfie

Since its release in 2010 and acquisition by Facebook within two years, Instagram has experienced exponential growth, hitting a record 1 billion users in June of 2018. The photo- and video-sharing app now boasts over 35 billion photos posted to date and averages 52 million posted daily.

This multimedia platform is changing the way that people experience and engage with the world around them. While the impact on the food and fashion industries is clearer, Instagram is also influencing the construction and design of commercial properties. As a recent article in the Guardian says, “In this digital age, the places we choose to visit, eat, [work,] and stay at increasingly need to be Instagrammable.”

Psychology of Instagram

The effectiveness of Instagram can be attributed to the fact that each post evokes some sort of emotion, from appreciation and joy to jealousy and envy. Often times, those photos deemed “Instagram-worthy” provoke feelings of FOMO – a desire to visit and share the same experience. But the pressure to stand out against millions of other photos means that properties have to step up their design game.

Impact on CRE

The Macmillan dictionary defines “’grammable” as “something that’s worthy of being photographed and posted online via the Instagram photo-sharing application”. For users, “Insta-worthy” means visually appealing photos that showcase the highlights of life, that captivate interest by featuring unique shots, and that grow more followers; mediocrity is frankly unacceptable.

With that in mind, properties are making deliberate decisions and choices about design, striving to create shareworthy spaces that will look good on Instagram. Why? Instagram has become a valuable channel for organically reaching new audiences and a powerful promotional tool for driving business, be it staying at a particular hotel, visiting a new bar or restaurant, shopping at a certain store, or going to work in a specific office. In fact, almost 75% of Instagram users take action by visiting a website or physical location after seeing an eye-catching post for that property on the platform. Now the trend is to design an Instagram-destination for influencers, tourists, and social media aficionados, and there are even design firms that specialize in creating “Instagrammable” spaces.

Features and Elements of Instagrammable Spaces

The key to creating Instagram bait is designing a unique and memorable experience. A 2016 article in Atlas Obscura summed it up as “arty, but not exactly art; unbranded, but instantly recognizable; off-the-beaten-path, but hugely popular”. The most effective spaces often take the following into consideration:

  • Color: The color palette should be photogenic; consider bold hues or a bright monochromatic scheme.
  • Light: Natural lighting is preferable, but even artificial lighting should be flattering and filter-ready.
  • Texture: Background materials should be photo-friendly, such as slate, concrete, brick, or reclaimed wood.
  • Pattern: Floor tiles and accent walls are common areas to place an interesting and eye-catching pattern.
  • Greenery: A living wall or hanging greenery provides an enticing backdrop for photos, offers a contrast to more manufactured design, and adds a natural element.
  • Details: Unexpected, whimsical, off-scale, or intricate architectural details emphasize the uniqueness of the location.
  • Art: Graphic art, an oversize 3D sculpture, a neon light display, or any other spectacle of sheer ostentation are almost guaranteed to become a digital destination.

With these guidelines in mind, Instagram-friendly spaces are practically destined to become digital landmarks – even more than physical ones.

The Instagram Effect

A recent article suggests, “Humans have always sought out beauty in their surroundings […] but lately the omnipresence of Instagram, and social networks like it, has accelerated and transformed that quest.” Indeed, Instagram has served to democratize industries that previously required wealth, luxury, and glamour to “go viral”. Now a locally-owned store or boutique hotel has many of the same opportunities as its chain counterpart to gain followers and win business.

Read ahead to learn about the impact this photo and video platform has had on different types of commercial properties.


In retail, creating Instagrammable spaces goes beyond just visual merchandising. Retail locations need to be highly visual, memorably immersive, immediately shareable, and deliberately designed to be photographed. Stores were once just places to store and sell products, but now they also have to tell a story.


Features such as interactive design, art installations, and selfie walls show well on Instagram. These spaces also promote creativity and innovation, help to build company culture, and can be valuable in recruiting Millennials.


According to Quartz, “Travel has always been as much about documenting the experience as actually doing it, but the age of Instagram has taken the quality of proof to hyper-competitive heights.” Instead of acquiring physical souvenirs to commemorate vacations, travelers seek out geotagged selfies, artsy shots, and emotionally-rich images that imply status on Instagram. Rich textiles, bold patterns, whimsical furniture, luxurious carpets, creative lighting, eclectic décor features, contrasting color and texture, and even themed rooms are key to creating social-worthy spaces, from the hotel entrance to the lobby bar to each individual room. And this strategy definitely pays off. Data from mobile travel app HotelTonight found that Millennials would rather stay in a hotel room that looks good on Instagram than one that is cheap, and 1 in 3 people book a vacation after seeing a hotel or destination on Instagram.


Restaurants have two big opportunities to create Instagram bait: their menu and their physical space. Eateries are investing in graphic tiles, eye-catching art installations, living walls, and neon light displays to draw diners’ cameras. And of course, neutral backgrounds and natural lighting ensure the food photographs well.


Until recent, many museums banned photography. Now we are at a point on the opposite end of the spectrum where photography is not only accepted but encouraged, with spaces being designed specifically for picture-taking and photo-sharing. Several pop-up art galleries and installations have been touring the country with the sole purpose of offering immersive, interactive photo opportunities and experiences, i.e. Instagram-centric art.

  • The Happy Place exhibit includes a bathtub full of rubber duckies, a confetti dome, and a giant pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
  • The Color Factory exhibit features a room with 10,000 multi-colored floor-to-ceiling ribbons, a monochromatic ball pit with over 200,000 balls, and rainbow-hued stairs.
  • The Museum of Ice Cream boasts a sprinkle pool, a room of oversized sherbet-colored lollipops and gummy bears, and a pop rocks cave.

To be successful, these spaces must take every single element of design into consideration, from colors to construction to lighting to flooring.

People increasingly make decisions about where and how to spend their time based on their ability to digitally consume the experience. As that has happened, the builders, designers, and curators who create these spaces have had to adapt, too. These trends do not appear to be going away any time soon and will continue to be an important driver for commercial real estate construction and design.

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