Most people think that curating content for Instagram is all fun and games. Sure, it's fun, but the truth is that it takes an expert eye and a strategic mind to make visual assets impactful, especially on social.
We asked creative consultant and art director Casey Zhang to spill some secrets about how to make Instagram both pretty and on-brand. She kindly let us in on her process.
Now is when you should be grabbing your notebook. 📒✏️
Telling a story using only images is not something any joe on the street can do. It takes a keen aesthetic eye, a sense of branding, as well as a masterful understanding of composition, patterns, color, and lighting. Basically, it’s something for the pros. The thing is, it’s also a requirement if you’re going to be running your brand’s Instagram account and social channels.
In this day and age, a business must curate a grid that is nothing less than fire and that takes the audience through the brand journey by way of carefully crafted visuals. Spoiler alert: social marketing is a golden opportunity to do exactly that by communicating with audiences via photos and videos.
Shaping these visual messages is always tons more difficult than anyone ever thinks it ever will be, and if you're a brand that cares about aesthetics (hint: you should), then you're going to want to keep reading.
We chatted with über talent Casey Zhang, a freelance creative consultant and art director, to get a glimpse into her process in an effort to help us, less composition-inclined folk, when it comes to crafting and curating content for social.
She's one of those people who understands the power of visuals and how to use them to tell stories and to convey specific vibes. In fact, one glance at her own Instagram gallery reveals her personal brand in an instant: thoughtful, minimalist, architectural, design-oriented, cool af.
And the girl is a natural: her career was an organic progression into what she was destined to be―a creative authority. She got her start on the digital marketing team at Urban Outfitters (pre-Instagram!), helping to grow the brand's audience from 80K to a whopping 2.4M followers, and continued on the social media path at Victoria's Secret PINK, Glossier, and most recently, Etsy.
"In each role, I realized I was balancing the strategic part of marketing with the creative side of content creation," muses Casey, "and I always found myself gravitating towards the creative side." She took the plunge into freelance life last fall and ran with her learnings, doing "more of a mix of art direction, styling, content creation, and strategy—which is a happy blend for me." We couldn't think of a better person to ask for social content curation tips from.
A beautiful instagram feed can mean the difference between success and failure, so this is kind of a big deal. Here's a peek into her process, along with some great guidelines to follow to get your Instagram gallery artistry on.
For creatives, inspiration can be found everywhere. If this kind of thing doesn't come naturally to you, remember that your environment can truly make your juices flow. Casey mentions that the city itself is one of her biggest muses: "New York is always inspiring me—I love the energy here and I’m drawn to the amount of stimulation and diversity that you can find in the city."
So if you're sitting at your desk day in and day out trying to come up with some cool creative concepts in vain, it might be time to take a walk. Grab your phone, trot around the sidewalks, peek into storefronts, sit on a terrace to people-watch, perch yourself on a park bench to take things in. You'll be surprised by how your mind reacts.
It's those kinds of little interactions that can trigger profound stimulation. Casey mentions a daily ritual of taking "a walk first thing in the morning to get a cold brew," a mundane activity that actually holds a lot brain power value: "It feels productive, energizing, and meditative all at the same time," she attests. Not sure about you, but we know what we're doing first thing tomorrow morning.
Creativity shouldn't have any boundaries, so if you want to follow established norms, you might be approaching things the wrong way and preventing yourself from being an original.
While a majority of Casey's clients always want to know about rules and best practices, she approaches social media content without a sense of right or wrong. "Guidelines and systems are wonderful to have in place as a brand," she concedes, "but the reality is that social media is constantly changing, and it’s important not to fence yourself in with rigid legacy rules around what’s ok to post and what’s not," she goes on to explain.
Every brand's values and strategy are different, but remembering to remove self-imposed barriers means allowing your brand to stay adaptable and open to change. Doing so will ultimately set you up for creating and executing a greater aesthetic vision that's explicitly crafted for social channels.
"Creating content that is intended specifically for social media use rather than just repurposing imagery that was created for a website or for a specific campaign" is something Casey always pushes brands to do because she's seen firsthand how much better it performs. Curating content serves not only a brand's aesthetic, but it's also there to help drive engagement—the apex of a happy social media marriage.
It's really, really easy to get hung up on the little details and obsess over the look of every post and the overall profile gallery... But it's not worth the internal agony. While Casey vouches that "it’s important to establish your visual identity and voice," she also mentions that there's a danger in becoming too fixated on the nitty gritty.
A consistency with your brand's overall aesthetic theme will reel in a loyal audience, "but I think there is a realness that people want to see that only comes through with a little bit of spontaneity and imperfection," she argues.
So the next time you're feeling insecure about your visual choices, just take a breath and keep your cool. It's not worth it to "get too fixated on any single post or how the grid will look at any particular time." We're inclined to take it from Casey.
You'll be relieved to know that even the pros have to battle internal conflict when it comes to curating content for the perfect Instagram gallery. Casey reassures us: "I struggle all the time!"
If it's hard for the experts, do the rest of us even stand a chance? Valid question, but rest assured, our feelings often get the best of us and mess with our confidence—we can all do it. "There’s a certain pressure that comes with the immediate feedback (or lack of feedback) you get on social," says Casey, explaining the anxiety that comes with manning a brand's narrative.
If you find yourself hitting a wall, just remember that experts are cut from the same cloth and that it happens to all of us. And when you're feeling stuck, go back to your happy place, take a walk, and find your inspiration again (see point #1).
If you start believing that you've perfected your craft and are resting on your laurels, you're only setting yourself up for eventual collapse. In fact, real experts can't stop, won't stop.
"I think of myself as a forever student, and I love continually learning from the people that I work and collaborate with," asserts Casey. Closing yourself off to learning opportunities is like shooting yourself in the foot and can quickly make your approach stale.
Casey learns something new on every project she works on, "whether it’s something about a different industry, a new skill, or even what I can do better as a freelancer." It's imperative to keep an open mind, but she also quips that "that’s what keeps it fresh and interesting." couldn't have said it better ourselves.
Curating content for a beautiful Instagram feed doesn't come naturally to most people, often because that's just not how their brains are wired. They might understand strategy, but they don't necessarily grasp how to approach aesthetics and visuals as it relates to a brand world.
If you're going to follow anyone's advice or mimic any creative person's process, it should unequivocally be Casey Zhang's. Now go follow her on Insta to upgrade your daily scrolls.