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Instagram’s Latest App Makes Photo Collage Beautiful

But why is it a separate app at all?

Instagram has just released Layout, a new single-serving app, à la Hyperlapse, that satisfies itself with doing just one thing well: mashing up as many as nine photographs into a single Instagram or Facebook image. It’s now available for iPhone, and is easy to use and easy on the eyes, but it begs the question: Why is this a separate app at all?

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Here’s how Layout for Instagram works. Upon loading up the app, you start by tapping up to nine images. You can choose photos to collage from your Photo Library, from the most recent photos you’ve taken, or–cleverly–from a pool of photos that contain people’s faces. As you tap on the photos you want to collage, Layout will start suggesting possible framing patterns at the top of the screen, depending on the number of photos you have selected. Tap the one you want, and the next screen will allow you to zoom in, flip, mirror, and size individual frames. From there, you can save the image to your camera roll, open it in Instagram or Facebook, or push it to another app.

The thing about truly simple design is once you see it put into action, you sort of marvel trying to imagine how it could have ever been any other way. Layout makes you feel like that. It takes a genre of utility app that seems like it couldn’t possibly be any simpler–photo collagers–and streamlines the entire process. Trying to use any other app that mashes photos together, like Diptic, now feels antediluvian.

The big thing about Layout that’s different from other apps is it makes you choose the photos you want to collage first, instead of having you choose the layout. This seems like such an obvious way to go about things, yet every single photo collage app has always asked you to choose a layout before you decide what photos to fill it with. When you think about it, no one buys a frame before they decide what picture they want to hang on their wall, after all. It’s ass-backward, and yet I never once noticed it until I used Layout. That’s just great design thinking.

This simplicity comes at a price, though. Compared to other photo collage apps, Layout has fewer options. It doesn’t let you apply individual filters to every photo, for example, or overlay it with text, or insert stickers and word balloons, or frame your collage in a Lisa Frank-style pattern. Those are things I’ve seen similar apps do. But unless you’re a preteen, my guess is you wouldn’t notice. Layout contents itself with arranging multiple images in a single square photo as simply and beautifully as possible, and letting the photos speak for themselves.

This was also true of Hyperlapse, an app people used for all of a week before Apple baked the same time-lapsing, video-smoothing functionality right into iOS 8’s default camera app. Hopefully, Layout’s staying power will be a little longer, but why are these separate apps at all? Why not bake them right into the core app where people can actually discover them?

A possible answer is that they’re trying to avoid creating an unwieldy experience by shoehorning three somewhat different experiences into a single UI; but, without being integrated into the Instagram experience, both Layout and Hyperlapse have the burden of trying to get people to remember them. And that seems like a shame, given the fact that both are, in many ways, better designed than the social network that spawned them.

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