Designers, Stop Calling Your Work "Iconic"

Unless it's an actual symbol, dampen the enthusiasm a little, huh?

When Google Glass introduced prescription frames to go along with its famously weird-looking wearable tech yesterday, lead Glass designer Isabelle Olsson threw down a particularly loaded characterization of the product's latest update. In explaining how her team approached the design process, she said "We... infused our sense of minimalism and lightness—which is part of our DNA—and simplified them into these iconic styles."

Sorry, what? A brand-new product that's iconic? It’s a common bit of parlance in the design world, among designers and marketers who naturally aspire to a certain timeless panache (arts journalists toss it around plenty, too). A word once reserved for symbols or religious images, an icon can now be pretty much anything easily recognizable. Or anything deemed a little bit exciting, if you start to read enough press releases. But the more we call every creation "iconic," the less impact the word has. If every new tech product is an icon, how do we describe something that truly changed the tech world, like the iPod? If every new tall structure is an iconic piece of architecture, what do we call the instantly identifiable silhouette of the Eiffel Tower?

Look how the usage of the word has shot up in books over time, as demonstrated by Google Ngram Viewer:

The noun "icon" has seen an even greater increase, though its usage has also dipped since 2000:

"I mean the numbers are small—they show that icon and iconic are not everyday words," says Anne Curzan, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Michigan. "But to get that kind of rise—particularly with icon—is striking."

The Corpus of Contemporary English, another database, shows that iconic is most frequently used in magazine writing, compared to its use in newspapers, scholarly writing, fiction or spoken language. Since 2001, its usage has increased more than fourfold.

Here are just a few of the things we've seen described as "iconic" recently:

The Magic Wand vibrator
Axor's designer bathroom collections
Paper Pups "3-D objects"
Joe Colombo's 4801 armchairs

Cable design jewelry
More cable design jewelry
The diamond in this brooch
Bruce Lee's tracksuit
Andy Warhol's advertisements inspired by the Absolut bottle
The Nike+ FuelBand

Artist César Baldaccini's Pouce series
Barbara Chase-Riboud Malcolm X sculptures.
Ormond Gigli's photo Girls in the Windows
The British lifestyle and fashion publication i-D
The Edgewater hotel in Madison, Wisconsin
Royal Botania’s Wave and Surf hammocks
LifeLink's compact smartphone cable design
Tracey Emin's neon artwork
The gesture that turns a page in Flipboard
L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in 2003
Brooklyn's year-old Barclays Center

The xB urban utility vehicle by Scion
UCLA's basketball stadium
Method's soap bottle

Brunschwig & Fils fabric house
The product packaging of hair care company Sebastian Professional
The outerwear silhouette created by a nautical jacket
Virgin Atlantic's uniforms
The curves of the future Crown Sydney hotel in Australia
W hotels
This temporary tattoo company
Club Monaco's "wardrobe staples"
The Isokon Penguin Donkey book rack
Lexus's "spindle grille"
Peace Frogs T-shirts
Isaac Mizrahi's fashions
The Far Rockaway branch of New York’s Queens Public Library
The Hard Rock Cafe's "culinary and musical culture"
Supermodel Kate Moss

Our own writing here at Co.Design isn't beyond reproach. Things we've dropped the I word on: wrinkled hotdogs and Slurpees at 711, these Nikes, the sound of an iPhone text message alert. All of which may perhaps be recognizable signatures to each brand and perhaps even significant to design as a whole. But what makes something actually "iconic"?

The word's origins have been traced back to around the 17th century, when it made its way into English from the Latin and Greek words for likeness or image, according to the Oxford English Dictionary's etymology. Here’s its official meaning, according to the gatekeepers at the OED:

Of or pertaining to an icon, image, figure, or representation; of the nature of a portrait; spec. in Art, applied to the ancient portrait statues of victorious athletes commonly dedicated to divinities, and hence to memorial statues and busts executed according to a fixed or conventional type.

For years, the word "icon" was mainly associated with the artwork of Orthodox churches. "It has for centuries been indissolubly linked to Christian images of Jesus, Mary, the agony, the deposition, and so on," as Jonathan Meades wrote in the Economist's Intelligent Life a few years ago.

Image: Spiral Jetty via Wikipedia

It wasn't used to mean influential or representative of a cultural movement until 1976, when Newsweek referred to a photo of sculptor Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" as such, at least according to the OED, which added this additional definition to its online version in 2006:

Designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context.

"Now, [the word 'iconic'] is not a representative in the sense of a carved statue, but something that people can look at and immediately think of," Suzanne Kemmer, a linguist at Rice University, tells Co.Design. "Something that is emblematic."

Kemmer throws out "the iconic iPhone" as an example of this new meaning: "It stands for the best of all possible designs in smartphones." This isn’t necessarily a negative thing. "People want to make a strong statement," she says. "It has become a praiseworthy way of saying something is the best of all things."

Part of the reason for its overuse, she says, is that it hits a linguistic "sweet spot" with a meaning people have been looking to express. "People want to say something that impresses, or they want to make some kind of intense statement about something. That word is a good one."

As the meaning of the word has expanded, so has people's desire to use it, which is why it can seem meaningless at times. "They can stretch it to things that are not particularly important," like, for instance, "the iconic washing machine," as Kemmer puts it. That’s not a phrase that evokes a specific product or image, unless, maybe, you’re a particularly gung-ho washing machine salesman. For most people, there’s no one washing machine that represents a culture or a movement.

So when can you brand something with the big I without sounding like a pompous ass? For one thing, whatever it is, it should probably be at least a few years old. Marilyn Monroe can be iconic. She’s representative of a certain culture, even to people who weren’t alive then. The design of the paperclip? Sure! No one thinks of these other paperclip shapes when they’re looking for a way to fasten pages together. The iPhone? It’s pretty new, but it has been perhaps the single most influential product in redefining how we think about what a cell phone can be. It passes the test.

Google Glass may one day be an icon of wearable tech, but sorry, Glass, you’re not quite there yet when it comes to eyeglass frames, a realm where there's already plenty of iconic competition. Let’s give it some time and see if anyone is still talking about the shape of your eyewear in a decade. Then we can talk.

Add New Comment


  • While we're talking about design idioms, I'd like to add "intuitive" to both the overused and misused list. Not only is the frequency high, but the fact that intuition requires instinct seems to be overlooked in almost all instances. Case in point, "an intuitive interface".

  • Joe Szczepaniak

    Sorry, Shaunacy, but you're way off with this lame example you open with. Google Glass is already iconic. It's astounding, but true. That word does not mean "relating to a small glyph for web or print use." Lame example.

  • I agree it's not up to the brand or designer to label their product as iconic. I recently wrote a press release draft where I referred to my new product as a "new icon". My copywriter explained to me how this was a misuse of the term, not authentic and I shouldn't try to get away with it.

  • Kerem Özcan

    Not to be harsh, but another thing that the other readers didn't mention until this point; icons are NOT symbols, though that's a common modern misuse. Google the differences between icon and symbol.

  • Reminds me of the old Charles Eames quote "An artist is a title that you earn, and it's a little embarrassing to hear people refer to themselves as an artist... it's like referring to themselves as a genius." Iconic designs just like true artists are decided by history.

  • This is what people are referring to when they ask if you "understood" what you just read. Where are your editors?

    As previous commenters have mentioned, Olsson was referring to the 8 iconic shapes that most eyeglass frames skew towards.

    Also, Google Glass is iconic - for better or worse. Moving forward, anytime anyone mentions "wearables" and refers to it in the context of glasses, you'll most likely think of Google Glass first.

  • Whether or not Google Glass is an iconic design isn't something that can be determined today. Iconic design stands the test of time. Your statement is the equivalent of someone in 1992 saying the IBM Simon is an iconic smartphone design and that all future mentions of smartphone will be compared to it.

  • Joe Reed

    Shaunacy, I suppose you make a decent point but the premise that Isabelle Olsson used the term improperly is a bad jumping-off point. As other commenters noted already, she was referring to the iconic designs of classic frame styles. And they are, in a word, iconic. Seems like you should establish a "best practice" baseline for the use of the word rather than gun down anyone and everyone who uses the term from here on. Ultimately, your fairly valid point is undermined by the fact that you start off by swatting Olsson for what was actually a proper use of the word.

  • It's similar to how every new Disney release is proclaimed a "new CLASSIC". As far as Google Glass, they were referring to the styles, not the actual product itself, but I get your point.

  • "Iconic" is a rather modest descriptive when it comes to the mostly over-the-top boldfaced lies and false endorsements brand marketers, politicians, PR agents, and others put out on a daily basis about the products and services they sell to the consumer and government.... sometimes knowingly putting end users in harm's way. I’m on the designers’ side on this one, way on their side.

    What's more, you don't have to be old to be iconic. Mac was iconic from day 1, as was the BMW grill, Volvo grill. Waring blender, SX-70 film, G1 flight jacket, David Yurman jewelry (NOT cable jewelry), - all were iconic when from the beginning because the designs resonated with peers as representative of something special about a category, and the same with the consumers who embraced them.

    You've gone from taking issue with the use of iconic, to plain being just a mean person who doesn’t know when to stop. Sort of…, "Iconic".


  • Harry Falber

    What's more, you don't have to be old to be iconic. Mac was iconic from day 1, as was the BMW grill, Volvo grill. Waring blender, SX-70 film, G1 flight jacket, David Yurman jewelry (NOT cable jewelry), - all were iconic when from the beginning because the designs resonated with peers as representative of something special about a category, and the same with the consumers who embraced them

    You've gone from taking issue with the use of iconic, to plain being just a mean person who doesn’t know when to stop. Sort of "Iconic".


  • The funny thing is, one of the textbook definitions for 'iconic' is 'Having a conventional formulaic style.' It's kind of morphed into meaning setting the mold for a conventional style.

    As an aside, the design world is so male-dominated, and teeming with male designers who have gargantuan egos — something that seems to be expected and accepted. I'm disappointed to see this article attack a fiercely talented female lead designer, labeling her a "pompous ass" for using a pretty standard industry term to describe a hugely groundbreaking tech project.

  • The Google comment was referring to EXISTING iconic eyewear styles, not stating their own design was iconic. And the styles they refer to are indeed iconic and found in collections of most eyewear brands. Please, think for a second before writing a bs article like this.

    What happened to Co.Design? It feels like this turned into some kind of playground for writers who know absolutely nothing about, and have absolutely no interest in what is REALLY going on in the field of design. Let's summarize some of the latest headlines on Co.Design:

    "Celebrities Turned Into "Star Wars" Action Figures" "What Middle-Earth Would Look Like From Space" "22 Animated GIFs That Are Up For Their Own Version Of The Oscars" "181 Breeds Of Dog On One Awesome Poster" "CMYK Cards Let You Play Texas Hold 'Em With Color"

    What is this, buzzfeed?

  • I agree with your sentiment about the overuse of the term iconic. But I think in this case Ms. Olsson was just referring to the shapes of the classic frames they adopted. -Onur

  • I don't usually comment on articles, but this one is a little too much.

    Using google search data as proof that designers are idiots? I search the term "icon" or "iconic representation of __" all the time. Icons—the little clickable kind, not the Michael Jackson kind—are a part of everyday life more than they have ever been before.

    And the Google comment about them simplifying the glasses "...into these iconic styles"—they're not saying that they've created NEW iconic styles, they're saying that the designs they've come up with are made to emulate iconic glasses styles that have been around for decades.

    Come on, Shaunacy.