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:
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
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
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.
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.