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icon, econ, youcon, or is it just a con?

Fx June 2008

Aidan Walker’s new monthly column gets off the line in search of that mythical beast the design icon

Last month Harrods was running a marketing promotion called ‘Design Icons’. The store was hung with signs in suitably iconic News Gothic bold condensed, advertising the fact that Harrods, despite (or perhaps because of) its iconic status as the world’s most traditionally patrician department store, is very much alive to the value of iconic design – and by the way, you can buy it here. The supporting lecture series, organised in conjunction with the Design Museum, set out to explore the nature and meaning of a design icon, or iconic design, which is not perhaps the same thing. The programme includes Arup’s Alastair Lansley, the chief architect of St Pancras International, Vivienne Westwood (iconic individual if ever there was one), Ross Lovegrove, Richard Sapper, and Concorde pilot and chronicler Christopher Orlebar. Kicking the whole thing off was a debate between fashion designer Roland Mouret, Alessi UK MD Matteo Alessi, Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, and humble self. The subject: What Makes a Design Iconic?.

The initial reaction to the idea is that it isn’t an especially groundbreaking subject for debate, since almost every designer’s conversation is littered with the word ‘iconic’. (‘Classic’ too, but that’s another story.) But then it gets gnarly. When uttered in conjunction with the word design, what is usually meant is a) good design, b) mass recognition of same and c) outstanding longevity and endurance of both the work and the recognition. But do they know what they’re talking about? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary puts it thus: ‘… From the Greek, e???? likeness, image, similitude. 1. An image, figure, or representation; a portrait; an illustration in a book (1727). B. An image in the solid; a statue. 2. Eastern Ch. A representation of some sacred personage, itself regarded as sacred, and honoured with a relative worship.’ Not much help there then, to express this idea of some enduring and deeply truthful value. Collins’ Concise adds: ‘a person regarded as a sex symbol or as a symbol of a belief or cultural movement,’ which is fine when we’re talking about Marilyn Monroe, Che Gevara or even perhaps Philippe Starck, but doesn’t throw light on the nature of the designed object.

To my mind, if we really want to understand what makes a design iconic and how such a piece of work is different from other designs that do the same job, the path we should follow is the one signposted ‘meaning’. This is the only point where the dictionary definition and how people use the term in everyday design life come anywhere near together. An iconic design means something, almost always to a mass of people. It has resonances, it is recognised, respected. It is a benchmark; it is enduring, timeless, with as much relevance today as it had when it first came out. Much more relevance, in fact, as we shall see.

But that demon ‘meaning’ brings with it a whole host of other gremlins. Apart from straightforward function, it’s safe to say that most designs of any value carry with them a set of significances which act as primary attractors. They tell the world something about the person owning / using them; this person is cool, this one is funky, this one is ahead of the game, this one is a traditionalist. But those signals are by and large false messengers, superficial and transient, in the realm of fashion. If the designer intends to give his or her work meaning, then he/she had better be prepared to be called an artist, for art can exist with no practical function other than to mean something, while design must have practical function and does not have to have meaning. A design that speaks its function through its form? That’s a different matter under the headings of visual language and product semantics.

Keep our noses on this trail, and we discover that what defines a design icon is almost certainly not the designer’s intention. It is the mysterious and magical process by which the work acquires or is invested with its mysterious and magical iconic quality (see above, relevance). It means something – loads of things – to loads of people, things which the designer almost certainly never intended. This explains why iconic design is often not very good design. Or, in the case of the Harley

Davidson motorcycle, not design at all. A partnership of two highly respected product designers, both of them motorcycle fanatics and with a couple of convincing (though not iconic) motorcycle designs under their own belts, contributed to a BBC tv series a few years ago entitled, not Design Icons but Design Classics. The Harley Davidson ElectraGlide, the big touring bike with loads of extra bodywork bits, came in for an awful thrashing. To avoid libel, let’s just say the verdict was that this is inherently a design that evolved rather than was conceived. The sublimely ridiculous version, the bike ridden by Peter

The Electra Glide: Freedom America style, but as a piece of motorycle design it sucks

Fonda’s Captain America character in the (iconic) 1967 movie Easy Rider, seems to have paid no attention whatsoever to practicality, rideability or comfort. The tiny teardrop tank holds about a US gallon, enough to take a bike like this about 30 miles (long straight roads leading to the horizons of the mythical west anyone? Not unless there’s a gas station every few miles or a tanker trailing you not far behind), there is no rear suspension and only a rudimentary front spring, no front brake and forks so long that turning a more than barely perceptible corner requires superhuman skill and courage. But hell, it’s an icon all right – the look, the myth. And the myth here is one of America’s most powerful – freedom.

From the designs included in the Harrods’ list – some of which I must say I have serious issue with as an icon in any of the terms of definition – and spreading the net wider to include icons that no one would argue with but are not necessarily design icons (Routemaster bus = London, Eiffel Tower = Paris, Marilyn Monroe = sexual revolution, Che Guevara = youthful, idealistic revolution), one concludes that the concept has limited value, certainly when you are trying to nail down good design. It’s one of those tricks that language occasionally plays; everyone knows what is meant but no one knows what it means. Currently my best icon money is on the latest offering from Apple under the redoubtable Jonathan Ives, the iPhone, which I strongly believe will revolutionise our use of the mobile world wide web. This is a product I wanted long before I knew it existed. Here is an object of desire that looks beautiful and works not just well but beautifully, inside and out. It’s so… right. It’s also got icons. And as for whether that does or doesn’t make it a piece of iconic design, frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.

Aidan welcomes responses and comments, positive or otherwise, as long as they are reasonably polite:


• iPhone: perhaps too early to be sure it will be an icon, but it certainly ticks all the boxes, and it is great design as well. Not just easy to use, but a downright delight to use. Bravo.

• Harley Electra Glide: Iconic for some. For others, it’s heavy, hard to handle, and turns corners only marginally better than a shopping trolley with a stuck wheel.

• Captain America’s Easy Rider bike: Worse yet, but more iconic. No suspension to speak of, no front brake, range of about 30 miles, turning corners positively dangerous; but as an icon, it’s hard to beat.

• Juicy Salif lemon squeezer by Philippe Starck. Iconic of… what? The triumph of style over substance? Once used as murder weapon in a movie, we hear. May or may not carry many messages, but none of them have to do with squeezing lemons. • Dyson vacuum. Again it’s love or hate. User reviews (eg give it 3.6 out of 10 overall and the highest mark (just over 5) is for style. But that visible rubbish churning about behind the window makes it all worthwhile, in an iconic sort of way. • Curve Coke bottle. What is there to say? Count the messages, many of them to do with quintessential Americana. Also can be a refreshing drink. • Chanel No.5. I quote Marilyn Monroe: ‘What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No.5 of course.’ Nuff said. • Ipod. Did we ever think we could carry our entire record collection wherever we went? Did we want to? And answer me this; there are many MP3 players out there, many with the same capacity, almost all cheaper. Why does the iPod rule? • Tizio lamp: a million movie art directors can’t be wrong. • Arco lamp: likewise. A glorious, extravagant statement about light and comfort – and it works.

Posted in FX Column - assorted design writings.