The stuff we’re made of: What elevates certain designs to iconic status?

This week we’re telling the origin stories of three creative legacies. Here, by way of introduction, we try to figure out why certain ideas and objects have become so deeply entrenched in our cultural consciousness.


The term iconic is bandied about so much now, it’s changed its meaning. I have personally referred to Craig David’s Born To Do It album cover and white Baby G watches as iconic, but I think I was confusing iconicity with nostalgia and impeccable taste.

To my mind, a design becomes iconic when it elevates above its peers to become symbolic of its own genre. For some designs, its name becomes a byword for its product type, synonymous with its own description. Hoover is the most famous example. Post-it another. Lego too. Others are visual icons of their genre, seen as the most successful, prominent, widely acknowledged epicentre of all those orbiting around it. The Walkman, the iMac, Helvetica, Harry Beck’s tube map. If you see a water pistol in a film it’s probably a Supersoaker. No one ever expected high-end designer collabs coming to the rubberised boating shoe market, yet Crocs made it possible.

For this series of features, we narrowed down a huge list of designs that stand atop a pedestal in their category, leaving an indelible mark in the cultural consciousness. Ask anyone, no matter their football history knowledge, to imagine a great football kit and they’re probably thinking of Italia 90. Momofuku Ando’s instant noodles not only brought about an entirely new type of food but also an aesthetic of packaging design deeply imbued with an important time in Japanese history. And Nokia’s Snake game, as well as training an entire generation to be quick with their thumbs, started a chain reaction that re-envisioned the phone as a gaming device.

But what exactly is it that elevates designs to iconic status? “Icons are words in a language, shorthand for a more complex set of ideas reduced to one thing which stands for all of them,” says Deyan Sudjic OBE, design writer and broadcaster, and director emeritus of London’s Design Museum. Ultimately we are a material culture, he says, and “we cling to things to make sense of what’s going on”. Artefacts have long been used to tell stories about an era of society and “throw light on the culture around them” he adds. Hence designs that become representative of an era or a moment in time are evermore imbued with the otherwise ephemeral feelings of that time, and all the stories that go along with it.

Deyan refers to Alec Issigonis’ Mini, which was iconic technologically for having invented a new category of the car – “one of those designs that make a turning point, where others follow,” spawning an entirely new branch of ideas that wouldn’t otherwise exist. But the Mini is also culturally iconic, thanks to a very clever person in the Austin / BMC marketing department who came up with the idea to give the cars to “bright young things about town” such as Lord Snowden, much like products are given to influencers today. And so, the Mini became deeply enmeshed in the culture of that time, forever fused with Swinging 60s vibes, the youth movement and the time when British pop culture was the coolest thing on the planet. “It became the emblem of a certain moment of Englishness,” Deyan says, “a whole era wrapped up in one object,” which every single one of our chosen icons in this series has also achieved.

For her book Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things, author Grace Lees-Maffei boiled down what makes a design iconic into a checklist of four factors: reception, representation, recognition and reverence. First, “iconicity is in the eye of the beholder,” she tells me, and while many set out to create an icon, “it’ll only be iconic if people respond to it in that way”. It is subjective but it’s also collective, she adds. “You can’t have one person insisting something’s iconic because that’s a failed assertion until somebody else agrees with them.” That can be a big group, “such as the billions served by McDonald’s who agree the arches are iconic,” or a smaller one, such as trainer enthusiasts who can pinpoint an iconic vintage shoe, or the small niche for whom Born To Do It represents a world-opening portal into a lifelong devotion to RnB and Garage.

The second, representation, echoes Deyan’s comments in that they stand for a larger idea, which stems from religious iconography. “Religious icons have narratives attached to them which are known and established over thousands of years of retelling, whereas contemporary iconic designs have much more diffuse narratives in tow,” she says. Deyan agrees, and comments that both religious and contemporary icons are “objects of worship and fetishisation”.

The third, recognition, requires that iconic designs “need to be different from all the others” because, in the traditional sense, a pictorial icon needs to be universally recognised, much like Otl Aicher’s pictograms for the Munich Olympics. These “iconic icons” have been used as a measuring stick for all wayfinding systems thereafter. Essentially, Grace says, “iconicity is a function of communication” so if they aren’t recognised by a large group of people, they are simply not icons.

And lastly, reverence. On writing the book, Grace says she “began to see the term icon used as a call to attention. Journalists will use the word iconic to say ‘this is important and you should pay attention’.” Well, she’s right, you should.

Each of the objects we’ve chosen to focus on this week is a tangible symbol of a particular time and culture, so much of which is fleeting, and only physically lives on through the material goods they produced. In some ways they are so ubiquitous we don’t even realise or consciously consider the fact that someone came up with that in the first place. So each piece aims to deep-dive into the origin story of these designs, finding out more about the genesis of the idea that set in motion a thousand other ideas, and the lasting impact they’ve made on visual culture.

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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