How to Produce Your Own Design Icon
A scientific method to immortalize your brand.
We design to solve problems, to make our world better. These designs then in turn reflect our utopia — the best world. Only a few are then chosen as representative of what we find the most important or beautiful — only a few are iconic. Those iconic designs shape us as we shape them.
And they sell too. Iconic designs last long on the market, give great ROI and can change a brand for the better. They’re not the worst to end up with. Fortunately, I wrote about how designs become icons in my final thesis and can now tell you exactly how to make an icon yourself!
We, my colleague C. Schmidt and I, made the complete model — The Way to iconicity — over the path a design takes from being produced to becoming an icon. In the process, many design professors who’ve worked with and written about design icons were included, but not all are mentioned in this article.
Instead of you taking my word for it, let me take you through the entire process of making it, and in the end, show you which steps you can take to iconize your own design.
If you’re a bit impatient and want to know how to make your own design iconic now — I don’t blame ya, skip to The Way to Iconicity.
A design icon doesn’t become an icon overnight. They become so by accumulating a lot of cultural meaning over a longer period of time. With cultural meaning, I mean the design is either connected to a culturally significant event — like being on the cover of Vogue or in front of a big New York hotel — or through slow integration in the culture — like being in every café in Italy or on every street in Copenhagen.
Stay with me. In design historian Grace Lees-Maffei’s book Iconic Designs, she introduces these four important parameters that affect the iconization of a design.
- Reception — how well the design is received on the market and media.
- Representation — how well the design represents an idea i.e. an idea, a place, a way of life, a design style, etc.
- Recognition — how recognizable the design is in various ways.
- Reverence — how revered and respected the design is.
We were also heavily inspired by Grant McCracken's model Movement of Meaning, where meaning is transferred by the producer, media and consumer through different instruments.
To relate Lees-Maffeis icon theory to McCracken's model, then the reception is how much meaning there is transferred as a whole to the design. The type of meaning relevant to the iconization process is then what the design represents, how recognizable and revered it is.
Whether it’s the media, the designer, the producer or the consumer masses who transfers this meaning matters. To simply show a design as representative of something, e.g. danish design icon or design iconic for Paris in the media will result in a mere social construction, where it through consumption will create a more realistic representation.
One of my favourite examples is my beloved Bodum Chambord french press (which makes amazing coffee — see here how). If you were to find the Bodum french press in most Danish kitchens as my own, then it would be a quite accurate representation of Danish kitchens — a Danish icon. But if only Bodum, some magazines and the media tried to simply show the Chambord French press as iconic for Danish kitchens even though it might not actually be in quite a lot, then it isn’t as representable.
On the other hand, the iconic Egg chair by Arne Jacobsen isn’t seen in quite many Danish homes (it’s not exactly cheap). Instead, Jacobsen used new production methods, popularized the mid-century organic modernistic style movement and was itself popular in the media. The Egg Chair isn’t representative of the average Dane, but it’s representative of mid-century organic modernism, which in turn is very Danish.
One isn’t more correct than the other, it’s just a matter of interest. Designs which is more present in the media, like the Egg Chair, are more design historically interesting. They’re often praised more for their cultural meaning than practical value. Designs which is more present in the consumption, like the Chambord French press, caters to a more cultural interest and has often a good practical value.
Danish design professor Lars Dybdahl also differs between aesthetic and industrial design icons, furthering the idea of media and consumption being the two instruments of meaning transfer. Ultimately, one doesn’t exclude the other, as every design will be both mediated and consumed to some degree.
Then comes reverence or respect. How revered a design is mostly measured from the designs qualities in material, form and style assessed from the contemporary context. For example, in mid-century modernism, one cultivated essentialism and sought the optimal design to raise peoples standard of living. In contrast, postmodernism's existentialism focused on individual taste and cultural references. A design icon is a good design, whatever that means in the time of production.
The design also needs to be largely recognizable, both for the design itself and what it represents. This can be achieved through new technology which breeds new shapes and expressions but is often just achieved through a characteristic look. Cultural meaning is transferred to the design and recognized by consumers and media over time, resulting in what is called the biography of the design.
A representative, easily recognizable and revered design is though not guaranteed icon status, but only the relevant potential for it!
The status of iconic design can be seen as a cultural meaning in itself, transferred to the design by the consumers, the producer, the designer, as well as the media. Though, a producer calling their own design iconic is a bit too biased. Consumers and the media aren’t as biased and can at the same time be able to reach a broader audience, making a broad acceptance of the design as iconic more realistic.
For example, Lees-Maffei as a design historian calling LEGO iconic is way more believable than if LEGO did it themselves. And according to Lees-Maffei, mediating a design as iconic is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Simply calling something an icon can make it so.
A lot of luck and time is required for this cultural meaning to be transferred slowly and organically. Usually, design icons aren’t seen that way before a couple of decades have passed and everything is put into perspective. But eventually, the cultural significance of the design will get to a point of critical mass, where people don’t just recognize the design, but also it as an icon.
The Way to Iconicity
Finally, what you’ve been waiting for (yeah, I bet you’re excited huh), the model of the designs Way to Iconicity, based on leading theories of design icons and iconization from various design professors.
The reception is the amount of cultural meaning transferred through the media (and producer) and consumption, represented as the arrows between design and potential iconic design. The middle double-pointed arrow symbolises equal importance and that both are ever-present.
The process of iconization consists of the media and consumers proclaiming the design as iconic over a necessary time perspective. This finally moves the potential iconic design over to the iconic design status. Finally, the dotted lines show the relapse of the cultural meaning of the design and the iconic status as well. Nothing is forever.
What can you do yourself?
Well, I just said it would take a lot of luck, but in reality, you can do a whole lot to increase your chances. The key is not to try to make a design icon, but to make a design with a huge potential for it!
Chance favors the prepared mind — Louis Pasteur
Make a great design (obviously)
Not all designs are created equal, and some designs are definitely better than others. All of us have some understanding of how relatively great a design is from our own context, even if you might not be especially design-interested (though, you’ve read all the way here).
As mentioned, any design will be judged from the view of the contemporary context. But to create truly amazing designs with lasting appeal — the material design icons are made of — you must have a great understanding of both the contemporary and the future context.
Making a great CD player isn’t going to do you much good in 2022. Things that solve acute and lasting problems will have a greater potential for becoming popular and getting the needed exposure for iconicity. Some examples of future design characteristics are sustainability, transformability, multi-use, and portability.
A truly great design is of high aesthetic, cultural and practical value. So if you’re not one yourself, definitely hire a professional designer for the job.
How great a design is will impact how revered it’ll become, how recognizable it is and how likely it is to be displayed in the media and bought by consumers — aka the reception of the design.
The great design stands out from the crowd. Differentiating either in quality, problem-solving or form is an absolute necessity to receive the required attention. It’s a characteristic every design icon has in common.
Quality and problem-solving can be seen as an undeniable part of a great design, securing the best function. But differentiating the design in its form can require more boldness, as it’s an artistic endeavour. If you’re brave, bold and have the will, radical differentiation can result in major iconic potential (but also some risk). When Verner Panton made his iconic Panton Chair in 1959, the first one-mould plastic chair, almost everyone else was still producing in wood or metal.
Another classic example of a bold iconic design is Alessi’s 9093 kettle designed by Michael Graves. The triangular shape, the whistling bird (or dragon) calling out to be taken off the stove, and the coloured handle, showing where it was safe to touch (blue for the cold part, red for the warm part).
Of course, differentiating your design on all three will secure you the best chances of receiving the necessary potential.
Apart from simply making characteristic design, one can also specifically design something to be recognized. The design shouldn’t just appeal to the target audience, but also be able to be seen used by them — recognized in the culture or setting intended.
Focusing on designs meant to be worn out in public, used when having guests or in places where a lot of people pass by can help its way to iconicity. There’s a reason the Eiffel Tower is iconic for Paris, towering over the city with its characteristic shape, easily recognized by everyone in its vicinity.
Design that’s both easily recognizable and easily recognized has a way higher chance of becoming iconic over time.
Lean towards to iconic
A design icon is iconic for something. It represents an idea, a place, a way of life, a design style, etc.
A new Danish design icon needs to reflect the Danish lifestyle, values and the style Danes themselves would like to see in their own utopia. One should see it as developing the new, better, future version of what the design should represent.
It has to be such a clear representation that it’s easily recognized by anyone. One should be able to look at it and say — this is Scandinavian design (because, to be honest, Norwegian and Swedish design are almost indistinguishable).
When characterizing a culture, make sure to implement core values, norms or such instead of using superficial stereotypes. A perfect example is Danish design DNA; a website a number of Danish design institutions made.
If the design is a part of the best version of the target audience, then they’re more likely to identify with and self-promote themselves through the design.
Market the hell out of it
Just like the design, the way of advertising/popularizing it needs to be done in the best way in context of the contemporary.
Essentially, make sure the great design you’ve made gets an equally great reception as well — it’s on the shelves in the shops, on the webshop, written about and maybe even out in publicly accessible spaces such as libraries or hotels. The latter is the case with Arne’s Egg Chair, which was made for the SAS hotel in central Copenhagen. This move also gained the chair a lot of media attention; an overall great reception.
Now, I’m not a master marketer and how to best market the design varies from design to design. But usually, quality comes before quantity. Especially in the case of design icons, playing the long game can pay off.
Instant popularity is a characteristic of fads. Of course, the best would be to hit a basis product. Basis can be understood in different ways, either a need to have like the iPhone in our modern lives or the Eiffel Tower which serves as a basis for the Parisian identity. Either way, the basis product has the kind of longevity needed. But even a fashionable will have prerequisites to become an icon, as fashion is repeated, cycled and therefore comes again. Again, the key to iconization is the kind of longevity only truly great design has.
If the design initially got really popular amongst a large group, then it might be reproduced later when the 20-year fashion cycle comes around and a certain style popular again in a different way. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to create lasting appeal. Reproductions reignite the potential for iconicity as it then comes out in more homes and is displayed to a larger degree in the media. A successful relaunch is the epidemy of long term appeal.
So, if you’re already in a position to already reproduce a former hit, go ahead!
If not, then don’t lose motivation. Rome wasn’t built in one day, and producing a design icon can and will take time.
To appeal to a greater potential for icon status includes, but is not limited to, these measures. Designing with these will always be worth it, as the preconditions for icon status is generally equal to an overall successful design.
This article was based on my bachelor thesis, which was in collaboration with my colleague C. Schmidt. If you’re interested in the sources used in the thesis and this article, feel free to message me.
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