Icons: Embodiment of Meaning



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The MAIM Class of 2014 shares their individual experiences of innovation, in the lead up to their Degree Show, Exploiting Chaos: Innovation in the Making. The Observers are guides to understanding cultural contexts, and reveal tacit insights and connections that can spawn new ideas for innovation. Joon-Mo Lee deals with the question of why some products are considered ‘icons’ – and how iconicity is related to innovation.

The market for consumer goods is increasingly becoming overcrowded and homogenized. More and more products are undoubtedly well designed and offer the latest technology – but they still have trouble to set themselves apart from the competition. Yet, some products to stand out amongst the masses and are celebrated as icons – but why?  What makes a product really an icon?


To start with, icons are objects of veneration and belief. My research led me all the way back to the phenomenon of iconicity in the religious Byzantine icon – and what I found was quite surprising.


The painted wooden panels of the old were in fact rather commercial objects. They were mass manufactured. They came in different sizes (Desktop. Notebook. Tablet. Mobile…). They were sold to pilgrims on their way to special locations (flagship stores) and even sported limited edition motives for special religious festivities. To the people who owned them they represented hope, consolation and desire.


More importantly, my analysis of their characteristics and their construction-mechanisms found that today’s commercial icons are not so much different from the Byzantine icons at all. Like the religious Byzantine icons, modern iconic products are objects that exist at the intersection between the material and immaterial, as well as individuals and communities.


Icons are embodiments of intangible ideas that allow people to express and resolve larger, socio-cultural desires or anxieties. By engaging with icons in rituals, people can invest and experience personal and profound meanings and thus assert their individual and communal identities. All the same, only through such interaction can icons continuously maintain their cultural relevance.


While icons might appear as pure achievements of Veblenian status pursuits, they are in fact more so an instrument to resolve people’s inner struggle to negotiate desires of individuality and belonging. When people settle down in their Panton Chair, they don’t just sit. They are asserting a message about themselves, their beliefs and the community they want to be part of.


The symbiotic relationship between icons and communities is supported by the distinctive appearance of icons. Semiotic codes not only allow communities to discern members from outsiders, but suggest a seemingly transhuman origin of the icon – there is a sense of universal truth, of otherworldly perfection, that seems to surpass common comprehension. Mondaine’s railway clock is not just fascinatingly well designed; it embodies Swiss precision and clarity. A Porsche 911 is not just a sports car; it is the incarnation of speed, agility and control – they embody these values so well, that we could not imagine how to improve them.


Iconic products are ‘jealous’ – they resist classification, and they challenge or shatter common consumer expectations by satisfying consumer needs on a level of deep-seated meaning and emotion without compromising the allure of physical presence, and that’s what sets them apart from the masses.


Given these insights on iconicity, it occurred to me that icons are rare forms of radical innovation similar to by Roberto Verganti’s concept of ‘Design-driven innovation’. Lacing his idea with Clayton Christensen’s notion of the ‘value network’ I realised that the development of iconic/radically innovative products requires a departure from design-management and an embrace of innovation-management instead.


Innovation is a result of crossing boundaries, and managing innovation therefore means to steer the process of transition between boundaries.


Companies must escape the performance-driven boundaries of existing markets defined by the techno-physical competition, and address socio-cultural desires located on a level of meaning – both communal and individual – as already suggested by Klaus Krippendorff a long time ago when he called for a culture of ‘form follows meaning’.


And that, in turn, has severe implications on a organisational level, for it means that also structural boundaries defined by the specialization of disciplines must be crossed to encourage the formation of more integrated, cross-disciplinary teams to effectively synthesize material and immaterial aspects of the product.


In an age of miniaturisation that gradually reduces the options of expression through physical design, all who strive to create iconic products should realize that design must not just aim to encase functionality, but embody meaning.


To learn more about icons and have a chat with Joon about the meaning of things, please join us at the MA Innovation Management upcoming Degree Show, Exploiting Chaos: Innovation in the Making, from the 18-22 June.