Wordy Wednesday: iconic
The overuse of ‘iconic’ has been niggling away at me for a while now, so much so that – much like Chief Inspector Dreyfus after an encounter with Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther – I’m starting to get a bit winky when I hear it. It’s so debased that I think we should ban its use for anything other than Russian religious artefacts for a period of, say, 50 years: that might give it sufficient time to regain its dignity and import.
To see what I mean, pick the odd one out in the following list:
- The London Underground Map
- The Spitfire
- SpongeBob SquarePants
Here are some clues:
The Spitfire: Reginald Mitchell designed the Spitfire in 1934, and it proved vital in defeating the German Luftwaffe during World War II. A Spitfire flew overhead a couple of weeks ago during Cowes Week, and all eyes turned to look at it, despite some of the world’s most beautiful yachts being on the water.
Concorde: the same thing used to happen with Concorde – people would stop whatever they were doing and just stand and stare. Created by the British Aerospace Corporation with Aerospatiale, Concorde completed its first flight from Toulouse in 1969, cruising at twice the speed of sound.
The London Underground Map: how do you help people work out how to get from Acton to Archway; Cockfosters to Charing Cross? When Harry Beck designed the London Underground Map in 1931, the Tube had grown so large that it had become impossible to map it geographically. His easy-to-navigate design was based on an electrical circuit, with each line a different colour, and diamonds for interchange stations.
SpongeBob SquarePants: it’s yellow, it’s crass, it’s annoying, it’s…sorry, I can’t bring myself to write any more about this one.
Ok, the answer is, obviously, SpongeBob SquarePants. All four of the above have been labelled ‘iconic’ in the press, but only the first three are deserving of the term (and even so, its use is making me a bit winky), and in 2006 were voted Britain’s three favourite designs of the last century by visitors to the Design Museum and viewers of BBC2’s The Culture Show.
Given my dislike of the way ‘iconic’ is bandied around these days, I was delighted to find this great Bloomberg Businessweek interview with Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, in which Stern (at 2 minutes 12 seconds in the video), lays into the interviewer for using the term:
Stern: There are amazing places in New York. Nothing more amazing anywhere than Central Park, just to start. It’s a favorite, of course.
Interviewer: It’s iconic.
Stern: Oh, I hate that word. Please.
Interviewer: All right. Forget I said it.
Stern: We didn’t have icons in the 1990s, I’m happy to say, or the ’80s. Suddenly everybody talks about iconic buildings, iconic this and that. Iconic toilet paper, as far as I can see. It’s ridiculous. It’s an overused word. Don’t use it again.
(I have the always useful About.com to thank for alerting me to this interview.)