Invisible icons

An icon is a likeness; something that resembles the thing it refers to — its referent. Iconography is a branch of study that deals with such resemblances, i.e. drawings or other pictorial representations of things.

That’s the OED definitions, but in spite of such generality, we mostly reserve the word icon for use in particular contexts, e.g. in religious art, particularly where ritual is involved.

We may also say that an icon is a significant representation, or at least a resemblance of something that is significant. I think that’s the main inheritance we draw on when describing a work of art or building as iconic. The iconic object is at or near the top of some hierarchy of importance. The icon may also stand in for a class of objects, or is representative of that class.


Can we say that a person is an icon? In that case we probably mean the person as depicted in a visual image. Che Guevara is an icon of the Cuban revolution, but by icon we probably mean the famous poster image of Che Guevara.

We imagine a person who is an icon as heroic, independent, and standing alone. In describing someone as an icon we dispense with the visual image and go straight to the person — as the icon. It’s hard to imagine an iconic human being for whom there is no visual image, no matter how accomplished the person. There is no such thing as an invisible icon.

For something to be iconic it must stand out at least as a visual image. That’s a view promoted within architecture. Iconic buildings gain their status by being visually distinctive. The OED supports that definition (in a 2001 addition) to the conventional idea of a pictorial representation:

“A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect. Frequently with modifying word.”

Digital enchantments

Developers and users of digital media adopted the word icon to identify a patch of pixels on a computer screen. That’s another convention, that has emerged since the advent of high quality bit map screen displays.

In that context an icon is a small image connected to some function or code: e.g. the folder or trashcan. Portmanto terms such as emoticon and earcon expand the scope of digital iconography. Discussions about digital icons and their derivatives moves into metaphors, tokens, logos, talismans, and enchantments.

Iconic design

Buildings can be iconic, in so far as they are “considered worthy of admiration or respect” (OED). To design in an iconic way would be to simply copy such respected sources. This is the proposition advanced by Geoffrey Broadbent in his 1973 book Design in Architecture.

He explained the process of iconic design as the case where a new design is simply a copy of a well established and proven design resolution developed by others. He says pejoratively in his article “Building design as an iconic sign system,” that this approach is

“still used by lesser architects in following the designs of the great ‘form-givers'” (311).

He contrasts this approach with pragmatic design, from which most iconic design derives. Pragmatic design emerges over time from circumstances, best represented in Broadbent’s account of vernacular architecture — buildings developed by trial and error and in response to local circumstances possibly over many generations. Iconic design circumvents that pragmatic development.

Beyond iconic design Broadbent identified analogical design. Why copy only other tried and tested pragmatically designed buildings? To design by analogy is to copy forms and solutions from other contexts, such as forms from botany or geology.

His fourth category is canonic design, which is to design following a system, such as a grid or other geometrical schema, evident throughout the history of building, but reaching its apogee with industrialisation and prefabrication.

A canon is a rule or law, hence his use of “canonic” to describe this latter process. The method is about deep structures, and following rules and schemas.

(This category is not to be confused with “the canon of architecture,” which refers to the conventionally accepted body of exemplary buildings as presented in architectural history books — the collection of iconic buildings in fact).

Admiration and respect

Broadbent implies a transition from the primitive to the industrial: pragmatic > iconic > analogical > canonic.

In keeping with the tenets of the design methods movement, Broadbent is here writing about the processes of design, but also implies categories of architecture so derived. Following his theory, iconic architecture is not architecture “considered worthy of admiration or respect” (OED), but it is architecture copied from that category.

It is easy enough to criticise his characterisation of both the design process and of the architecture so produced, especially in light of contemporary architectural theory, not least that influenced by hermeneutics and deconstruction. Broadbent later took a more critical posture toward his own systematisation.

I describe Broadbent’s approach here, as he compared such notions with C.S. Peirce’s classifications of the sign, matching this with Peirce’s view of iconic signs, about which more needs to be said. In the mean time, see post: Nonsensical signs.


  • Aupers, Stef. 2009. The force is great: Enchantment and magic in silicon valley. Masaryk University Journal of Law and Technology, (2) 1, 153-174.
  • Broadbent, Geoffrey. 1973. Design in Architecture: Architecture and the  Human Sciences. New York, NY: John Wiley and Son
  • Broadbent, Geoffrey. 1980. Building design as an iconic sign system. In Geoffrey Broadbent, Richard Bunt, and Charles Jencks (eds.), Signs, Symbols, and Architecture: 311-331. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Jencks, Charles. 2005. Iconic Building. New York: Rizzoli


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