What makes a design iconic?

From the DMC DeLorean to Coca-cola bottles, there are some truly special designs we easily recognise. But what does make a design memorable? And how do they influence people to engage with products, brands, and services?

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash — the legendary DeLorean; an iconic symbol of the Back to the Future franchise

Firstly, Back to the Future

For those who have seen Back to the Future will recognize the legendary DMC DeLorean as one of the most iconic cars in automotive and film history. In the 1985 hit movie, the DeLorean was used as Dr Emmett Brown’s plutonium-powered time machine that had to reach 88 miles per hour in order to time travel. Today, the DeLorean is still highly recognised as a design icon that tells a unique story.

Just like the DeLorean, a design icon is something highly recognisable and memorable and comes in many forms such as architecture, branding, typography, automobiles, industrial design, and popular culture. The Statue of Liberty is easily identified for its unique shape; McDonald’s is globally recognised for its golden arches; the pasta-loving Mario is the prominent face of Nintendo; even the Coco-Cola bottle is distinguished for its unique shape.

Design icons as part of a visual language

Icons, symbols, metaphors, and signs are used in everyday design in the digital (e.g., websites, apps etc.) and the natural world. We see them in the form of written language, road signs, user interfaces, and even brands, all of which communicate a cultural meaning and value.

We constantly communicate with people or objects by engaging with design icons that are relevant to something we understand. For example, I often use emojis in text messages to convey an emotion or a reaction. And when I see the traffic lights change from green to red, I know that I have to stop.

When a design icon is frequently used, it becomes ingrained in our minds and even subconsciously used as part of a visual language — an infinite library of learned symbols and metaphors. In user interface design — we naturally respond to icons that represent objects from the natural world; the magnifying glass — a perceived action to search; the house — visual cue to navigate to the homepage; the trash can — a place to dispose of unwanted files. By using a visual language of design icons we can quickly make decisions, save time and reduce cognitive load.

Photo by Harpal Singh on Unsplash — plenty of visual metaphors used as part of a visual language

We tend to take this form of communication for granted, but sometimes it takes time to understand the meaning behind a design. Something will remain arbitrary until its intended value is shared and understood, but sometimes this isn’t always the case. The Statue of Liberty wasn’t intended to be an icon for immigration, but because of its position in New York Harbour, it was treated as an entry point and effectively the first sign for the newly arrived in the United States. Today we perceive the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom, despite its original value.

Global design icons

Design icons that can be understood without words succeed in global recognition and this has certainly worked out well for brand giants such as Apple, Google, Mercedes-Benz, and Coca-cola. But for a brand to be truly iconic it needs to reach out to its audience on multiple levels. The product or service needs a good tone of voice, tell a gripping story, evoke emotion, and be memorable. Here are some examples of global design icons…


Photo by Medhat Dawoud on Unsplash

The famous Apple branding; an outline of an apple with a bite mark.


Photo by Przemyslaw Marczynski on Unsplash

An iconic Apple product, and a symbol of modern-day consumer technology.

Super Mario

Photo by Cláudio Luiz Castro on Unsplash

Everyone’s favourite Italian plumber and Nintendo’s mascot.


Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

The soft drinks franchise is instantly recognized all over the world, even the shape of the bottle is iconic.


Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Google is perhaps the most recognized brand in the word. It’s even used as a term to search for something online i.e., “Google it”.


Photo by Chelsea Ferenando on Unsplash

The iconic Nike ‘Swoosh’ is instantly recognized, whatever the context.


Photo by Joiarib Morales Uc on Unsplash

The fast-food giant’s logo with the famous golden arches.


Design icons play an important part in our culture. They structure a visual language that we rely on to make informed decisions, and even to survive. In recent decades, design icons have influenced the way how we engage with digital products and global brands. Without shared meaning and value, people would struggle to understand and use design. Even when a design has a cultural understanding, it may not necessarily portray the intended one.

Is there a particular design icon that reaches out to you? Why is memorable, and what kind of story does it tell you?