A brief history of the Icon

Your plane has landed in a foreign country. You neither speak the language nor understand the culture, but yet plan to systematically submerge yourself into a new world you are about to encounter. What do you rely on? Icons. What about when you’re going to use your phone? Icons. Computers? Icons. Bathrooms? Driving? ATMS? The list goes on and on.

Whether visual, gestural or verbal, iconography or our concept of using elements to identify things, has become engraved in how we perceive them. It is inevitable and we use them every day, yet a lot about their history is bleak to most of us. Although the term is one that historically is identified with hieroglyphs or ancient manuscripts, it possesses a vital relevance to how we operate today. Used historically as the basis for language, it became the norm of expression, communication and interpretation of actions, thoughts and ideals. Since the dawn of the modern era, and with the increasing fame of interaction design and web design, iconography has evolved into an integrated part of interactivity and communication.

To us what has been coined as typographic iconography has proven to be the poster child for the evolution of history through innovation. As an academic historical art, Iconography was re-born in the 1800’s through Adolphe Napoleon Didron (1806–1867), Anton Heinrich Springer (1825–1891), and Émile Mâle (1862–1954) who begun to classify Christian art through symbols they thought represented them to create a visual encyclopedia to compare and classify art. The contributions grew as time went by through the works of Aby Warburg (1866–1929) and his followers Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) and Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) who continued to improve the classification and more importantly identification of these recurring motifs as a means of understanding them.  Because of them, Iconography would grow to be a system of metaphors, visual guidelines that would slowly begin to structure the most versatile, utilitarian language in the world.

Fast forward to 1972 where the Desktop Icon evolution started. The Xerox Alto had introduced the first GUI (Graphic User Interface) meant for office use, thus creating folders, tin trashcans and tiny printers to symbolize real life products. Although they were slow to realize the full potential of their creations, Xerox fell short to Microsoft, Apple, Atari and others who immediately took on this modern generation of communication. Over the next couple of years, the use of iconography became the beginning of the most pivotal moment in Interactive branding. Recycling Bins, Magnifying glasses, even bar graphs which were standard average objects became immortalized. The truth is some of these icons are so engraved, that it is impossible for them to be removed. What is most beautiful about all of this to us at Constant Conversations, has been the visual revolution that this innovation has brought to the design world. Through open initiatives like The Noun Project, an open directory of all the typographic icons you can imagine, to Glyphish which quickly became the standard for app developers of the previous iOS, the world has grown to give new meaning to imagery. This not only means that we have begun to create a universal language that anyone can understand and communicate through, but one that visual designers are at the forefront of.

Iconography is perhaps the most interesting conglomerate of art and information that has developed over the past 20 years, and who knows how it will develop as we move into a motion driven, more dynamic standard. If one thing is certain though, it is that Iconography is proof of exceptional communication, and immersion of art and design into our society, which has allowed us to synthesize, reimagine and explore our connection to our surroundings and our creations. A milestone that anyone and everyone should reflect on and admire. Language as we know it, is more visual now than ever.