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WSJ: How An Image Becomes An Icon

We live in an age of instant celebrity and frenetic branding. Companies repeatedly re-brand and change their logos, often at great expense and frequently to no good effect. The Holy Grail is to achieve enduring and immediate recognizability. The ultimate aspiration is to match the Coca-Cola logo (invented in 1886) and bottle (designed in 1915), or to emulate the more recent golden “M” of McDonald’s (1968) and the “swoosh” of Nike (1971).

In my recent book, “Christ to Coke. How Image Becomes Icon”, I look at 11 representative images from art, politics, the commercial world and science that have achieved the highest level of iconic status. Is there a magic formula for branders? If I could I would keep it secret, and sell my services very very expensively! But there is no sure-fire formula; no fixed set of characteristics that ensure success. However, we can learn varied and complex lessons from the extraordinary life stories of mega-successful images.

1. What is an iconic image? Iconic images transcend time, place and even original function.

“Iconic” is now a much over-used word. Somebody who is passingly famous is described as iconic. The images with which I am concerned are more than just very famous. They have an astonishing degree of universal recognition, taking on diverse meanings as they are transmitted across cultures. The most indelible of them act as cult objects.

The earliest icons were generated to serve religious devotion. Eikon, the Greek word for image, entered modern currency as the name for the authorized images of Christ and the saints in Orthodox Christianity. This devotional aspect persists in many later icons. In the “posterized” portrait by Jim Fitzpatrick, Che Guevara has been transformed over the years from a Soviet-style Communist revolutionary into a saintly martyr for idealistic youth.

Rulers and dominant entities typically go to great lengths to establish an authoritative image, redolent of their supreme power and ubiquitous presence. Sometimes a symbolic proxy does the job, like the regal lion, which was adopted by MGM as the snarling emblem of their Hollywood kingdom.

Even the icons of modern science, DNA and E=mc², have acquired a quasi-religious dimension, as arcane formulations intoned by the high priests of genetics and physics. The more science itself becomes inaccessible to most of us, the more the status of the priesthood is enhanced. The older Einstein, with his halo of wild white hair, plays the role of prophet superbly.

2. Types There are distinct types of iconic image. I group them roughly into 11 types in ‘Christ to Coke’.

The “rules” that apply to each type are somewhat different. The Coke bottle obviously does not work in the same way as Nick Ut’s harrowing photograph of the napalmed girl fleeing in heat-seared agony along Route 1 in Vietnam. Oddly, a photograph can achieve the highest fame without our ever knowing name of the author.

The Mona Lisa would hardly have reached its dominant position amongst iconic paintings independently of its artist’s name. Would Dan Brown’s book—”The Da Vinci Code”—have sold as well entitled the Michelangelo Code?

But how many people know that Earl Dean of the Root Bottling Company in Terra Haute was the designer of the prototype Coca-Cola bottle in 1915? General rules are elusive.

Some types of images are specific—like Lisa and Che—while some are generic, such as the heart shape. The generic ones tend to seep gradually into general consciousness.

The heart shape appeared on playing cards and became the religious symbol of the sacred heart, before becoming the ubiquitous symbol of love. It takes a designer of genius, like Milton Glaser, to refresh its power in the service of a specific cause. We all know I♥NY. But New York largely surrendered the “Big Apple” to Steve Jobs.

Some types of icon are very much sui generis. Flags are a type all of their own. Those that burst forth from the throng are not the boring tricolours. The famed Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack arose from complex, accumulative histories. The swastika of the Nazis and hammer and sickle of the USSR are memorable as great pieces of graphic design. Who knows the current Russian flag? Being a powerful state is not enough. Design counts. The most potent flags assume a sacramental quality, as if the spirit of the nation is embodied in them, nowhere more so than in the Stars and Stripes.

3. Myths.

The great iconic images do not so much need myths and legends as attract them like magnets.

The more famous the image, the more likely it is that our common knowledge is inaccurate.

The fact that Leonardo’s portrait in the Louvre represents Lisa Gheradini, the apparently blameless wife of a Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, is not enough to match the mega-fame of the image. We need a hidden “secret” or “code” to explain its hold on us.

During the writing of the book, I was told a number of times that Father Christmas (Santa Claus) is dressed in red and white because of Haddon Sundblom’s brilliant Coke adverts each Christmas. Not true!

Sometimes the legends assume the status of a certain kind of “truth”. The story that the Stars and Stripes was designed by the humble seamstress Betsy Ross, who sat in the next church pew to George Washington, embodies folksy homeliness in such a way that it has becomes an essential “fact” of America’s founding myth.

I assumed that Einstein’s famous formula for the equivalence of mass and energy, E=mc² had appeared in his renowned set of papers published in 1905. Einstein scholars insisted it was there. But it was not. In that precise form, the equation seems to have been visited on Einstein as a simplification of his ideas, cemented in the public mind by its association with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The well-known tends not to be true in such cases.

4. Luck.

Chance often plays a crucial role.

News photographs are notoriously dependent on the photographer being in the right place at the right time. To emerge from billions of press photographs to assume everlasting fame, the resulting photograph needs to find its way, often independently, into an environment in which it is supremely fit to survive.

Nick Ut’s napalmed girl and Joe Rosenthal’s famed picture of the raising of the U.S. flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima towards the end of World War II were not put forward as unique masterpieces by their makers.

Horst Fass of Associated Press needed to persuade picture editors that the rule not to display naked children should be overridden. Alberto Korda’s photograph of Che was not the one selected for publication by the Cuban newspaper.

The ribbed and waisted shape of the Coca-Cola bottle arose from a mistake. Chapman Root sent three employees to the local library to seek the shape of cola nuts (the source of the caffeine) or the shape of the coca leaf (where the cocaine came from). In the Encyclopedia Britannica they found illustrations of neither. Instead, they found the fruit of the Cocoa Tree. The Coke bottle should really contain a chocolate drink!

5. What makes an iconic image?

There is no necessary set of clearly defined factors that are infallibly shared by all iconic images.

However, there are tendencies that are recurrent to varying degrees in various permutations. Some are concerned predominantly with meaning; a simplicity of message that is at once definitive and compelling but that is also open to a broad, rich, and varied series of associations; the ability to work with both generic and specific meanings; an openness to varied kinds of individual and collective engagement; a special interplay with shared human values; the focus of devotional or cult practice; the forging of collective identity.

And there are recurrent but not invariable visual characteristics: a sense of visual presence that implies something beyond its material existence; a measure of symmetry or of a carefully weighted asymmetrical balance; memorable simplicity at the heart of the image; tonal and coloristic clarity; robustness in the face of degraded reproduction; making good repeats, as if in a wallpaper pattern; recognition even in fragmentary form.

We can think of icons that do not obey all these rules. And exploiting all of them is not a guarantee of success.

Professor Martin Kemp is emeritus professor of the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford University. He is the author of “Christ to Coke. How Image Becomes Icon” published by Oxford University Press.