Shifting Iconography in the Digital Age
As technology changes and expands, the imagery we use to represent our world loses its meaning
Just as the work of writers relies on the universality of a dictionary, the work of designers depends on a widespread, shared understanding of the meaning of images.
To communicate something simple—like a camera, for example—we rely on a shared image of what something that takes pictures looks like. But today, what a camera looks like is more nebulous than it used to be.
Many of us remember that cameras once used stuff called film, which, when exposed to light, captured the image in front of us. There was a shutter that opened and closed, and made a clicking sound. Cameras used to be much larger, but like most technology, they shrank into something handheld, more portable, and more affordable.
And still, despite all these changes, most of us now use other little digital devices to take pictures: our smartphones.
So, what does a camera look like? To more and more people, a camera looks like a rectangle with rounded corners—a phone. But these days, that’s also what a bank looks like. And a music player. Perhaps a community. Sometimes a therapist. And so many other things. Our understanding of objects has flattened.
A friend of mine and his wife have a backup landline, as cell reception can be spotty in their apartment. He told me he asked his son recently to answer the phone. As the phone rang, his son ran around looking for it, even though the landline was in plain view. He thought “phone” was his mom’s orange-cased iPhone. Without knowing that the ringing was coming from that unidentifiable thing on the wall, the call was missed.
Imagine if the words “sunglasses,” “thunder,” “continent,” and “sorrow” were suddenly replaced with a single, brand-new word that meant each of those things, depending on their context. How would writers respond? How would readers know which meaning to infer when the new word was used? This is what is happening to designers.
It’s not the first time iconography has changed in line with advances in technology. But it is the first time that so many functions have converged into one physical thing.
To communicate art (which is complex and hard to define as it is) through visual symbols, it was once common to use a paint brush, a palette, a canvas, maybe even a picture frame. But now, so much art is produced digitally. The process of an artist looks the same as the process of a banker (just with different software): someone sitting in front of a big computer screen, at a desk or a table, with a keyboard, a mouse, maybe a tablet.
It makes me think of the board game The Game of Life, which has a dual legacy of shifting imagery behind it. It was created in 1860 by Milton Bradley, who at that time was known for a lithograph he made of a beardless Abraham Lincoln. Of course, Lincoln later grew a beard, and it’s this version of him we’ve all seen on our money and monuments. Bradley’s original portrait lost its luster: Everyone began to associate Lincoln with his beard. Talk about a change of meaning in imagery! Lincoln will now always be bearded in our mental imprint of what he looked like, no matter how long he actually had one.
Bradley later turned to board games. The Game of Life (originally called The Checkered Game of Life) was meant to mirror life events like getting married, going to college, raising a family, working, buying a home.
The most recent version of the game has updated careers that kids voted for. The game now features professions like Inventor, Secret Agent, and Fashion Designer. “Inventor” is signified by a pencil sketch of a rocket ship and a cup of coffee (because inventors stay up late?). “Secret Agent” is signified by a magnifying glass, a briefcase, a disguise. What do these things have to do with the reality of being a secret agent? Julian Assange isn’t a “secret agent,” but he is a pretty serious hacker who committed espionage. And he did his work sitting in front of a computer—like I am right now, typing this, and like you may be while reading this.
And what about jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago? Market Research Data Miner. Millennial Generational Expert. Social Media Manager. What do those look like? What images are conjured up by kids wondering what they’ll be when they grow up? What would those illustrations look like in The Game of Life?
We will always rely on imagery to understand our world, to envision the future, to imagine what we could one day become. It’s part of being human, part of our implicit and defining need to communicate. If the path we’re on is steering us toward visual homogenization, we have to ask how this affects representation.
Consider one of the most abstract and challenging ideas of all: love. It is represented by perhaps the most universally understood symbol, the heart. And although its elusive origin is divorced from its common use — we use a heart to mean anything from “thinking of you” to “I’m sorry” to “that’s awesome” — the heart symbol today is flexible, contextual, malleable, ubiquitous.