Objects of Function III: Icons and Symbols

Function is a far-ranging concept. It can transcend the purely physical notion of an object performing a role and branch out into more abstract territory. Here I will discuss the notions of iconic and symbolic objects, which through their deeply ingrained physical functions, have begun to act more like cultural reference points as well.

As a quick example, let’s take Sony’s Walkman.


This object marks the first time in history that music became truly personal and portable. Because of this, the product has achieved a status equivalent to that of a landmark within our cultural psyche. It has evolved beyond its original function as a personal cassette player and has begun to act more as a symbol of the youthful freedom of its day as well as an iconic leap in personal entertainment.

Icons and Symbols


Verner Panton’s one piece chair was designed in 1960 and was a radical and bold statement of cutting edge design and the potential of new materials. It paved the way for others to follow along similar lines and through the decades that it has been in production, it has attained a wide regard among design critics and the general public alike. This is what an icon in the modern sense of the word does. It is an instantly recognisable object that the vast majority of people have some awareness of. Perhaps not everybody can name the object, but its basic visual form and profile make it easily recognisable. 

Symbolic objects are not much different and act like a sign post visually expressing what they represent. The AK-47 assault rifle, for example, is symbolic of violence and war. It is symbolic of terrorism and political uprisings and military coups. It is an iconic weapon certainly, but this only taps into the physical gun itself, its legacy and its history. The rifle also holds an aesthetic distinctiveness capable of conjuring up connotations of war, bloodshed, revolution and political upheaval, and these things are what it symbolises to most people. It is rare that an iconic object would not have some degree of symbolism attached to it as well.

The AK-47 assault rifle

The rifle’s place in the conscious psyche has been deeply ingrained, not least through its ever-present portrayal in the media. Even though most people may not be able to recall the actual name of the weapon, the vast majority would certainly recognise the shape and appearance of it and automatically know what it is and what it’s for. Its functions are now not just limited to the battlefield. They have expanded out into the collective consciousness of the public and the rifle functions for most people as a symbol of violence, war and power.

Cheers. 😉


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