It’s possibly THE most enduring icon of modern day life. It has been used on everything from T-shirts to international charity campaigns, from daily texts and tweets to global brand statements. It’s the default way to show you’ve connected, you’re excited…and so much more, particularly in the digital world and I think that it warrants further inspection, it’s a brilliant piece of communication but where did it start?
Getting to the heart of the matter
You have to go a long way back to trace the history of the icon and it’s not very clear where it originated. Everyone appears to want a piece of this pie. In the middle ages, the heart shapes we recognise today, were used to depict leaves and plants – think fig leaf and you’ll soon get the idea.
Many different artists claim to have invented the symbol, the image above is from 13th century where a man is depicted gifting a heart symbol to his beloved lady (though she does like she’s about to slap him). Many historians dismiss this assumption (and we’re back to plants again), suggesting that this object is actually a pear not a heart – apparently pears were never associated with hearts, I don’t know why, but ‘historians’ seem pretty clear about this stuff.
Around the time of the renaissance we have another bun fight as various artists lay claim to being the creators of the symbol, depending on what you read, your point of view and many other things, there’s a number of different theories but no definite answer.
Wearing your heart on your sleeve
Shields and Coats of Arms are steeped in history, they often feature hearts within the design, what’s the story there? Depending on what you read, and believe, heart-shaped images appear in the 12th century, the most prominent example of this being the hearts within the coat of arms of Denmark which can be traced back to the 1190’s.
But wait for it, were going back into the foliage, the heart-shapes of the coat of arms didn’t depict hearts as we understand them today, nor did they symbolise any idea of love. Instead they are thought to have depicted the leaves of the water-lily, a plant often found growing near rivers!
Playing your cards right
There’s a distinct pattern forming here, this is another unidentifiable source. They probably started in China during the 9th Century and by the time they reached the US and Europe, (somewhere in the 16th or 17th Century) we have heart symbols depicted on the cards, but it’s nigh on impossible to fathom where on earth it first appeared…bugger I failed again!
This icon, graphic, symbol, call it what you will, has become a brand in it’s own right. The heart is a simple, stylised graphic that allows us to communicate many aspects of joy and affection quickly and clearly. The bottom line, for me it’s the ultimate brand – a complex and multi-level symbol of what a company has to offer you, the person. After all, branding is a human behaviour, our way of personifying products and services to communicate, so you understand what that product or service does and why it’s important.
The best branding is simple and clean, and for me the heart icon typifies the very best design and branding principles…it’s universally recognised and immediately understood, but where did it come from? Who knows there’s so much conflicting evidence.
In last 100 years the symbol has been prolifically used just about everywhere, the most obvious being it’s connection with Valentine’s and ‘lurve’ but it now goes much, much further then that.
The iconic ‘I ♥ NY’ first appeared in 1977, in a campaign for the New York State Department of Commerce. Mark Donnelly collaborated Milton Glaser on this historic campaign, that was allegedly never charged for, and has since become such an integral part of global culture that original artwork is part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Heart of gold
Colour is a really important part of any brand and the heart icon has it’s Pantone colour, probably 187C (nerdy graphic ref). This deep, rich, passionate, proud and strong shade of red, is instantly appealing, standing out in pretty much any situation. But such is the power of this icon that it’s just as powerful in pretty much any colour.
Hearts and minds
Over the last 40 years the symbol has got bigger and bigger and bigger. Here are just a few places that we use it :-
❤️️ Video games – symbolising “health” or “lives”
❤️️ Food – low fat, healthier options
❤️️ Animation and cartoons – affection and romance
❤️️ Exercise and recreation – products, apparel and equipment
❤️️ Fashion – countless garments for just about every brand have bore the heart icon
❤️️ War and conflict – demonstration posters, graffiti and street art
❤️️ Social channels – approval and connection
❤️️ Charities and healthcare – countless times, as you’d expect
❤️️ The internet – favourites
I could go on…and on…and on. It’s everywhere, multi-cultural, multi-lingual it’s an incredibly simple way to say so much. So Happy Valentine’s to everyone, the symbol of hope, love, affection, strength and determination is an integral part of our lives and for me, the ultimate brand icon.