Rebecca Swift
Feb 13, 2015

Valentine's Day: The changing look of love

Rebecca Swift, director of creative planning with iStock by Getty Images, discusses changes in the visual representation of love on Valentine's Day.


Above: A few image ideas to serve as inspiration for those who would like to get beyond typical Valentine's Day imagery.

Love transcends all cultures, and its close relative ‘romance’ drives multi-billion dollar industries. On Valentine's Day shoppers in Asia have been found to be the most generous when it comes to gifts, spending on average around $274 per person, more than anywhere else in the world.

Humans tend to hold onto fixed, oversimplified ideas and visuals of love. We find romantic love at the heart of classic texts and fairytales, and it’s also highly visualized. The heart has represented love since ancient times. The heart was believed to be the center of all emotions, and love is the strongest emotion of them all. While St. Valentine’s Day is today synonymous with cards, flowers and chocolates, it is the heart shape visual that is universally recognized.

Romantic love has the most visual clichés associated with it in the form of scenarios: proffering red roses, drinking champagne, sharing food, hugs and kisses, exchanging presents, offering chocolate or a ring or other jewelry—and the list goes on. The sentiment and visual concepts are consistent across the majority of countries where Getty Images licenses images. It may be an Indonesian couple or an African American one, however the underlying concepts being communicated remain largely consistent the world over.

Love comes in many forms

Despite these clichés, we all know that’s not what the 7 billion human hearts in the world actually look like. Each is three-dimensional, asymmetrical and unique, and “love” is far more all-embracing.

Human connection is underpinned by love. It is an intimate bond between friends, family or lovers. “Connection” can even be extended to animals, their connection with each other and with humans. Humans anthropomorphize animal behaviour. When we see animals snuggling each other or touching noses, we transfer our own feelings about those actions, hence the popularity of those Buzzfeed cat listicles. Our connection with pets runs so deep that they are now part of the new Valentine’s Day equation. In 2015, of the $18.9 billion that Americans will spend on Valentine’s Day, $703 million is expected to be spent on pets. Think kitty sweaters in pink and crimson and heart-shaped boxes of doggie treats.

The impact of technology on visualizations of love

The Internet has enabled global visual literacy. With camera phones set to outnumber humans this year, the volume of images that are shot, edited and shared every day is of prodigious proportions. The sheer range of images available means that old clichés are being RePictured, bringing welcome diversity, character and personality to age old depictions.

Work, commuting, chores, finances. There are so many things getting in the way of spending time with loved ones. Technology too, has its advantages and disadvantages. It enables loved ones to communicate across long distances more affordably and more visually than ever before, but technology is also a barrier to human connection. Our lives are controlled by technology that enables work to spill into personal time. It creates a distraction when surrounded by loved ones and it does not offer a truly authentic emotional experience. As a result, the visual representation of human connection works better when technology is not present, or, if it is, it is enabling rather than distracting.

“Selfie” is the fastest growing keyword searched on iStock by Getty Images over the last year, and technology has driven this trend towards both solo selfies and selfies with others. We all see more portraits in a day than we probably wish to. The impact of this mainly adjudicated imagery is that self-awareness is higher—not necessarily in a self-conscious, overly aware way, but learning to love what we have, imperfections and all, and celebrating that through self-love.

Love is for everyone

Diversity is rarely a subject that comes up on Valentine's Day, but this is changing, and 2015 will be a year of celebrating the diversity that is humankind, a countertrend to the volume of images that represent same-looking people. Consumers are increasingly responding to models and images that are intriguing and different.

The 180-year-old jewelry company Tiffany & Co., recently made headlines with its new campaign, featuring seven real-life couples who all popped the question, including a same-sex couple. Increasingly love is represented as a universal feeling that transcends communities, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations.

This Valentine’s Day, it’s time to kill the cliché, break stereotypes and give a new vision to what love means to us in today’s world.

Designer takeaways

While classic Valentine’s imagery is no less iconic, consider departing from tradition this Valentine’s Day and tap into visuals that express a more modern, more inclusive sentiment:

  • Depicting strong authentic emotion.
  • Removing technology from the equation, unless it is the thing that is keeping love alive.
  • Focusing on the connection between lovers—sometimes a close-up of the connection is enough.
  • Ensuring confidence, happiness, contentment and comfort is depicted in the image.
  • Depicting character and individuality.
  • Storytelling in the visual—it’s more difficult to do but is essential in today’s communications in order to engage.
  • Using a bit of creativity to make visual clichés work:
    • Tips on choosing hearts: Try different materials, textures, shapes (chubby or slim-lined), colours (doesn’t have to be red).
    • Tips on using “scenario” clichés: Think about how the image is different. Doing something simple such as using people in winter instead of summer will give the image a different feel.

Rebecca Swift is director of creative planning with iStock by Getty Images

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