The heart symbol can be written mathematically as a cardioid or as an implicit curve ((x2+y2−1)3−x2y3=0) — or more commonly in a text message as an < and a 3. It’s a figure that looks remotely like a human heart but whose origin is debatable. The heart, which broadly represents love and lust, is the symbol de rigueur for cloying Valentine’s Day cards, sacharine sentiments and overly sweet boxes of chocolates. It also holds a heavy place in art.
Artists Milton Glaser and Keith Haring are both famous for their use of heart shapes in their work. For Valentine’s Day, we looked into how they thought about the use of such symbols in their designs.
Glaser, a prolific and celebrated graphic designer, is responsible for the ubiquitous I ♥ NY logo used by the state’s tourism department. It combines a red heart symbol with clean, black American Typewriter font for a logo that is simple and easy to understand, but also compelling and powerful.
In his essay “Ambiguity & Truth,” he discusses the effiicacy of such design by describing the many ways in which one can interpret Leonardo DaVinci’s last supper. The 15th century work has many layers — literally and figuratively — that give way to a host of interpretations. This “ambiguity principal,” Glaser says, contributes to the painting’s propensity to captivate:
“The brain frequently remains inert until a problem is presented to it. In the case of The Last Supper, the profound ambiguity it contains alerts and stimulates the brain into action. DaVinci clearly believed that ambiguity was a way of arriving at the truth. As a result, the painting moves us in a deeper and more profound way than any direct statement…In our practice we frequently use a less elevated version of the ambiguity principle to create a puzzle that the audience can solve within a short length of time. Clearly, the period of time between seeing something and understanding it is critical, too short and the viewer is not engaged, too long and you lose his attention and frequently generate confusion and resentment.”
In the case of the logo, the puzzle is much simpler than DaVinci’s. The heart shape replaces the word love, requiring viewers to make the split-second replacement of the image with text. Judging from the logo’s proliferation — on shirts, on babies, on billboards — that small amount of mental strain has lasting effects.
Haring, whose pop art was largely inspired by grafitti, frequently uses the heart, in conjunction with a host of other images in what he calls the “vocabulary of things,” to connect with viewers in another way.
In an interview about “The Ten Commandments” in 1985, a body of work that doesn’t use the heart shape but does use a number of other symbols, Haring said:
“The vocabulary of my images became ‘physical,’ almost; it’s a vocabulary of signs and symbols evoking different ideas, and gaining meaning through repetition and juxtaposition, changing meaning as they appear over and over, as I use them in different situations. Images gain power with repetition. There are some images that I will only use once, and not use again because they don’t seem to really hit the nail right on the head, but there are some which are so strong they have to be reduced; sometimes just reusing them makes them stronger.”
Haring’s language of symbols was strengthened by use and by the effect his figures had on the people who viewed them.
In a later interview with Rolling Stone, he described his reasons for moving from abstracts to symbols:
“But if I was going to draw again, I couldn’t go back to the abstract drawings; it had to have some connection to the real world. I organized a show at Club 57 for Frank Holliday and me. I bought a roll of oak-tag paper and cut it up and put it all over the floor and worked on this whole group of drawings. The first few were abstracts, but then these images started coming. They were humans and animals in different combinations. Then flying saucers were zapping the humans. I remember trying to figure out where this stuff came from, but I have no idea. It just grew into this group of drawings. I was thinking about these images as symbols, as a vocabulary of things.”
In the case of Haring, his heart symbol came represent his support of children, AIDS awareness and community art.
Both artists use a symbol to convey meaning and then let it out into the world to take on a life of its own.
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.