Love: A Core Design Principle

The Valentine’s Day that we know today is a manufactured experience. Noticing a sales slump after Christmas, American greeting card manufacturers went looking for something else to celebrate in the first quarter of the year, and while they had some minor success with Easter cards, what they really needed was a big event to get people spending again. It is said that talent borrows and genius steals, so they made an ingenious decision and looked across the water to England, where a handy tradition was just waiting to be commercialized.

Illustration by Monica Giunchi

Illustration by Monica Giunchi

The famous writer Geoffrey Chaucer is known as the Father of English Literature, and by the standards of that same aphorism, he too was a genius. As a well-read man, he was familiar with the ancient Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia. As an intelligent man, he realized that trying to bring back a Roman festival revolving around sacrificing goats and fertility was likely to end with him in jail. So he did to Lupercalia what early Christians had done to many pagan practices, he sanitized it and attached a tangentially related Saint to give it a seal of holiness.

Saint Valentine’s story is rather brief in written accounts prior to Chaucer’s intervention; he was imprisoned and after flirting with his jailer’s daughter and “laying healing hands on her” to cure some unspecified ailment, she set him free to go on evangelizing. Not necessarily the most romantic of stories, but by focusing in on the sweet notes that the daughter and saint had passed back and forth, Chaucer was able to create a tradition. A day of the year when people sent incognito letters expressing their romantic affection to others, signed as the Saint had signed his notes. From your Valentine.

The card companies found this quaint tradition still alive and well in modern England and they commercialized the heck out of it. They mass produced Valentine’s Day cards and promoted the event so thoroughly that it became a new pillar of their business. This success was so thorough that it spread out to influence other industries too – just try booking a table at a restaurant for the day. Something about the festivities seemed to capture imaginations worldwide, with Valentine’s being celebrated across East Asia despite the lack of influence that Catholicism carries in many of the countries where it is most popular.

Love hearts on a red background

Nowadays many people in the West are rejecting the commercialism of Valentine’s Day, choosing instead of spending the average $300 to show their love in more direct ways. Creating personalized gifts for their loved ones or writing genuine notes of affection that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Chaucer’s England. Making the time to spend some time together, focused on the importance of the relationship.

It is impossible to know for certain what the future of Valentine’s day will look like, whether it will revolve around the services which are now dispensing anonymous e-cards or whether the commercial aspect of the day will be forgotten about entirely. The only thing that we can be completely certain of is that love will always be at the center of Valentine’s Day.

Whatever you are designing, whether it is a product, an experience or a holiday; the core message of whatever you are creating will be the thing that survives for the longest. It’s unlikely that the Romans gleefully sacrificing a goat in the name of love could have foreseen the classrooms full of American schoolchildren busily drawing cards for one another in the future, but the central message of romantic love has carried on through  generations.

No matter how well something is designed, it will eventually be replaced with a new and improved iteration. That is afterall, the nature of design. But we believe if you provide a strong central message to whatever it is you’re making, then that message will remain forever.

Communications Director

Sutherland Labs
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