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Like the arrow or the circle, the crosshair focuses our
attention and prepares us for a message. Unlike the arrow or the
circle, both of which focus our attention but without yet
suggesting why, the crosshair tells us exactly why: what's in
the crosshair is in mortal danger. Even those of us who have
never looked through a gun scope know from movies and magazines
exactly what the crosshair is and what it means. It means someone's
got a gun. Someone's aiming that gun. And someone else is gonna get
A commonly used registration mark.
Aiming a crosshair at an object, even Photoshopping a crosshair
over a picture of someone's face, puts that object in jeopardy.
When the crosshair slides across the landscape until it locks onto
the victim, the crosshair tells us from whose perspective we are
looking. We are looking from the shooter's perspective. We too are
in the position of power. We too can pull the trigger.
By itself, the crosshair is just a tool, a type of reticle. Not unique to
gun scopes, the crosshair is used in layout
software, in cameras, telescopes and microscopes. The crosshair
appears in goggles and scanners, in surgical lasers and
land-surveying equipment. Yes, the shooter can disable, destroy or
take out the target. But the shooter can also focus a lens, guide a
laser and measure a distance.
The crosshair is a tool that guides our vision, but the arrow
and the circle also guide our vision. The arrow might reveal and
reward. The circle might accept and embrace. The crosshair,
however, dominates the object, sneaks up and subdues the object in
a precise two-dimensional location. There you are. And you don't
even know I see you. The crosshair transforms the independent
nature of the object into the conditional, dependent nature
of the target, without that target ever knowing about its
own transformation in the eye of the viewer. Its transformation
occurs on the viewer's side of the crosshair, and so the viewer too
is changed. The crosshair changes the viewer from spectator to
participant. So now that we see it, what do we do next? Has
the crosshair transformed us into snipers or scientists,
photographers or trophy-hunters, creators or killers?
Pop, pop culture: The crosshair appears in the artwork for
movies, books, music and first-person-shooter video games like Halo
and Call of Duty.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cross
hair, or crosshair, as one of “two fine strands of wire
crossed in the focus of the eyepiece of an optical instrument and
used as a calibration or sighting reference.” The word itself is
metaphorical. The filaments that cross are not strands of hair but
strands of wire, although the roots (sorry) of the word reach back
to the earliest versions of the tool in which actual hair was
Literal uses of the crosshair signify a real tool being used,
like a gun, camera or laser. In the artwork for The Bourne
Identity (2002), the crosshair zeroes in on Jason Bourne
(Matt Damon)—he's the prey. For the sequel The Bourne
Supremacy (2004), the crosshair appears in the rifle scope
wielded by Jason Bourne—now he's the hunter. (So much depends upon
what side of the sights you're on.) Crosshair is the name of a comic book (soon to be a
movie) about an assassin. The crosshair as a name or symbol is used
literally to denote actual gun scopes in the branding for Crosshair
Safaris and Crosshair Consulting hunting outfitters. The crosshair
logo for stem-cell researchers Cell Targeting Inc. suggests
microscopes; the one for 4 Seasons Pest Control, an exterminator's
spray nozzle; the logo for Crosshair Exploration and Mining
Corporation, an explorer's viewpoint. First-person-shooter video
games use the gun-scope crosshair, and several websites provide
software that enables players to design their own crosshair
Stay on target: The crosshair, as logo and brand, is as popular
with target shooters as it is with target marketers.
Figurative uses of the word and symbol in branding include
Crosshair Oakley sunglasses, Crosshair Studios, Crosshair Golf,
Tactical Financial, Crosshairs Trader, Snitch Killer Apparel and
the Asus Crosshair motherboard. None of these uses refer to actual
tools relying on crosshair scopes. Instead, they seek to co-opt a
mood evoked by the crosshair: lethality, accuracy, technological
precision, militaristic bravado. The most abstract crosshair logo
is used by Dr. Reg Edward for his targeted, regional
One of the more ubiquitous uses of the crosshair is in the logo
for the rap group Public
Enemy, targeting a silhouetted stand-in for the band. It's a
complicated, artistic use of the crosshair as a symbol, because it
puts the viewer in the position of the government, targeting the
artists, while the viewer knows this particular use is controlled
by the band itself. Public Enemy directs the crosshair at itself in
an attempt to win sympathy from the viewer: the implicit message
being that what the band has to say is so important that they may
be killed for saying it. This use of the crosshair works well in
context because Public Enemy does indeed take on urgent,
anti-establishment political issues. Using the crosshair would
amount to self-aggrandizing parody, however, if, say, Public Enemy
were a boy band singing about a cafeteria romance thwarted by an
evil lunch lady.
The crosshair falters when used by marketing companies. Even
though its use by companies such as Crosshair Marketing Services
and Crosshairs Communication (there are many examples) is
figurative (no one's using or selling a real scope), the crosshair
derives from the literalization of the metaphor expressed by the
phrase “target marketing.” The use of the word target takes
advantage of its associations with weapons. We are meant to think
of marketing in a more serious, technical way. The metaphor falls
flat, though, when marketing companies incorporate into their
brands literal symbols like targets and missiles and the crosshair.
The metaphor becomes literal, and we groan. We groan, too, at the
machismo of trying to drape the world of the cubicle in the
camouflage of the battlefield, especially when, taking the literal
logos at their symbolic word, we might reasonably wonder why
marketers are targeting consumers in the crosshair of a rifle
Fire! sale: The crosshair plays well on products from caps to
In the branding for marketing companies, the crosshair means
“See it. Sell it.” But the crosshair means “See it. Sex it” when
used on the cover for the Spanish book Sex Code (2007), a
guide for seducing women. There the crosshair targets a woman's
silhouette, specifically her hips. The woman appears to float, as
if she leapt like a deer. Meanwhile, a guy in a suit stands coolly,
hands in pockets. The crosshair quickly draws us into a world of
slippery idioms: we are hunting bucks, blasting bad guys and
I find the crosshair is more successful when used figuratively,
but the crosshair is busiest elsewhere: it seems to work 24/7 as an
editorial and political symbol, referencing the sights on a gun
scope. It's like the James Brown of op-ed clichés: the
hardest-working symbol in the business. Slapped on anyone and
anything, the crosshair is the lazy person's critique, meaning:
there is no critique, just a crude graphic gesture meant to shock
the viewer. See it. Slam it.
And the crosshair is used both ways. Recall the dual use in the
artwork for the Bourne movies—the crosshair marks the hunter
and hunted, prompting the viewer to identify with either, depending
on context—and the sympathetic use by Public Enemy, in which the
crosshair is a graphic strategy to gain sympathy. Used politically
and editorially, the crosshair can attack someone who deserves it
and elicit sympathy for someone who does not. (See how many books
and articles are entitled “[Blankety Blank] in the Crosshair.”) The
user defines the context and plays to the prejudice of an audience.
A baby in the crosshair illustrates a pro-life, anti-abortion
article. The flag of Israel in the crosshair illustrates an article
by a writer worried that Jews will be targeted by anti-Semitic
forces. The crosshair represents an ideological viewpoint and
implicates the viewer in that viewpoint. The crosshair is used so
often in political imagery and op-ed illustration because the
crosshair is so brutal an expression of an unyielding political or
ideological allegiance. We are a god, or we are guilty. We judge
righteously, or we have made a grave error. The crosshair divides
Sniping and griping: The crosshair serves editorial and
political propagandists with its divisive power.
People are free to incorporate the crosshair into their graphic
imagery nearly any way they want, thanks to the First Amendment
(unless they directly incite violence), and I have no reservations
about designers using the crosshair in figurative ways—the ways
designers use the skull,
for example, or images of pistols and daggers and the hangman's
noose—on album covers and baseball caps and logos and skateboards.
But as a viewer, I recoil from the crosshair as a graphic editorial
Sure, I've played as a sniper in Call of Duty, but it's only
a game reality. I win or lose with nothing but my own mood at
stake. The graphic use of the crosshair is only a graphic reality,
one of the page or website or whatever frame the crosshair is
bisecting or quadrisecting—that is, when we look at crosshair
imagery, we're not really using the crosshair in a rifle scope to
aim a real bullet into a real forehead. But I resent being put into
that position. As a viewer, I can ignore the lapel button or the
website banner or the magazine illustration, but the designer or
illustrator should worry that the crosshair might convey an
unintended message. I see that crosshair, and, reflexively, I
distrust the person who put it there.
As propaganda, the crosshair is a symbol of presumption, not
persuasion. The crosshair narrows the world into a single
viewpoint, into the x/y axes of lethal intent, and I refuse that
Cartesian carnage. The crosshair can devolve into a tool of fanatic
ideology, promoting a worldview so narrow that it contains nothing
else but the object of derision. Someone who layers a crosshair
over something or someone is basically shoving a scope in the
viewer's eye and trying to say, “There is no outside world. There
is only an object on the other side of the crosshair. See it. Shoot
Using the crosshair this way marks the end of thinking, not the
beginning. The crosshair is the sentence, not the consideration.
It's death, not deliberation, and so there's nothing to talk about.
In this way, the crosshair backfires.
What does X stand for? According to Barringer’s exhaustive explication, there’s very little that the 24th letter does not represent.
When a city with rising homicide rates says no to your pro
bono anti-violence campaign, what do you do? Baseman gives his
account of best intentions vs. bureaucracy.
Why should museums be bound by the laws of physics? Caplan questions MoMA’s symbolic acquisition of the ubiquitous @ sign.
Section: Inspiration -
typography, critique, Voice
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Section: Inspiration -
graphic design, Voice
This system of 50 symbol signs, produced by AIGA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, was designed for use at the crossroads of modern life.
Section: Tools and Resources -
One of the perks of my new-ish position as managing editor at AIGA is spending my mornings reading design stories and calling it “work.” But not everyone gets to (or wants to) peruse RSS feeds like it’s their job. Consider this a hit list (as well as a few things you may have missed) of the most interesting things I’ve seen, read and watched this week.
Section: Inspiration -
book design, logos, symbols, culture, sustainability
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