Crosshair in the Crosshair
By David Barringer January 18, 2011
Crosshair in the Crosshair
By David Barringer January 18, 2011
Crosshair in the Crosshair
By David Barringer January 18, 2011

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 shot.

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?

Collage of crosshair-related images in media


Shoot It. Sell It. Sex It. Slam It.

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 used.

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 icons.

Collage of logos using crosshair imagery


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 anesthesia.

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 scope.

Collage of apparel and other products using the crosshair symbol


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 bagging babes.

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 us.

Collage of editorial and political uses of the crosshair symbol


See It. Don't Slay It.

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 tool.

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 it.”

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.

Tags Article Voice graphic design critique