Caught in the Crosshairs?

Symbol: Crosshair, Crop Mark,
Registration Mark, etc.
The internet is ablaze with discussions about the crosshair symbol. Crosshair devices and symbols have been with us since the 1730s. How did this simple, centuries-old symbol gain the limelight?

At a political event in Arizona, six people died and 14 others were wounded by a gunman. You can read the tragic details elsewhere.

Some media and online sources are linking the shooting incident with Sarah Palin, because she used crosshair symbols on a map to indicate the geographic locations of critical political races.

While that debate rages elsewhere, let’s take a moment to consider the symbol and its uses.

Crosshairs are fine lines used in the lens of a telescopic gun sight, surveyors level and many similar devices to help the user precisely aim or center the instrument. In today’s high tech world, these devices may include additional distance, focusing, aiming or measurement data.

The crosshair symbol is used in a variety of disciplines and industries, so it has many names: reticle, crop mark, registration mark, focal point, surveyor’s mark, etc. Here is a partial list of this symbol's many uses:

In astronomy, a similar symbol is sometimes used to indicate planet Earth.
The same is true for astrology. The crosshair is the symbol for planet Earth, and sometimes it’s used casually to indicate the four quadrants of an astrological chart.
In graphic design and printing, the crosshair has multiple uses. It indicates vertical and horizontal crop or trim lines, called crop marks, and it shows the printer precisely where to trim a printed sheet. In traditional color printing processes, it indicates how to align plates so multiple colors can be printed onto one page, with each color appearing precisely where it was intended.
In Adobe PDF documents, a modified version appears when you use the Snapshot copy tool.
On compasses or in directions relating to compasses and position-finding, the crosshair often serves as a simplified symbol to indicate the four primary directions: North, South, East and West.
On maps and in cartography, crosshairs may indicate a precise location or a primary place and its surroundings. Crosshair symbols often appear in cartographic and other symbol software packages.
In medicine, optical or laser crosshairs may be used to designate specific areas of the body to scan, x-ray, photograph or target for precise treatment.
One of my favorite cameras used a crosshair in the viewfinder to show the primary focal point along with vertical and horizontal alignment. Because the crosshair has meaning in so many industries, countless companies use this symbol or a stylized adaptation in their logo.

Why tackle this topic here and now? The current feverish debate is a valuable reminder.

All communications involve at least two parties: the communicator and the receiver. As business owners, we struggle to convey useful information in a complex, diverse world. It’s important to remember that all communication elements – words, phrasing, acronyms, symbols, imagery, color choices, layouts, venues, etc., etc. etc. – are open to interpretation (and misinterpretation). To complicate matters, meanings and implications shift as you move from one industry, culture, country or location to another.

Communication is an imprecise art. You can frame a clear and meticulous message, but you can't control how it will shift, evolve, spin and change as it moves out into and through the world.

Because of this recent brouhaha, companies all over the US will be scrambling to redesign logos, scrubbing websites and scrapping print materials to eliminate all things that resemble the crosshair symbol. Their fear? A customer, client or casual observer will misunderstand what the symbol means.

My advice? Wait awhile and the furor will fade. The crosshair symbol is a useful, simple and elegant device. If it suits you, your company and your brand, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

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