WEEK 11: Signs and Symbols – Workshop Challenge

These emblems are not religious symbols.

The global reach of The Red Cross, The Red Crescent and the Red Crystal.

Making a symbol

In 1864 alongside the Geneva convention, the Red Cross adopted an inversion of the Swiss flag as its emblem. The intention was for this symbol of neutrality to be recognisable as a sign on a battlefield. A true example of semiotics, there is a signifier in the cross and the signified,
as taken from the Red Cross website:

image source: Red Cross

In times of war, the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems mean ‘don’t shoot!’. They signify neutrality and protection. To be effective, everyone must understand the emblems’ meaning and must have trust in them. 1

Whilst the intention was never one of religious connotations, the Red Cross was adapted in 1876 to the red crescent in many countries due to the crosses connection to middle-age crusaders in the Ottoman Empire. The Red Cross are quick to point out that:

The red cross emblem is not a first aid or medical sign. It is not a religious or political symbol. 1


But this seems a really good example of a symbol inheriting meaning via learnt context. In conversation with my peers at Falmouth University, we quickly moved into a discussion around pharmacy and medical symbols, so it seems inescapable that the Red Cross symbol still carries its incorrect medical meaning. Interestingly, it seems this is more commonly misappropriated in western culture where the cross is commonly confused for first aid. I was informed by Yara Hindawi in our discussion around the Red Cross and Red Crescent that across Arabic countries the symbol of
the Bowl of Hygieia is used to symbolise anything medical.

The Red Crystal

To advance the Red Cross humanitarian movement globally, further symbols have been adopted into the branding.
In 2006 Israel’s Magen David Adom was admitted to the Red Cross organisation, adopting the Red Crystal and at times the Red Crystal paired with the Star of David. 2
This crystal icon, introduced in 2005 aimed to give protection to those under the Geneva convention in areas where the symbols of the crescent or the cross were not universally respected.

Does it work?

It is interesting that for a symbol with the intention of pure neutrality, religious connotations have been unavoidable, even to the detriment of the message of safety and protection that it has aimed to provide. Whilst the symbol of the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal are globally recognised and therefore strong semiotic signs, their ties to religious symbology have been impossible to shake across different cultures.

For me the Red Crystal seems to fill its purpose more efficiently than the Cross or Crescent can, but is this too late? To adapt the logo based on preconceptions is almost to admit that yes, there are religious meanings that break the purpose of these symbols in some cultures. But these icons are such a strong sign engrained into global culture to offer aid, medicine protection that arguably If the message is slightly skewed, the over-arching emotion of protection from harm is still relevant. 

See below for my report as an editorial layout