Beware a Logo’s Symbolism: A True Story

A symbol is just a symbol. A color is just a color. And a star is just a star, even if it’s red. It’s a ubiquitous symbol, having been appropriated into the mainstream culture for a multitude of corporations and businesses, such as Heineken and Wal-Mart. The significance of the red star is lost on most Americans. I’m certain many would tell you that the red star was on the old Soviet flag, and they could possibly tell you that it’s prevalent on several current flags. It’s no real surprise that people don’t know the star’s true origins. What does come as a bit of a shock is how it’s used with a complete disregard for its history and meaning.

But even I’m guilty of it. While designing my identity, I decided to adopt the star for my logo. I could’ve pretended to be oblivious to its importance, except for one small thing: I was born in Moscow and lived there until I was 10 years old. Although I’ve been living in the U.S. for the last 17 years and consider myself American, that’s no excuse for my lapse in judgment.

A Look Back
The bloody history linked to the red star is comparable perhaps only to the swastika. There’s an underlying difference though. While the swastika is primarily known as the symbol of the Nazi Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Workers Party) it’s been omnipresent in history and religion since about 2000 B.C. It found its way into Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as either a religious symbol or a geometrical motif. In Hinduism it symbolizes luck, represents the sun or depicts the concept of samsara (the indefinitely repeated cycle of birth, misery and death caused by karma). Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia to China, Korea and Japan, taking the swastika with it. Its appearance can also be traced along the African slave routes around 1500 A.D. The discovery of Troy in the late 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann also produced objects bearing the swastika ornament, and it was thought of as a special Indo-European symbol from then on by a multitude of scholars and historians. It quickly gained popularity and turned up in many designs through the early 1900s.

In 1920, Adolph Hitler irreparably tainted the swastika. To paraphrase a Murphy’s Law adage, "If you put a teaspoon of sewage into a barrel of wine, you will get sewage." In one fell swoop, Hitler tarnished the swastika’s image by appropriating its use for the Nazi Party. From that, it hasn’t and probably never will recover. Although it is still a religious symbol, when one sees a swastika, the "H" word that comes to mind is Hitler rather than Hinduism.

The red star, on the other hand, has never been a symbol of any major religious significance. When it was adopted for the Communist Party of Russia, it became a symbol of an extremely tyrannical and bloody era that has survived in many forms, hearts and places. In the Central Museum of the Soviet Army, the red star is referred to as the "star of justice." In reality, though, the red star and communism never stood for justice or anything remotely resembling it. The Soviet ideology catered to everyone’s needs on the surface, but behind the scenes, it catered only to the communist fuhrers. While claiming to be "friends" of the oppressed, they were the worst oppressors themselves. As they got richer and richer, the poor got poorer and poorer. The promises of a prosperous life for everyone were abundant, but the only lives that improved were those of the party leaders. Had the oppression and lies been their worst crimes, it’s possible I wouldn’t be writing this article. But mass murders and torture went hand in hand with the communist era.

When Lenin was at the helm of the Communist party, the head of the CHEKA (the predecessor to the KGB) was Felix Dzerzhinsky, also known as "Iron Felix." In one historically recorded example, he brought Lenin a list of noble, highly positioned people who had recently been arrested. Lenin read the list, put marks next to several names and gave it back to Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky left the room and later reported that all the people whose names were checked off had been killed. "Why?" Lenin asked. Dzerzhinsky replied, "You put a mark next to each name!" Lenin responded, "I was just marking off the people that I knew!"

The Soviets’ motto was, "If the enemy doesn’t surrender, he must be eliminated." They slaughtered tens of millions of people through executions, famine and torture because they were alleged enemies. The absolute majority of those persecuted were killed or imprisoned for no legitimate reason. Among them were the creme de la creme of the nation, those whose intelligence, culture and ability to think for themselves (rather than adhere to the crowd mentality) made them "the enemies of the people." So when the two-headed eagle recently replaced the star, it was as much of a facade as communism itself. Times have changed, but the guiding principles and beliefs remain the same.

The Backlash
So why did I choose this star, this horrific symbol, to represent myself? For one, I didn’t do my homework. The concept for my logo was to reflect my roots and my design style. I wanted to associate myself with an era that produced many great designers, theories and concepts, which are still referenced and idolized by creatives today. But I didn’t realize what else I was associating myself with, and it was my family that brought it to my attention.

A symbol is just a symbol. That is, until someone makes an emotional or personal connection to it. My parents and grandparents, who also emigrated with me in 1989, lived through all these horrors, experienced them first-hand. My great-grandfather was imprisoned and persecuted, finally perishing in the war that killed an estimated 30 million people. My other great-grandfather’s brother spent half of his life in a Soviet concentration camp. My great-grandmother and my mother weren’t allowed into graduate school because they were Jewish—never mind the fact that they had perfect grades. My stepfather was persecuted as well, losing his job in the process and spending time in jail.

My family was deeply offended by what I did and felt that my design slapped them in the face. There was a span of three days when we did not speak with one another; as my stepfather said, "Until you replace that bloody star, I don’t have a son anymore." That statement really stung me and made me realize the boundaries I crossed with my design. We’ve been in the U.S. for 17 years and consider ourselves American. Both my mother and stepfather have worked extremely hard and have taken full advantage of the opportunities that were provided for them in this country, becoming very successful. I thought they wouldn’t react so emotionally to my logo.

I chose to ignore history and, in my ignorance, also overlooked my family’s past. I have never encountered nor expected a reaction as strong and as emotional. I forgot about the associations that a symbol can communicate. Your heritage can work for or against you. So if you choose to use a symbol with years of history behind it, make sure you know that history.

HOW October 2006