Week 11

Trends & Environments

The opening of the film ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is a scene where the main character, Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks), gives a lecture on ‘The Interpretation of Symbols’.

It is only a short clip, but it has always made me want to discover more about symbolism and semiotics and find a ‘real’ lecture on symbols and semiotics to attend!

The Da Vinci Code

We are surrounded by signs, symbols, messages and colours all day long, which are all used to communicate and help us with our everyday life.

Martin Hosken, in this week’s lecture, explains about the meaning of messaging and communication and how “graphic advertising as medium, by which messages promote products, services, or ideas, has become competitive, complex and sophisticated”.

Communication is about the message received, not the message sent.


What I found most interesting about Hoken’s lecture is that he mentions about how signs and symbols are ‘culturally learned’.

We interact with signs every day and with some in particular, we instinctively know what they are and what to do when we see them. No-one has properly explained to us what they mean, we don’t always fully understand how they came about, but we act accordingly when we are presented with them. Traffic lights, blue & red flashing lights, road signs, red cross, parking, toilets, danger, etc.


Signs & Symbols


Similar to language, we hear words used in conversation and add them to our own, using them in the correct context but without truly understanding what the words mean or how they came about.


Workshop Challenge

I wanted to focus more on the ‘culturally learned’ signs and symbols that help us through our day rather than consumer goods brands. Examples like clothes care symbols, maths symbols, safety symbols, music notes and hand gestures – peace, okay or even sign language. All of which surround us, and we take for granted, but don’t fully understand how they evolved.




With my parents being Irish, I am faired skinned and can burn easily in the sun. I also have tasty blood! On a family holiday to Italy, a few years ago, I was bitten many times and my skin reacted quite badly. I needed to find a pharmacy to get some help and staying in an unfamiliar town, I wasn’t entirely sure where the nearest one was.

However, while walking through the street, I looked up and recognised the illuminated green cross symbol that was placed above a shop. I instinctively knew this was the local pharmacy and I was able to get some treatment for my bites.

Even though as humans we live all over the world within our own unique cultures, beliefs and religions, when we get injured or sick, we all turn to medical profession for help. We have ‘culturally learned’ symbols and signs for hospitals, ambulances, police and fire engines – all of which are slightly different across the world.

With this is mind, I wanted to research the signs and symbols that are used across the world for pharmacies. Some countries use the same symbols, while others have different variations. We still associate all these different symbols with the medical profession, but I don’t fully understand how they came about and why the colours red and green are mostly used in their design.

Pharmacy Symbols

We are all familiar with the Red Cross symbol, which was selected under the Geneva Convention in 1864. It is an inversion of the Swiss flag which recognises the connection between Switzerland and the original Geneva Convention. The Red Cross has no intentional religious meaning instead, serves as a recognisable symbol which is worn by medical personnel and others, carrying out humanitarian work, to protect them from military attack on the battlefield.

Red Cross/Swiss Flag

The Red Cross had been previously used by some medical institutions and continental pharmacists, but once it has been chosen under the Geneva Convention, there was a need to find an alternative.

The Green Cross had been used across Europe in the early 1900’s but was selected by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society as a standard symbol for British Pharmacy in 1954.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society stipulated that the Green Cross should be a specific shade of green or in black and white and that the word ‘pharmacy’ or ‘pharmacist’ should appear with it.

Green Cross

Using green symbolises nature, spring and rebirth, which is why we associate it with health and well-being. We tend to associate the Red Cross and red hospital symbols with emergencies and danger, but the green cross is more about how we can get better and treat ourselves. The green cross is also used for first aid.

France, Italy, Russia, Australia and India all use the green cross as their symbol for pharmacies but as I have discovered, across the world, there are many alternatives being used, which we still associate with the medical professions and pharmacies.

Most common are ‘The Rod of Asclepius’ and ‘Bowl of Hygieia’. In Greek mythology, Asclepius is the God of medicine and healing and his emblem was of a snake and a staff.

Hygieia was the Greek goddess of health and an associate of Asclepius (possibly wife, daughter or sister). The ‘Bowl of Hygieia’ is a symbol of a bowl with a snake wrapped around. It had been used as a symbol for the pharmacy profession as far back as 1976 and was used on coin, minted for the Parisian Society. Nowadays, it tends to be used outside of Europe.

An alternative name for a pharmacy is ‘Apothecary’ and this is used in Germany and Austria alongside the ‘Bowl of Hygieia’ or ‘The Rod of Asclepius’ predominantly in red, not green.

Other symbols used are ‘Mortar and Pestle’, widely seen in Scotland and Middle East, the ‘Carboy’ – a glass vessel with a globular base, which was commonly used in pharmacy shop windows filled with brightly coloured liquid and the ‘Recipe’ or ‘Rx’ symbol which appears at the start of a prescription – used in the U.S.

Various countries use different versions of these symbols, which over time we have come to associate with health, first aid, healing and pharmacy.

When a new pharmacy business opens up using its own individual name, for example, ‘Boots’ and ‘Superdrug’ in the UK or ‘Walgreens’ and ‘CVS’ in America, if they use any of these symbols alongside their name, we know exactly where we can get help or first aid and we know the types of items they will be selling.

Editorial Piece


  • Hosken, M. The Theory and Symbolism Behind a Message Podcast 2020. GDE710 for MA Graphic Design. Falmouth University.
  • Image – Pharmacy Symbols https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmacy Last accessed 8th December 2020