Sign of the Cross

As one of the oldest ideograms in the world, the cross represented a lot of things long before it represented Christianity. Now it represents all of that and more.

Before the cross was associated with Christianity, it had a long history with ancient cultures around the world. The symmetrical intersection of two lines is a pretty simple idea, plus it’s easy to draw/carve on almost any surface. As such it’s understandable that different people at different times have each created their own cross symbols – an early example of multiple discovery, or maybe the collective unconscious.

While designs & purposes vary from culture to culture there are reoccurring themes. For pre-Columbian cultures of North America the four points of a cross are frequently used to represent the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, the four winds, and/or the four primary forces of nature. The Greek cross corresponded to the four fixed signs of the zodiac (Leo, Taurus, Scorpio, Aquarius). In a similar interest with the number four, European alchemists would later use the cross as one of the symbols for the four platonic elements.

In the Chinese language the cross is a sign for “perfection” as well as the character for “ten”. Interestingly, in Roman numerals a cross turned 45 degrees (an X) is also the sign for ten, but in Chinese the X sign was an early symbol for the number “five”. The X symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphics meant divide, count, and break into parts. Speaking of math, the cross as mathematical “plus” sign came much later around the 14th century and the “x” for multiplication came around the 17th century.

An assortment of pre-Christian cross designs from around the world.

If we expand our definition of a cross and make some simple alterations we get even more results. The Inca have the Chakana, a stepped cross symbol representing different levels of existence. Turned 45 degrees the stepped X symbol Aban is the Ghanaian Adinka symbol for “castle” as well as “strength”.

A cross in a circle ⊕, such as the Solar Cross (wheel cross, Odin’s cross), has been used by people for thousands of years around the world (and recently by white supremacists). It can represent the sun, a solar deity (such as the weather/solar god Baal of the Middle East or Shamash in Babylon), the wheel of a sun gods’ chariot, in China it represented thunder/power, it’s the mon of the Shimazu clan in Japan, etc. A cross amulet for a sun god made of four triangle shapes (like the Cross Pattée ᛭) can be seen in the 9th century BCE stela of the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad V. A cross with slight bars on the ends is the ancient Chinese sign for a wū ☩, a shaman or sorcerer. Add a rounded shape to the top of a cross and you have the Egyptian hieroglyph Ankh ☥. Finally, one of the most famous (and later infamous) altered crosses is the swastika which has a very extensive history by cultures around the world long before its use in the 20th century.

Christianity Before The Cross

The cross gained a new meaning after the crucifixion of Jesus … but not immediately afterwards. To start, it’s unclear what kind of cross Jesus was crucified on. It could have been a pole, it could have been shaped like a capital “T”, or it could have been the lower case “†” shape we are familiar with. Regardless of cross shape, as a way to avoid persecution, early Christians used a variety of other symbols to secretly represent Jesus before they used the cross. The Ichthys (the “Jesus fish”), the peacock, the pelican, the dove, an anchor, as well as the letters Alpha & Omega were all early Christian images containing hidden meaning symbolizing Jesus.

It wasn’t until 300 years after Jesus that the cross became a widespread symbol of Christianity. Constantine, the 4th century Roman emperor, not only stopped the Roman persecution of Christians but also became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Supposedly he had a vision of a symbol in the sky followed by Jesus telling him to make that symbol the symbol of God, that it would protect him from his enemies. From this Constantine ordered all of the shields and banners to feature this new design.

Four early Christian symbols used in secret to avoid persecution.

Exactly what this symbol supposedly was however is debated. Some say it was a cross but others say it was the staurogram. The staurogram is a ligature combining the Greek letters “T” and “P” to form ⳨ which was an abbreviated way of writing “stauros” or “cross” – it also looks a bit like a person crucified on a cross. Still another possibility was the symbol Chi Rho, a ligature of the Greek letters “X” and “P” forming ⳩, a shortening of the title “Christ”. Also, the early Christian interest in ligatures goes one further with the IX monogram ligature, which is an overlapping of the Greek letters “I” and “X” as a shortened form of the name Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, whatever sign Constantine supposedly saw, the Chi Rho became the symbol used by the Roman military. As the Roman empire spread it took Christianity and the symbols of Christianity along with it. It’s thought that over time the assorted early Christian symbols morphed/simplified into the cross we associate with Christianity today.

Cross Diversity

Like the diversity of pre-Christian crosses, we now find ourselves with a plethora of Christian cross designs – lots of styles for lots of reasons. Early church theology made use of the cross as a teaching tool which helped generate alternate designs. The four points of a cross could now represent the four evangelists. The Papal Cross has three horizontal bars instead of the traditional one, symbolizing the Pope’s rank. The Triumphal Cross / Globus cruciger, a cross placed at the top of an orb, is used to show Christ’s reign over the world (which is a popular symbol in art).

As Christianity spread to new regions the church (and the cross) would adapt to the local cultures. Early Christians took the Egyptian Ankh, changed the teardrop-shaped loop to a circle, and it became the Crux Ansata or “cross with a handle”. The Celtic Cross was created in the Gaelic speaking areas of the British Isles as a combination of the local Druidic solar/lunar beliefs (the circle) with the Christian cross. Similar to many Celtic crosses, the Ethiopian Cross also features a latticework design but is even more elaborate. The Ethiopians use the woven pattern to represent everlasting life.

European heraldry also generated a variety of new crosses especially during the medieval Crusades. The Jerusalem Cross is one cross with four other smaller crosses in the four quadrants. It was the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Holy Land was conquered by the crusaders in the 13th century. The five crosses can represent the five wounds of Christ, or the four evangelists & Jesus, etc. This cross variant found its way into the heraldry of the crusaders as well as the current day national flag of Georgia. Christian cross variants were incorporated into European family crests, military groups, and national symbols. Today a cross can be found in at least 29 national flags not including flags with the southern cross constellation or all of the countries (other than the United Kingdom) whose flag features the Union Jack (which is a design of three crosses overlapping).

Added info: The ritual of making the sign of the cross with one’s hand goes back to the 2nd century treatise Apostolic Tradition.

Also, while similar, a cross and a crucifix are different. A crucifix has the body of Jesus on a cross and became a symbol of the Catholic and Orthodox churches starting around the 6th century. A cross is the object Jesus was crucified on but without Christ’s body on it. Protestant religions tend to use empty cross designs for their symbols.

Twelve cross designs from around the world used to represent different things.

Irish “Pub In A Box”

As part of a Guinness marketing effort in the early 1990s, thousands of Irish pubs around the world have been built using standardized design templates.

Recognized around the world, the Irish pub is one of the most well-known Irish cultural exports – and where there’s an Irish pub there’s usually Guinness. In the 1980s Guinness began to track the causal relationship between new Irish pubs and regional increases in Guinness beer sales. As new pubs opened, Guinness sales went up. If Guinness could help create more Irish pubs then they could also increase their own revenue.

Ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Guinness sales representatives traveled around Italy meeting with potential Italian business partners with the goal of opening Irish pubs. Their pitch was built around revenue generation and how Irish pubs have a more profitable beverage-to-food ratio than most other bars. From January to June of 1990 Italy opened 58 Irish pubs, welcoming Irish soccer fans and drinkers of all kinds. However, the critical factor to revenue generation was that these pubs needed to appear authentic – enter the “pub in a box”. 

Pub in a Box

Successful Irish pubs outside of Ireland have the look & feel of the real thing. As part of their expansion effort Guinness assembled a team to analyze, quantify, & document the seemingly ineffable essence of the Irish pub. The Irish Pub Concept helped determine the critical success factors to operating an Irish pub. Chief among these factors is visual authenticity.

Founded in 1990, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin was one of the first companies to offer “authentic” Irish pubs for export. Instead of doing all of the work yourself they’ll take your dimensions and design, manufacture, and ship all of the necessary materials to you. Do you want the rural Irish pub style or the Victorian? Maybe you want the general “Celtic” style. They offer a variety of prepackaged pub types that come complete with all the knickknacks for the walls. To date they have designed & shipped over 2,000 pubs to more than 50 countries.

Fadó in Chicago, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Celtic” style.
Mandy’s Apothecary in Moscow, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Shop” style.

The Irish Pub Co. isn’t alone. Ól Irish Pubs and GGD Global also offer to design & ship you a “pub in a box”. This Disney-ized packaging of Irish culture is not without criticism. For one it raises questions of authenticity. It’s true these are pubs that have been designed & manufactured in Ireland. However, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when your pub has a fake Irish country store as part of the decor. Instead of organically collecting meaningful mementos for your bar, these superficial design packages ship all the rusty farm equipment, dusty old bottles, and framed photos of strangers you need to give the illusion of authenticity. Why take years cultivating a unique local flavor when you can just throw up a portrait of Michael Collins or the Molly Maguires?

An additional criticism is of Guinness for helping to bring these “pub in a box” bars into existence. Established Irish bars were expected to keep serving Guinness beer while the Guinness company was busy creating additional local competition. Beginning in the early ‘90s some bars boycotted and stopped serving Guinness. McGillin’s Olde Ale House of Philadelphia still does not serve Guinness as a result of the “pub in a box” fallout with Guinness.

The Wild Rover in Barcelona features framed photos of random Irish people, used purely as decoration.

Better than nothing

To many customers the ambiance that these cookie-cutter bars generate is all that matters – the question of authenticity never crosses their minds. The theatrical set dressing used by these bars creates a fun environment. Even for those who recognize the dubious credibility of these establishments, some feel to have a “pub in a box” Irish bar is better than having none at all.

As America has helped transform St. Patrick’s Day into an all-out extravaganza, Irish pubs (authentic or otherwise) are increasingly patronized not only by the diaspora but by people of all backgrounds. The pub offers people of all stripes an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. The long tradition of the pub serving as a gathering place for the local community can still be carried out by these “pub in a box” bars … just don’t scrutinize the bric-à-brac too closely.

Added info: If you’re interested in standardized / templated restaurant experiences, you may also be interested in learning about how the Thai government’s culinary diplomacy has successfully spread Thai restaurants around the world.

the 1954 Eldorado Bullet Wheel

Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye on the steering wheel of a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Cadillac Eldorado (named for the mythical tribal chief / city of gold) began production in 1953. It was decorated with aeronautically inspired fins and conical “bullets”, as was the style at the time. The “Dagmar bumper” was the chrome front bumper that had two decorative bullet projections, named for the buxom American actress Dagmar. Included in this ‘50s bullet styling was a hard bullet shape at the center of the steering wheel, nicknamed “the bullet wheel”. The car had no seat belts.

The Eldorado’s “Dagmar bumper”, named for the buxom figure of American actress Dagmar
The “bullet wheel” of the 1954 Cadillac Eldorado had a hard “bullet” at the center of the steering wheel, similar to the styling found elsewhere on the car.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s career as a song & dance man started when he was a child in the 1930s. In the early 1950s his career was on the rise and he was performing in the clubs of Las Vegas while also working on projects down in LA. On November 18, 1954 Davis and his valet Charles Head left the New Frontier Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in Davis’s Eldorado to drive through the night to Studio City in LA the next morning.

Helen Boss was a widower from Akron, Ohio that liked to live as a snowbird, traveling to LA in the winters to avoid the cold of Ohio. She was traveling down Route 66, not far from San Bernadino around 7:00am on November 19th, when she missed her turn. Instead of turning the car around she simply put it in reverse and went backwards to the fork in the road where she went wrong. At the same time Sammy Davis Jr. was driving the same road and before he realized the car in his lane was driving backwards, slammed directly into the back of Boss’s car.

The Accident

The resulting accident sent people flying. Charles Head, who had been sleeping in the backseat, was launched into the front seat where he broke his jaw. Helen and her friend broke bones when they were sent into the backseat of their car. The V-8 engine of Davis’s car was pushed backwards into the dashboard as Davis was sent forward, his head colliding with the steering wheel. He hit his head hard enough that he dislocated his left eye on the bullet portion of the wheel.

The accident was a front-page story around the country. This brush with death, combined with a visit by a rabbi chaplain, led Davis to convert to Judaism. In the hospital Davis’s damaged eye was removed by doctors. He wore an eye patch for the next few months. His debut album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., was released the following year and the album cover features Davis wearing an eye patch. Eventually he switched to a glass eye. Later in life Davis would say “I’m a one-eyed Negro who’s Jewish.”

Davis initially wore an eye patch but eventually switched to a glass eye.

Form Follows Function

In the words of architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function”. The bullet wheel was a costly example that the style of the steering wheel (its form) was less important than its purpose (its function). After Davis’s accident the Eldorado’s bullet wheel was discontinued and replaced with a safer design.

John Snow’s Cholera Map

Through his medical investigation, Dr. John Snow helped solve how cholera is spread and created a legendary data visualization in the process.

With the Industrial Revolution, London’s population grew enormously. People from the countryside moved to the city for work and for a different life. London became the largest city on Earth. Between 1750 and 1850 it’s estimated that London’s population doubled, from around 1 million to around 2.3 million people. What grew with it was a civil engineering crisis in how to handle so many people in such close quarters. In short: what to do with the filth? By 1850 modern plumbing had not been extended to all parts of the city and specifically the Soho area. People had cesspools in their basements where they would empty their waste. In other places the sewage was emptied into the River Thames, which was also a source of drinking water.

London’s booming population growth in the early 19th century led to filthy conditions.

Modern germ theory states that microscopic organisms are responsible for the spread of disease. Before we understood this people believed in the miasma theory which claimed that disease was spread by “bad air”. For centuries people believed that epidemics were being spread by dirty air, they had no knowledge of microorganisms. It’s not entirely misguided. Things that smell bad frequently do, in fact, have disease. So while “bad air” may be a warning sign that disease may be present, it’s not the air itself that causes disease. In mid-19th century London miasma theory was the prevailing scientific theory but some scientists were beginning to doubt its validity.

Dr. John Snow challenged the prevailing miasma theory of disease through research and data.

You Know Something John Snow

Cholera is spread through tainted water or food that has come into contact with fecal matter. Between 1846 to 1860 the world was in a cholera pandemic, and in 1854 there was an outbreak in the Soho district of London. Nobody knew exactly how cholera spread but Dr. John Snow had a theory that it wasn’t miasma. A few years earlier in 1849 he published On the Mode of Communication of Cholera where he laid out a theory that a germ (that had yet to be identified) was responsible for cholera. He believed that cholera was spread by “…the emptying of sewers into the drinking water of the community.” The 1854 outbreak in Soho gave him a chance to prove his theory.

In the first 7 days of the outbreak 10% of the neighborhood died. Like a medical detective Snow began investigating the addresses of the deaths. He spoke to residents of the area, he asked where they got their water from, he took down notes, he looked at the sources of water for that part of London. The thing that was truly groundbreaking was that he visualized his data. He drew a map of the area, he noted the locations of water sources, and he added black bars at the addresses where deaths had occurred.

A detail of Snow’s 1854 cholera map. The Broad Street pump is at the center as a circle, and the deaths per address are the stacked black bars. You can view the full map here.

Unlike a data table, a data visualization has the ability to quickly & easily show trends. With a glance you can see patterns or outliers. You can tell a visual story with numbers. As Snow’s visualization grew he could see that cholera deaths clustered by one water source in particular: the Broad Street pump. He was able to show that other addresses in the area, who had their own private water sources (such as a local workhouse and a brewery) were mostly spared. The workhouse had 18 deaths but all of those individuals had separately gone to drink water from the Broad Street pump. This helped disprove the miasma theory because all of the workers should have gotten sick by the same “bad air”, but they didn’t. He took his findings to the local authorities. They found that the Broad Street pump was near a cholera infected home whose cesspool was leaking into the surrounding soil and infecting the water supply. Authorities removed the handle to the pump and deaths decreased.

Snow’s cholera map helped create modern epidemiology. COVID-19 visualizations are directly influenced by Snow’s work.

the Visualization of Data

To say that John Snow’s cholera map is legendary is not an exaggeration. Anyone with a passing knowledge of data visualization knows about his map. Modern epidemiologists still talk about his work. Snow’s methodical approach to data collection & data visualization influenced public policy and helped London prepare for the next cholera outbreak. It helped disprove miasma theory and advanced the modern germ theory we still use today. His cholera map helped make John Snow the father of modern epidemiology.

You can see the evolution of Snow’s work in today’s COVID-19 reporting. Contact tracing, the mapping of infections, accounting for local public policies regarding masks, tracking superspreader events – it’s all influenced by Snow’s 1854 cholera map.

Added info: Today there is a replica of the water pump where the old one stood, but Broad Street is now called Broadwick Street. The pump sits just outside of the John Snow pub.

Playing off of the lead character Jon Snow’s name, a White Walker from Game of Thrones stood outside of the John Snow pub in Soho in 2014. Photo via reddit.

Googie Architecture

1950s American suburban sprawl created an architectural movement

The American post-war economy of the 1940s boomed. With this increasing wave of affluence many Americans joined the middle class and subsequently moved to the suburbs. If you were living in the suburbs then you had to drive everywhere and as you flew down the road in your new car, business owners knew they’d better stand-out to be noticed. Enter, Googie Architecture.

If you threw some rocket ships, neon lights, trapezoids, and boomerangs into a 1950s blender, you’d get Googie Architecture. It’s mid-century modern but with a lot of flair. The name comes from a now demolished Hollywood coffee shop called Googies. In 1949 famed architect John Lautner designed the Googies shop with striated lines, odd angles, and in big neon letters “GOOGIES” with eyes in the O’s. Soon other businesses created their own energetic designs, and from the late 1940s through the 1960s it was a architectural arms race for customers’ attention & dollars.

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport

Today many Googie buildings are gone, replaced as design trends have changed. The Googie style McDonalds of the ‘50s with giant golden arches & cantilevered roofs, were replaced by the rectangular beige shingle roofed McDonalds of the ‘70s (which were also replaced).

Still, some excellent Googie buildings live on. The Seattle Space Needle, the Theme Building at LAX, the buildings in The Jetsons, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign, and more still stand as testaments to a mid-century space-age era where function followed form.

An added bonus: Wildwood, New Jersey is full of Googie architecture, but there it’s referred to as Doo-Wop architecture. Also with the return of American soldiers from the Pacific, 1950s America produced another kitschy architectural style known as Tiki which celebrated an exaggerated/fanciful version of South Seas Polynesian culture.

In Wildwood, NJ, Googie is called Doo-Wop architecture

The Curb Cut Effect

When a solution intended to help one group helps multiple groups.

Curb cuts go by different names, but around the world they are the small inclined ramps in the sidewalk that provide easy access to the street. Without curb cuts, people in wheelchairs have to either rely on strangers to help lift them up/down between the sidewalk & the street, or they have to wheel along until they find a driveway (which could mean traveling in the street with moving cars). For some, the simple act of crossing the street can be fraught with difficulties.

The first program to install curb cuts was in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1940s. Jack Fisher was an entrepreneur, a disabled WWII veteran, and a Harvard educated lawyer who worked to get hundreds of fellow disabled veterans access to medical & financial assistance. It was because of his time with his clients that, in 1945, he worked with the city to get curb cuts and rails installed around the downtown, which gave a wide variety of people easier access to the businesses of Kalamazoo. The intention of the curb cuts was to enable the disabled (veteran or otherwise), but the program had unintended benefits.

A curb cut with truncated domes surface

The Curb Cut Effect

The curb cut effect is when a design intended to help one group turns out to help multiple groups. The curb cuts were designed for the physically disabled in Kalamazoo but turned out to also benefit the elderly, they help delivery people rolling shipments to and from trucks, people pushing babies in strollers, runners, people dragging suitcases, etc.

We can see the curb cut effect again with closed captioning. What was designed to assist the hearing impaired unintentionally benefited others. Now viewers in loud spaces can read what’s being said on TV, viewers who are new to a language can follow along more easily, shows & movies with strong accents are easier to understand, etc.

The final episode of Seinfeld, in close captioning, being viewed from Times Square

The curb cut effect can be found all over. The flexible straw was designed by Joseph Friedman to help his daughter drink from a glass, but now they also help people with mobility restrictions too. Gender neutral bathrooms may be for the safety & comfort of trans & non-binary users, but they also shorten the wait time for women while also providing men with more baby changing stations than traditional men’s rooms do. Optical character recognition (OCR) was designed to digitize text and help the visually impaired read books, but now the technology also allows everyone’s phones to look at text in other languages and translate it on the fly.

A rising tide lifts all ships

The curb cut effect shows that helping one group can spill over into helping others. If nothing else it is good to help others get fair access to the things most people already have. With the curb cut effect, an investment to help one group can reap a greater return on investment.

Despite this, intentionally spending resources to help just one group is often resisted in society. It can be seen as playing favorites, or creating dependencies on government handouts, and that helping just one group is to act at the exclusion of helping others. Most of this opposition comes from political conservatives who tend to have less interest in fairness or helping minorities. American conservatives are more likely to think of financial assistance intended to help the disadvantaged as creating a “welfare state”, despite (paradoxically) that they themselves are the number one recipient of government handouts. What the curb cut effect can show is that, if helping others isn’t reason enough towards charity & goodwill, at least you might also be helped in the process.

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was at the core of his design philosophy.

“Less is more” is about simplicity. It’s that keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.


Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the new progressive ideas of the age. This gained even more momentum after World War I. People in the Weimar Republic were living in a world of increasing industrialization, fast-paced metropolises, and greater reasons to turn away from traditional views. The old constructs of thinking were from a bygone era that weren’t compatible with the modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime, modernism explored new ways forward. It found it’s way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejections to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, Mies realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

Less is more

His entire approach to architecture stripped designs down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach where a design is more powerful the less you add. Basically a design is better the less stuff you add to it. Keep it simple.

Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.