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Sign of Humanitarian Relief That Anyone Can Understand

Medecins Sans Frontiers

More than two months later, we still haven't forgotten the images of Haiti being reduced to rubble in the worst catastrophe in its 200-year-old history. But with the devastation in Haiti—and in the aftermath of Chile's worst earthquake in over 40 years—we have also witnessed unprecedented support from private and governmental agencies, religious groups of all denominations, and international relief organizations from around the world. In the United States alone, the American Red Cross generated nearly $30 million in two weeks after setting up its $10 text-message donation system for Haiti.

As we've seen in Haiti and Chile the logos of disaster relief agencies must also work harder than most other logos. Due to the fact that they're used in a variety of foreign countries and by people who speak many different languages, they need to communicate a singular idea that's easily recognizable, even if the name attached isn't instantly understood. Since they're used in the field with less-than-optimal graphic conditions, these logos need to make sure they can be readily reproduced on a large scale and across all mediums. And since disaster relief logos are often used as landmarks for aid in infrastructurally-damaged areas, they must use a vivid color scheme that will stand out against any background.

When we think of disaster relief and humanitarian organizations, which come to mind first and why? How effective and memorable are their identities?

Red Cross

The Red Cross/American Red Cross is the neutral worldwide organization dedicated to humanitarian interests and the prevention of human suffering. The visual effectiveness of its logo is centered on a simply colored shape, transcending language barriers and making it one of the most widely recognized symbols on the planet, synonymous with mercy and charity.


CARE serves individuals and families in the poorest communities of the world. Drawing strength from its global diversity, resources, and experience, CARE promotes innovative solutions and advocates global responsibility. The warm color palette evokes a sense of positivism and compassion, and the hands forming a circular shape create an unmistakable, universal symbol of partnership and cooperation. The lower case lettering suggests approachability, access, and friendliness. It is easy to scale up and down and has great visibility from a distance.


UNICEF is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to advocate for the protection of children's rights—to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. The UNICEF logo benefits enormously from the fact that it is based on the United Nations logo, which is highly recognized and afforded immediate legitimacy all over the world. It could be improved slightly by sharpening the mother/child silhouettes or transforming these images to seem more life-like.

Doctors Without Borders

These logos, for the most part, work. But I as I surveyed disaster relief logos in action throughout the many photos of Haiti and Chile, I was struck by the poor graphic presence of Doctors Without Borders (or Médicins Sans Frontières). The international medical humanitarian group is a neutral organization that provides aid to people whose survival is threatened by violence and neglect due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, or natural disasters. But even with its very bold mission this is an example of a disaster relief organization badly in need of a new identity to communicate its cause.

While the coarse and sketch-like nature effectively communicates the often incredible and daring endeavors of the organization, the image is still vague and confusing. While Doctors Without Borders has not asked for our help, CBX decided to show how a new logo could provide an improved image reflective of its international, global mission.

Doctors Without Borders

To create something much more effective, we started by communicating a singular idea in a much simpler way by using a symbol with a medical connotation that also suggests freedom of movement to convey the "without borders" aspect of the organization.

Doctors Without Borders

We chose a dove for its peace symbolism but also to illustrate that doctors should be free (as birds) to cross borders. Instead of the traditional olive branch, we picked a stethoscope that symbolizes medical relief—it's a concept that easily communicates what to expect wherever that logo will be found.

Finally, this color spectrum illustrates that Doctors Without Borders will help people of all nationalities. But we also chose this rainbow of colors for its bright, hopeful feeling. At the very least, a disaster relief logo might be able to provide a small moment of optimism in an otherwise devastating environment.

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Rick Barrack is the Chief Creative Officer/Partner at CBX and one of its founding partners. As lead creative he is responsible for inspiring, directing and motivating the creative teams to develop powerful design solutions. Barrack has close to 20 years of experience in corporate identity and consumer brand identity design. He has led major design initiatives for companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Petro-Canada, ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, and Del Monte Foods. Prior to creating CBX, Barrack was a Senior Design Director at FutureBrand and Design Director at LPK.

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  • Petra Quilitz

    Logo design is not easy. A medical instrument can suddenly become a cows head with a long tongue, and a simple dove can become a symbol loaded with unintended religious meaning. And if the rainbow of colors is part of the brand message, then you better hope for a color printer or color silk screen place around, and a good washing machine that won't wash them out after the third wash. Maybe it would increase the optimistic message, if the bird wasn't flying from left to right, on crash course with the cow. And if you are in need of doctor treatment, you better hope that he/she can control the instruments better than the designer the digital brush. There is a big difference between computer 'drawn' and computer 'crafted' pictograms. And while the untrained eye might not see the difference, the carelessness of the angles and curves goes straight to the unconscious, transforming all those negative brand attributes to the service behind the logo. And, last but not least, what goes for machines, goes for brands as well: never change a running system. Don't redo logos, update them, otherwise you lose some of that stuff that's more precious than platinum: brand equity. Takes years and thousands of user contacts to build it. Only a very careless mind would play with it as if it was nonexistent.

    The original logo might not be actual problem . It might not be as youthful and fashionable, but at least it prints more ecologically friendly in duotones, one being the ever present basic black, the other a simple red without hard to reproduce gradation. It's also reasonably well crafted. Maybe the problem lies more in the size of the print and advertising budget, than in the logo itself. Maybe instead of fixing something that isn't broken, save an hour and give that hourly rate to the Doctors. They work in a larger, more important world that lies beyond our sometimes a bit simple minded but over complicated design world.