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Graphic Gallery: Red

Red is for danger, and it’s for blood. It’s for sexual passion, and it’s for love. Bold and eye-catching, wherever it’s used, red seems to shout, 'this is important, pay close attention'.

By Helen Babbs

  • Story

The red cross

Wellcome Collection.

A red cross set on a white background has to be one of the most universal and recognisable logos around. It says ‘first aid’ and ‘medical help’ via a single, simple symbol. Used worldwide since it was adopted in 1864 under the first Geneva Convention, the logo is an inversion of the Swiss flag. But the cross has religious connotations, however unintentional. The red crescent was created as an alternative in 1876, and formally recognised in the updated Geneva Convention of 1929. Less well known is the red crystal, designed in 2005 for situations where the cross and crescent aren’t felt to be right. This image of a red cross flag flying from a war-ravaged tree is a crop taken from a coloured woodcut, artist unknown. The print was likely first published in Tokyo in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese war.

The red ribbon

Wellcome Collection.

Another emblem that’s been adopted worldwide is the red ribbon. The World Aids Day website has the history: “In 1991 – a decade after the emergence of HIV – a group of 12 artists gathered to discuss a new project for Visual Aids; a New York arts organisation that raises awareness of HIV. They were photographers, painters, film makers and costume designers, and they sat around in the shared gallery space in New York's East Village. After a short brainstorm they had come up with a simple idea that later became one of the most recognised symbols of the decade – the red ribbon, worn to signify awareness and support for people living with HIV.” In this colour lithograph a red telephone cord is twisted into the instantly recognisable red ribbon shape, with the increasing statistics of AIDS victims above in bold black type: "1st January 1985: 200 sick; 1st January 1995: 40,000 sick". It was designed in 1995 by Paris-based L'Agence Verte for the Sida Info Service.

The stuff of life

Wellcome Collection.

Red isn’t just the stuff of symbols, it’s also the stuff of life. It’s the colour of blood and of the heart. And it’s the colour of warning signs and danger. This colour lithograph dates from 1900, and shows a bare-chested man smoking a cigarette. Through a striking but simple design, it illustrates the route through which smoke passes from the mouth to the lungs, and forces the viewer to consider the impact that smoking might have.

Blood red

Wellcome Collection.

This Ministry of Health poster uses black and white photography and blood-red type to talk direct to the public. The image shows a schoolgirl who’s been knocked down by a car, and asks whether your donated blood will be ready and waiting to save her. The lithograph was created by British graphic designer Reginald Mount, who worked extensively with fellow designer Eileen Evans on propaganda and public information posters throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There are a variety of works by both Mount and Evans in our library.

Red for danger

Wellcome Collection.

Without the need for words, red often says ‘DO NOT’, and is used in combination with black and white in warning signs that indicate things that are prohibited. This poster was published by British Railways, and its health and safety message was targeted at staff rather than passengers. The small print at the very bottom indicates it was printed by Waterlow & Sons Limited of London and Dunstable.

Red to be bold

Wellcome Collection.

Red is bold and attention grabbing, perfect for adverts. Uricure was the brand name of a medicine used in cases of gout or metabolic arthritis. It was one of very many gout remedies on the market, none of which could cure the disease, but all of which could reduce the intense pain and discomfort it caused. Given the mass of rival products, vendors needed the best possible publicity for their medicines. This poster, published around 1910 to advertise Uricure in Spain, is the work of the Italian designer Leonetto Cappiello, who worked in Paris. His boldly coloured designs on a black background made a strong impression on passers-by, and his work was much in demand. Uricure is now remembered almost only for its poster, not for its quality as a medicine, while Cappiello is often called 'the father of modern advertising' because of his innovative poster designs.

Red for passion

Wellcome Collection.

Red doesn’t just shout ‘danger’, or ‘buy me now’, it’s also the colour of choice for expressions of love and desire. This elaborate pop-up Valentine’s card from the 1920s is a feast of filigree, embossing, die-cutting and folding, which would have been something of a feat to produce. It has a scarlet red love heart at its centre (garlanded with roses, and pushed in a wheelbarrow by two cherubic boys, of course). The back of the card is lined with red tissue paper, and there’s even a red honeycomb puff base. The message, "To my valentine", is printed in red on what folds down to be the base.

<em>Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? is at Wellcome Collection until 14 January 2018.

About the contributors

Photograph of Helen Babbs

Helen Babbs

Helen is a Digital Editor for Wellcome Collection.