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Graphic Gallery: Yellow

Yellow is the colour of sunshine and cheer, but in the context of health it can have more sinister overtones. It's the colour of disinfectant, but also of fever and cancer.

By Danny Birchall

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A mellow yellow

A bee delivers a box full of bee-shaped honey cough lozenges.

Yellow sweetness here comes in the form of honey. This early twentieth-century Czech advertisement for honey-flavoured cough lozenges shows a bee herself delivering the distinctive bee-shaped sweets.

A clean yellow

A fisherman looks out to sea towards a life-preserving ring containing a bar of Lifebuoy brand soap.

Today we like to wash whiter than white, but yellow often appears as the colour of clean in advertisements for disinfectant soap. In this case, Lifebuoy soap contained carbolic acid, derived from coal tar, which gave the bars their distinctive yellow-orange colour.

Hello, yellow!

A man wearing only a yellow rubber raincoat and wellington boots looks suggestively at the viewer.

This AIDS poster from the 1990s is typical of the period: a serious message about preventing infection by using condoms is presented in a humorous and jokey fashion. Here the pun on 'rubbers' is livened up by the comical bright yellow colour of a raincoat and wellies.

A yellow fever

A skull face in which the wings of a mosquito form the eyes.

Malaria can affect the functioning of a patient's liver, causing jaundice and giving the skin a yellowish colour. This may be why yellow features so often in health messages about malaria, such as this 1940s wartime poster aimed at soldiers.

Yellow for danger

A yellow cancer cell floats against a background of red blood cells.

Cancer, by contrast, has no colour: images of cancer at work in our body often come from scanning electron micrographs, which have their colour added afterwards. This digital image by Annie Kavanagh leaves us in no doubt about the malignancy of cancer cells, presented in an eerie yellowy-green against a background of healthy red blood cells.

A network in yellow

A dense network of yellow lines and nodes.

This yellow digital image is also of cancer - or rather of our tweets about cancer.  Over an 8 week period, 92,915 individual Tweets containing #breastcancer were collected and visualised by researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The 'double yolk' structure at the top of image indicates common mentions between two accounts.

Melancholy yellow

A man sits glumly looking at several glasses of absinthe.

Absinthe is commonly known as "the green fairy", but the yellow frame to this poster reflects the desperate melancholy in the eyes of the absinthe drinker. This poster is for a silent short from 1913 that explores the perils of the cult spirit of artists and writers.

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

About the contributors

Photograph of Danny Birchall

Danny Birchall

Danny works on digital content and commissions for Wellcome Collection. He is currently thinking about the cold war, and the 1918 influenza pandemic.