ePoster Gallery 1/2023
‘Seeing red’ – the use of a warning colour in posters
Examining posters for their use of a certain colour invites you to take another look at their design. Red, as a strong colour, is used with particular frequency because the human eye reacts very sensitively to this colour stimulus. The diversity of the names given to its myriad shades, such as fiery red, blood red and bright red, underlines the broad range of its symbolic power. Red is perceived as warm and passionate, and is linked with courage and strength. However, it also stands for aggression and rage, and is often used as a warning colour. These connotations are also reflected in common parlance, such as in the phrase ‘seeing red’ or the internationally used expression ‘like a red rag to a bull’.
In a brief interview, Nico Lazúla, archivist at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, explains why the choice of posters was not easy, and what makes red particularly stand out.
Was it difficult to put this particular selection together?
Yes and no. No, because there is a multitude of posters in the collection that make extensive use of this bright colour. Yes, because it wasn't easy to choose from such profusion. It was important to me when compiling them to gather all the different poster categories together and to illustrate the colour’s various symbolic levels of meaning. This means we can really demonstrate and distil the way the colour has been handled, and the way different aspects have been emphasised.
What stands out about the way the colour is handled?
A variety of interplays between the three colours black, white and red, or sometimes just two of them, characterises the poster design of the early modern period in the 1930s. Typographers and graphic designers capitalise on the visual allure that the combination of red with black or white develops. However, they are also very taken with the objective rigour that results from dispensing with any other bright colours.
The colour red has been used in all categories of poster, right up to the present day. Desirable products either gleam in glowing red themselves or are presented in front of a red background. The fluffy ball of wool on the woman's head, the juicy strawberries or the glowing coal briquette radiate a tactile sensuality that is largely thanks to the colour. It is also used as a warning colour in prevention posters and traffic safety notices to alert people to a danger or hazard. So, early on, advertising employed both the visual and the psychological impact of this colour in order to catch the attention of passers-by among the flood of visual stimuli.