Rubrication Design Examples

A gallery of typographic and graphics design examples of rubrication, a classic pattern of using red versus black for emphasis.
topics: bibliography, technology
created: 30 May 2019; modified: 26 Nov 2019; status: finished; confidence: certain; importance: 2


Dating back to medieval manuscripts, text has often been highlighted using a particular distinct bright red. The contrast of black and red on a white background is highly visible and striking, and this has been reused many times, in a way which I have not noticed for other colors. I call these uses rubrication and collate examples I have noticed from many time periods. This design pattern does not seem to have a widely-accepted name or be commonly discussed, so I propose extending the term “rubrication” to all instances of this pattern, not merely religious texts.

Why this rubrication design pattern? Why red, specifically, and not, say, orange or purple? Is it just a historical accident? Cross-cultural research suggests that for humans, red may be intrinsically more noticeable & has a higher contrast with black, explaining its perennial appeal as a design pattern.

Regardless, it is a beautiful design pattern which has been used in many interesting ways over the millennia, and perhaps may inspire the reader.

Red is among the classiest of colors, as a glance through fine book editions reveals. What is snazzier than a good which has been (sometimes called “printer’s red”)? And yes, rubrication is usually red—hardly ever orange, or green, or purple, or any of the other possible choices.

Rubrication is not merely coloring everything red, but a careful use of some red against mostly black in order to emphasize important elements. We have for holidays, Christians will subconsciously associate red text with in typesetting the New Testament, and maps or charts may highlight key destinations in red while every other location is printed in black.

Further, I noticed that these all seem to use not just red, but almost the same shade of red: a certain bright but medium red, never another shade like a pink or a deep scarlet. That might be an artifact of traditionally using (eventually upgrading to ) and then everyone imitating it, but once I began paying attention to red/black combinations, like the famous “law of fives”, I began noticing it everywhere. (One place I haven’t seen rubrication used well is in predominantly black settings, such as the increasingly popular .1)

Why Red?

I could imagine that being true in medieval times when rubrication started (iron gall-based rust/oxide pigments are surely extremely cheap compared to many things), but that seems like it should have stopped being a problem at least by the 1800s when synthetic dyes & inks were invented. It also wouldn’t explain the prestige of not merely as a red in general, but as a vermilion ink reserved for imperial use in calligraphy & documents in both the Byzantine & Chinese empires.

, who highlights many examples in his books and is a skillful user of rubrication himself2, notes in 1990 (), apropos of interpretation of Euclid’s Elements3:

Byrne’s colors keep in mind the knowledge to be communicated, color for information. Use of the primary colors and black provides maximum differentiation (no four colors differ more).4 This yellow, broken with orange, is darkened in value, sharpening the definition of its edge against white paper; and the blue is relatively light (on a value scale of blues), reinforcing its distance from black. In the diagrams, the least-used color is black, and it is carefully avoided for large, solid elements—adding to the overall coherence of the proofs by muting unnecessary contrasts.5

One possible answer comes from anthropology, investigating cross-cultural perceptions of colors. , as summarized by Wikipedia6:

…in languages with fewer than the maximum eleven color categories, the colors followed a specific evolutionary pattern. This pattern is as follows:

  1. All languages contain terms for black and white.
  2. If a language contains 3 terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains 4 terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  4. If a language contains 5 terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains 6 terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains 7 terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains 8 or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange or gray.

In addition to following this evolutionary pattern absolutely, each of the languages studied also selected virtually identical focal hues for each color category present. For example, the term for “red” in each of the languages corresponded to roughly the same shade in the . Consequently, they posited that the cognition, or perception, of each color category is also universal.4

Are there deep evolutionary reasons for red being so important to human color vision, perhaps because red is overrepresented in nature in important things like blood or berries?7 I have to wonder why a color like green is not more psychologically important, though, as green is surely even more common than berries (which often aren’t red)—thanks to the inefficiency of chlorophyll in absorbing those particular wavelengths of visible light from our sun8—and human eyes are in fact physically in . Why aren’t humans most attuned to green, the better to navigate jungles etc? (Is involved somehow?) So this is a little puzzling.

Examples

Contemporary

Rubricated ‘Edomoji’ (“calligraphic letterforms used for advertising”), pg51, volume 15, The Complete Commercial Artist, Hamada et al 1929
Rubricated ‘’ (“calligraphic letterforms used for advertising”), pg51, volume 15,
“Iron gall ink for fountain pens, refill bottle, 0.5 liter (500 ml), Pelikan, Günther Wagner, ca 1950s with storage container”; 2008 photo, Richard Huber
“Iron gall ink for fountain pens, refill bottle, 0.5 liter (500 ml), , Günther Wagner, ca 1950s with storage container”; 2008 photo, Richard Huber
Calligraphy with rubrication commentary, Uboku Nishitani 1972 (“The First Seed of Koyagiri”, v17 Techniques in Calligraphy); from pg54 of chapter 3, “Layering and Separation” of Envisioning Information, Tufte 1990
Calligraphy with rubrication commentary, Uboku Nishitani 1972 (“The First Seed of Koyagiri”, v17 Techniques in Calligraphy); from pg54 of chapter 3, “Layering and Separation” of Envisioning Information, Tufte 1990
IBM parts diagram from a 1976 manual for photocopiers; pg52–53 of chapter 3, “Layering and Separation” of Envisioning Information, Tufte 1990; rubrication links hundreds of parts to their IDs
IBM parts diagram from a 1976 manual for photocopiers; pg52–53 of chapter 3, “Layering and Separation” of Envisioning Information, Tufte 1990; rubrication links hundreds of parts to their IDs
Photograph of a Cambridge KJV Concord Reference Bible (1999?), showing ‘red letter verses’; by Randy A. Brown, 2011
Photograph of a Cambridge KJV Concord Reference Bible (1999?), showing ‘red letter verses’; by
Cover, A Little History of the World, Ernst Gombrich 2005 (English publication)
Cover, , 2005 (English publication)
The World Psychiatry journal of the World Psychiatric Association uses rubrication for its logo, and nicely-formatted table of contents (example: October 2012 issue)
The of the uses rubrication for its logo, and nicely-formatted table of contents (example: October 2012 issue)
The Annual Reviews journals/publications, such as Gianola & Rosa 2015, use rubrication for sections (as does Cell & New England Journal of Medicine to a limited extent, eg Peterson et al 2019 or Xu et al 2019).
The journals/publications, such as , use rubrication for sections (as does Cell & New England Journal of Medicine to a limited extent, eg Peterson et al 2019 or Xu et al 2019).
First page of Tractate Pesahim from the Babylonian Talmud; rubrication annotations by Thomas Shoemaker (2015?); a similar annotation appears on Tufte’s website
First page of from the ; rubrication annotations by (2015?); a appears on
Rubricated drop cap (custom variant by Sam Weber likely based on Petit Fleur) on pg101, chapter 13 of The Claw of the Conciliator, Gene Wolfe, 2019 Folio Society limited edition
Rubricated drop cap (custom variant by Sam Weber likely based on ) on pg101, chapter 13 of , ,
Hand-drawn sign advertising Northfield Farm’s bacon, photo Twitter 2019
Hand-drawn sign advertising Northfield Farm’s bacon, photo
The Spectator, crops of 3 pages from the 14 September 2019 issue; use of rubrication for pull quotes, The Spectator name & favicon (a rubricated ‘S’), and a somewhat confusing use in some but not all titles/sections/authors.
, crops of 3 pages from the 14 September 2019 issue; use of rubrication for pull quotes, The Spectator name & favicon (a rubricated ‘S’), and a somewhat confusing use in some but not all titles/sections/authors.
Columbia Journalism Review, November 2019 article, “Bad Romance: What happened to the National Enquirer after it went all in for Trump?”, demonstrating elements of their design using rubrication for emphasis.
Columbia Journalism Review, November 2019 article, , demonstrating elements of their design using rubrication for emphasis.
Naval Gazing (military navy group blog), “The Falklands War Part 19”, 24 November 2019; demonstrates side design’s rubrication for links & sidebar sectioning
Naval Gazing (military navy group blog), , 24 November 2019; demonstrates side design’s rubrication for links & sidebar sectioning
New York Magazine, “In the 2010s, White America Was Finally Shown Itself: Ta-Nehisi Coates on “Obama’s decade,” reparations, and Kaepernick": similar to CJR or Spectator but offering a nifty use of rubrication in implementing the rarely-seen sidenote
, : similar to CJR or Spectator but offering a nifty use of rubrication in implementing the rarely-seen sidenote
gwern.net mockup for a rubricated site design.
gwern.net mockup for a rubricated site design.

Non-screenshotable:

Modern

Cover of Le pitture antiche d’Ercolano e contorni incise con qualche spiegazione. Tomo primo, 1757, documenting the Herculaneum Villa of the Papyri excavations; alternating rubrication of title lines for emphasis.
, documenting the excavations; alternating rubrication of title lines for emphasis.
The Story Of A Dildoe: A Tale In Five Tableaux (discussion of Victorian erotica: Green 2016)
(discussion of Victorian erotica: )
Plate 48, pg441 of Herculaneum, Past, Present & Future, Waldstein & Shoobridge 1908: Villa of the Papyri ground plan; rubrication denotes wall/pillars (lines/dots) and artifact locations (numbered circles).
: Villa of the Papyri ground plan; rubrication denotes wall/pillars (lines/dots) and artifact locations (numbered circles).
Cover of the first edition of Richard Francis Burton’s infamous 1885 translation of The Thousand And One Arabian Nights (cf Lady Burton’s Edition).
Cover of the first edition of ’s of 10 (cf Lady Burton’s Edition).
“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, 1919 Communist propaganda poster by Lazar Markovich Lissitzky
, 1919 Communist propaganda poster by
The Nazi swastika (NSDAP flag), 1920 (see also: Nazi symbolism, Occultism in Nazism, Art of the Third Reich, Triumph of the Will)
The (NSDAP flag), 1920 (see also: , , , )
“Four Billy Goats”, Lissitzky 1922
“Four Billy Goats”, Lissitzky 1922
Rubricated blackletter font; in “Stempel foundry catalog from the 1920s”, photo by Matthew Butterick, slide from “Rebuilding the Typographic Society” 2012
Rubricated blackletter font; in “Stempel foundry catalog from the 1920s”, photo by , slide from 2012
More rubrication examples from Stempel foundry catalogue, Butterick 2012
More rubrication examples from Stempel foundry catalogue, Butterick 2012
Fabre’s Book of Insects, Jean-Henri Fabre 1921
, 192111

Medieval

“Add MS 35254: the hymn Ave Maria Gratia Plena incorporating a large red initial with contrasting blue penwork.”, Freeman 2014; from cuttings of a 1375 gradual choirbook, illustrated by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci of the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence.
12, Freeman 2014; from cuttings of a 1375 choirbook, illustrated by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci of the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence.
Plate 43, 14th century Lombardic alphabet, The Art of Illuminating As Practised in Europe from the Earliest Times, Tymms 1860, modeled after earlier Lombardic capitals
, , Tymms 186013, modeled after earlier Lombardic capitals
Plate 67, Tymms 1860
Plate 67, Tymms 1860
De viris illustribus page, printed 1474 by Nicolas Jenson; rubricated Lombardic capitals (initials), both red & blue
page, printed 1474 by Nicolas Jenson; rubricated (initials), both red & blue
“Fig. 1—Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 331, f.172r.”, 1480; on the Landshut Wedding
“Fig. 1—Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 331, f.172r.”, 1480; on the
Ambraser Heldenbuch (fol. 75v), c.1516; rubricated Lombardic capitals, both red & blue
Ambraser Heldenbuch (fol. 75v), c.1516; rubricated Lombardic capitals, both red & blue
Title page of Tibetan manuscript of the Mahāvyutpatti (bilingual Buddhist dictionary), unknown date, scanned 2001 by Chris Fynn
Title page of Tibetan manuscript of the (bilingual Buddhist dictionary), unknown date, scanned 2001 by Chris Fynn
“Ink corrosion: iron gall ink has oxidized the cellulose, causing the paper to disintegrate. The manuscript is exhibited behind glass in a church in Evora, Portugal.” Photo taken 2007 by Ceinturion, unknown manuscript date (possibly a gradual?)
“Ink corrosion: iron gall ink has oxidized the cellulose, causing the paper to disintegrate. The manuscript is exhibited behind glass in a church in Evora, Portugal.” Photo taken 2007 by Ceinturion, unknown manuscript date (possibly a gradual?)

  1. When using white-on-black, what is the functional equivalent of red? A green? A blue? For all the traditional popularity among programmers of the classic green-on-black phosphor color scheme exemplified by the —what I myself use—most dark mode designs I see currently seem to opt for a blue…↩︎

  2. Tufte routinely uses rubrication in his graphs & sparklines to emphasize key numbers or points: his 2006 Beautiful Evidence, for example, uses red on practically every other page. The use of proprietary Bembo fonts and rubrication mean that even Tufte ads are recognizably by Tufte. (This does pose some challenges for the family of packages for various formats: there are now open-source Bembo fonts, but do red links really work online? Some Tufte CSS implementations like go for it, and others do not.) The sheer number of Tufte uses makes it difficult to select any examples for this gallery.↩︎

  3. Byrne’s edition is beautiful and unusual enough that there are at least two attempts at recreating it worth looking at: Slyusarev Sergey’s for PDFs; and Nicholas Rougeux’s on how he created a .↩︎

  4. Is saying that rubrication works because it ‘maximizes contrast’ question-begging?↩︎

  5. Use of primary colors like Byrne (yellow/red/blue) highlights an additional advantage of rubrication for emphasis: it avoids problems with the most common forms of —pretty much everyone can see red or at least see the contrast with red.↩︎

  6. While exceptions have been found to this flowchart and the Berlin & Kay results questioned, the red results (that it follows black/white darkness terms, and precedes all other colors, and red is consistently red cross-culture) appear to be supported by the subsequent data.↩︎

  7. , Nautilus:

    It’s unclear, though, why our infant brains chunk colors at all. In a 2011 study, a team led by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York, found a mathematical formula that describes how inputs from the retina could result in the separation of colors into warm (white) and cool (black) tones, suggesting that the physical properties of our vision system may create natural “fault lines” in color space. Other researchers speculate that colors in our environments may cluster around certain shades, such as the bright red of blood and berries, or the solid green of fields and foliage. As babies, we may be primed to pick up on these statistical regularities.

    ↩︎
  8. Given how wasteful that seems, one might wonder about alternatives; there might have been earlier ones, leading to the . Are there better chlorophylls which could absorb more light? Possibly, the absorb light that plants cannot, and are .↩︎

  9. Another computer-generated work, parody, makes elegant use of a red font on sepia background, but because it uses it for all text, I exclude it.↩︎

  10. For a good discussion of the various translations, see .↩︎

  11. I was amused to discover Fabre’s cover while skimming essays, as the name Fabre rang a bell—not long before, I had read , Keijzer 2013, criticizing which Hofstadter & Dennett so enjoy. And imagine what phrase I ran into within the first screens of reading , but “red-letter day”. The Baader-Meinhof effect‽↩︎

  12. MS 35254 also offers some extraordinarily elaborate —so much so I didn’t realize until reading the captions!↩︎

  13. Tymms 1860 includes many interesting color plates which use red starting on , but most I wouldn’t consider as rubrication examples here.↩︎