Rubrication Design Examples

A gallery of typographic and graphics design examples of rubrication, a classic pattern of using red versus black for emphasis.
bibliography, technology, design
2019-05-302020-04-28 finished certainty: 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, some editions of the Qur’an put Arabic diacritics in red, 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—as Bringhurst remarks, red is “the typographer’s habitual second color”.1 (One place I haven’t seen rubrication used well is in predominantly black settings, such as the increasingly popular .2)

Why Red?

“This [red bicycle] is than the usual bicycle!”


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 like in his data visualization books and is a skillful user of rubrication himself3, notes in Envisioning Information 1990 (chapter 5, “Color and Information”, pg83–86), apropos of interpretation of Euclid’s Elements4:

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).5 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.6

One possible answer comes from anthropology, investigating cross-cultural perceptions of colors. , as summarized by Wikipedia7:

…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?8 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 sun9—and human eyes are in fact physically most sensitive to green light in . Why aren’t humans most attuned to green, the better to navigate jungles etc? (Is involved somehow?) So this is a little puzzling.


“Many years ago—but not that many!—one of our printing & typesetting instructors said with great gravitas that ‘there are only two colors: red and black.’”

MyFonts, 2020-03-8

Below is a gallery of rubrication typographic or diagrammatic examples, which I’ve selected for their appearance or subject; they sorted in reverse chronological order, from roughly post-WWII, post-Renaissance, and Renaissance/medieval.


“Red has to be in every poster.”

, (cf )

The iconic , designed by (1958; MoMA photo); though somewhat faded, the red (one of only 3 colors on the device) numerals still clearly denote radio frequencies (black for length). It strikingly resembles the Apple , which, however, is all-white.10
Japanese 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
Photograph of a Cambridge KJV Concord Reference Bible (1999?), showing ‘red letter verses’; by Randy A. Brown, 2011
Data-visualization artist often used red to highlight key details of the conspiracies he documented, such as the Miami drug-smuggling ring 11
Mark Lombardi, close up of section of “Oliver North, Lake Resources of Panama, and the Iran-Contra Operation, ca. 1984–86”, fourth version (zoom to see red highlights)
2004 () uses primarily grayscale but—true to his comments on red—turns to it for the occasional inside-cover text or for diagrams of letters (starting pg12).
Cover, , 2005 (English publication)
German design studio Catalogtree’s VINEC 001-009” project: “March 2005—A series of nine screen-printed posters commenting on the growth of and nearby . The series focuses on the highway which connects the two cities. … A325-005 [#6 out of 9 posters]: All accidents on A325—location, speed, time of day and day of week—between December 16, 1998 and January 1, 2003.” Like the IBM photocopier diagram, this uses rubricated lines to call out details on a schematic, but the rubrication is deliberately overdone, blotting out the original road in favor of painting a bloody spine out of the implied injuries/mortalities.
Rubricated drop cap (custom variant by Sam Weber likely based on Petit Fleur) on pg101, chapter 13 of , , 2019 Folio Society limited edition
Hand-drawn sign advertising Northfield Farm’s bacon, photo Twitter 2019


The common data structure invites rubrication in diagrams explaining its function; ironically, the name is typographic in origin: “The color ‘red’ was chosen because it was the best-looking color produced by the color laser printer available to the authors while working at Xerox PARC.[8] Another response from Guibas states that it was because of the red and black pens available to them to draw the trees.[9]” Example by Madz in 2012.
Rubrication used in labeled equations, akin to Byrne; “TikZ & PGF: Manual for Version 3.1.5b”, Till Tantau 201312
The World Psychiatry journal of the uses rubrication for its logo, and section headers in its table of contents (example: October 2012 issue)
Tufte 1997 (Visual Explanations pg110–111) introduces (Tufte website compilation), and uses red to emphasize various things: the final datapoint, the numerical form of a graph, or a specific time-series in an overlapping set, among others. One representative example comes from (“SUPPLEMENT FIGURE F1 (all pairs, part 1 of 11)”), graphing heart data.
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 from the ; rubrication annotations by Thomas Shoemaker (2015?); a similar annotation appears on Tufte’s website (redrawn by Tufte?)
“Figure 9: Highlighted in red are black-figure artists (solid circles for signed artists; open circles for attributed artists) whose pots were excavated in the Athenian Agora. A selection of them are labeled.” Harris & Hasaki 2019
, crops of 3 pages from the 2019-09-14 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.
Naval Gazing (military navy group blog), “The Falklands War Part 19”, 2019-11-24; demonstrates side design’s rubrication for links & sidebar sectioning
, “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 mockup for a rubricated site design.
Visualization of a neural net transcription (red) of old Japanese text written in (black); NN & visualization by Tarin Clanuwat, 2020-01-14.



Cover of Le pitture antiche d’Ercolano e contorni incise con qualche spiegazione. Tomo primo, 1757, documenting the excavations; alternating rubrication of title lines for emphasis.
pg65/81/87 of Chemical Atlas, Or, The Chemistry Of Familiar Objects, demonstrating consistent use of rubrication for denoting oxygen/water/; from an 1856 chemistry textbook by American science popularizer (& co-founder of magazine) who took pains to defend his systematic use of illustration14.
The Story Of A Dildoe: A Tale In Five Tableaux, 1891 (from a discussion of Victorian erotica)
Rubricated title page of the “profusely illustrated” menstruation/pregnancy/married-life manual, Woman in girlhood, wifehood, motherhood; her responsibilities and her duties at all periods of life; a guide in the maintenance of her health and that of her children, Solis-Cohen 1906
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).
Cover of the first edition of of 15 (cf Lady Burton’s Edition).
, 1919 Communist propaganda poster by (see also Henryk Berlewi’s 1924 Mechano-faktura bialo-czerwono-czarna (“White, red and black mechano-factura”))
The (NSDAP flag), 192016 (see also: , , , )
Futura typographic samples often showed it off using rubrication; in this sample from the Bauer Type Foundry, newly-for-sale geometric are used to make amusing advertisements.
A parody of “cultural documents of Bolshevism” (ie. “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”) by Nazi designer Hans Vitus Vierthaler (1910–1942); poster apparently designed in 1936 for the Nazi’s 1937 “” condemning Entartete Kunst/“
An unfortunately-faded Nazi form using rubrication to maintain legibility of blackletter text17 on a black background; pg99 of the 1937 Organisationsbuch der NSDAP yearbook, ed Robert Ley
“Four Billy Goats”, Lissitzky 1922
Rubricated blackletter font; in “Stempel foundry catalog from the 1920s”, photo by , slide from “Rebuilding the Typographic Society” 2012
More rubrication examples from Stempel foundry catalogue, Butterick 2012
Fabre’s Book of Insects, 192118
Title & table of contents of issue #1 (1919) of Les Feuillets d’Art (The Pages of Art), a prominent Parisian fashion magazine (1919–1922); scanned by Princeton University Library
Drop caps in a essay; pg31, issue #1 (1919) of Les Feuillets d’Art
Rubrication denotes odd vs even electron in this schematic diagram, “Principal Features of Atomic Structure in Some of the Elements—Atomic Structure of ”; color plate #2, pg217, The atom and the Bohr theory of its structure: an elementary presentation, Holst & Kramers 192219
Rubricated ‘’ (“calligraphic letterforms used for advertising”), pg51, volume 15, The Complete Commercial Artist, Hamada et al 1929
“Italian Schools of Painting: The Renaissance in Italy” phylogenetic timeline, printed in the brochure Italian Schools of Painting: History of Art Charts for the - Gallery in 1930 (Museum of Modern Art scan)
Cover of catalogue for the 1936 MoMA exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art designed by (source). Edward Tufte has a redrawn version based on a 1941 Barr manuscript. Red distinguishes internal from external influences on art movements.
2 examples of , , International picture language, 1936 (source20)
“Iron gall ink for fountain pens, refill bottle, 0.5 liter (500 ml), , Günther Wagner, ca 1950s with storage container”; 2008 photo, Richard Huber


As expensive and restricted as materials were, and labor-intensive the process of manuscript copying, medieval and later scribes nevertheless accomplished great things, including effective use of rubrication, drop caps, and diagrams (some of which put most contemporary web designers to shame):

VadSlg Ms. 296 (1100s manuscript of De arithmetica/_): “The polychrome schematic illustrations in this 12th century manuscript are particularly carefully made.” Indeed. This image combines pages 79/89/93/99, which show off the diagrams, tables, drop caps, and rubricated text employed in the discussion of music theory & multiplication.
Pg13 of Mellon MS 1 manuscript of Ars notoria, sive Flores aurei (“The Art of Magic or Golden Flowers”), alchemical text ascribed to
W.73 Cosmography manuscript (Walters Library), late 1200s (via ); from left to right: the phases of the moon, planetary paths through the Zodiac, and solstices & equinoxes.
“Add MS 35254: the hymn Ave Maria Gratia Plena incorporating a large red initial with contrasting blue penwork.”21, 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.
“Trinitarian Circles enclosing the Tetragrammaton (from the Liber Figurarum). Corpus Christi College, Oxford MS. 255A, f.7v” (), illustrating beliefs of the (unknown date; 1100s–1200s?)
MS. Ashmole 370, c.1424: a lunar for calculating phases of the moon, folios 24v–25r. Nicholas of Lynn, Kalendarium, composed 1386; copied 1425, courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
The first edition of the (~1454) used two printing passes, with the second for rubrication, but switched to a single pass & hand rubrication.
“‘A copy made around the third quarter of the 15th century of (1390s); at the division between’’ and ‘’, the initial, border, running head and title help the reader to navigate the text.’ (MS. Rawlinson poet. 223, fol. 183r., courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)”; rubrication marks ‘the end’.
Genealogy of the god Jupiter, 1400s? (Vatican manuscript)
Plate 43, 14th century Lombardic alphabet, The Art of Illuminating As Practised in Europe from the Earliest Times, Tymms 186022, modeled after earlier Lombardic capitals
Plate 67, Tymms 1860
page, printed 1474 by Nicolas Jenson; rubricated (initials), both red & blue
“Fig. 1—Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 331, f.172r.”, 1480; on the
Italian monastic music manuscript explaining the musical mnemonic, using rubrication for emphasis against the musical scales, falling back to blue for additional material; pg121–122 of Liturgical Manuscript (Ms. Codex 1248) dated 1450–1500AD.
1500s Spanish prayer book in Cambridge University Library, provided to for article on dirty books (note wax drippings on page).
Ambraser Heldenbuch (fol. 75v), c.1516; rubricated Lombardic capitals, both red & blue
4 pages (pg49, 131, 151, & 188) from MSS Folger V.b.26, the anonymous Book of Magic, with Instructions for Invoking Spirits (1577–1583?; transcription/translation)
Cover of (1666); fairly conventional book example, but interesting for its relatively systematic use of rubrication on cover to emphasize key nouns.
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?)

  1. pg63, (third edition), 2004:

    …if the text, or a new section of text, begins at the top of a page with no heading to mark it, a little fanfare will probably be required. The same is true if the opening page is busy. If there is a chapter title, an epigraph, a sidenote, and a photograph and caption, the opening of the text will need a banner, a ten-gallon hat or a bright red dress to draw the eye.

    (typographic ornaments) are often used to flag text openings, and are often printed in red, the typographer’s habitual second color. The opening phrase, or entire first line, can also be set in small caps or in bold u&lc. Another excellent method of marking the start of the text, inherited from ancient scribal practice, is a large : a versal or lettrine. Versals can be treated in many ways. Indented or centered, they can stick up from the text. Flush left, they can be nested into the text (typographers call these drop caps, as opposed to elevated or stick-up caps). If there is room, they can hang in the left margin. They can be set in the same face as the text or in something outlandishly different. In scribal and typographic tradition alike, where the budget permits, versals too are generally red or another color in preference to black.

  2. 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…↩︎

  3. 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 Tufte CSS packages for various formats: there are now open-source Bembo fonts, but do red links really work online? Some Tufte CSS implementations like Eric J. Wang’s go for it, and others do not.) The sheer number of Tufte uses makes it difficult to select any examples for this gallery.↩︎

  4. 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 beautiful interactive HTML version.↩︎

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

  6. 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.↩︎

  7. 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.↩︎

  8. “Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language: The confounding consistency of color categories”, 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.

  9. 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 .↩︎

  10. Curiously, although Apple did make heavy use of rubrication at some times, like its 1995 Apple 600 Series User Manual, appears devoid of that technique. Did Steve Jobs not like red?↩︎

  11. This is likely from Mark Lombardi: Global Networks, ed Hobbs 2003, which demonstrates rubrication on its cover, and in an homage to the artist, uses rubrication in the accompanying textual biography/discussion of Lombardi; it also uses . Lombardi, incidentally, read Tufte’s Envisioning Information, and Richards et al 2003 speculates he was influenced by the Uboku Nishitani calligraphy example (also reproduced on this page)—personally, I suspect the typewriter & other rubricated diagrams were more influential. His use of yellow backgrounds is also Tufte-like.↩︎

  12. The TikZ community uses rubrication heavily, as can be seen in the TikZ example gallery. Examples which use red:

  13. Another computer-generated work, Liza Daly’s Seraphs parody, makes elegant use of a faded red font on sepia background with (usually) black illustrations, but because it uses it for all text rather than emphasis, I exclude it.↩︎

  14. Tufte notes (pg142, 1997) that Youmans’s diagrams are “accompanied by a hesitant and apologetic text that carries on about the possibility of unduly literal readings, as if diagrams are chronically threatened by misinterpretations”. However, Youmans’s textbook was aimed at schoolchildren, and appears to have been something of an innovation: he defends his “novel” “system of illustrating Chemistry” in his preface “To Students and Teachers”, and takes pains to include 2 pages of “Opinions of Distinguished Chemists and Educators”, testimonials that his “new Chemical Diagrams” are clear, correct, and conducive to childrens’ chemical education. When we consider the contemporary hostility of many educators to any kind of acceleration like or towards ‘young adult literature’, which might strain or damage fragile young minds, and reflect on how much greater such hostility may’ve been in 1856, we cannot fault Youmans for attempting to preempt such criticism.↩︎

  15. For a good discussion of the various translations’ virtues & vices and what Burton was trying to achieve, see .↩︎

  16. Like most technologies, rubrication can be used for evil (Nazi/Communist propaganda) as well as for good… Speaking of famous flags, why not ? Because the Red Cross organizations’ emblem is based on figure-ground inversions of the , which uses only red/white, with no black ever employed, and this inversion approach has carried through to its alternatives like the Red Crescent symbol.

    Similarly for the Japanese or current —there do not appear to be any employing black, aside from, unsurprisingly, the protocol (aside from variants involving South Korea or the 1936 ).↩︎

  17. & typography are associated with both blackletter & also with sans . This is because the Nazis themselves were divided about what to use, although the “” ultimately came down on the side of more conventional Latin/Roman scripts & the Nazis banned blackletter from government use.↩︎

  18. I was amused to discover Fabre’s cover while skimming Public Domain Review essays, as the name Fabre rang a bell—not long before, I had read “The Sphex story: How the cognitive sciences kept repeating an old and questionable anecdote”, Keijzer 2013, criticizing which Hofstadter & Dennett so enjoy. And imagine what phrase I ran into within the first screens of reading Fabre’s cat essay, but “red-letter day”! The Baader-Meinhof effect‽↩︎

  19. 1923 translation of Bohrs Atomteori, al-menfatteligt fremstillet by Lindsay & Lindsay, color plates apparently in original; note that several of the scans/e-books are incomplete & omit diagrams.↩︎

  20. Isotype made heavy use of red as its default second color; see pg41–50, where the justification is primarily that many printers may only do black & red. Incidentally, I use the WP photo here instead of the online scans because they are low-resolution and the original copies may have been faded, so they do not convey the sharpness of the printing & the brightness of the red ink.↩︎

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

  22. Tymms 1860 includes many interesting color plates which use red starting on pg104, but most I wouldn’t consider as examples of rubrication, specifically.↩︎