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Comments (12) Posted 06.12.06 | PERMALINK | PRINT

William Drenttel

The Red Hand : A Graphic History



Still from "Nancy Johnson Caught-Red Handed" television advertisement, May 2006. Produced and funded by MoveOn.org.

My Congresswoman is Nancy Johnson, a twelve-term Republican from Connecticut. Despite reasonable positions on the environment and stem-cell research, I will not vote for her because of her unwavering loyalty to the policies of this Bush administration. As chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, she is a co-author of many dreadful "21st-century modernizations to Medicare." Fortunately, she is being challenged in this election by 32-year-old Christopher Murphy, assistant Democratic leader in the State Senate and chair of the Connecticut legislature's Public Health Committee. He's a great opponent to Nancy Johnson because of his expertise in health care, and her "safe" seat suddenly looks vulnerable.

MoveOn.org has targeted Nancy Johnson, along with three other powerful Republicans. (Disclosure: MoveOn.org was a client in 2004 when we created print ads with Errol Morris.) Their campaign, titled "Caught Red-Handed," states that "Congresswoman Johnson has been caught red-handed, protecting oil company profits while we pay more at the pump," and associates her with indicted Congressman Tom Delay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff (and an unindicted Vice President Dick Cheney). Another ad attacks her links to defense contractors, again with the caught red-handed language. The highly-respected FactCheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has criticized these ads for implying criminal activity where none has been suggested or proven.

What's with the red hand? Where did this graphic metaphor come from?

FactCheck.org quotes the Oxford English Dictionary which "defines the term 'red-handed' as being caught 'in the very act of crime.' In fact, one meaning given by the OED is, 'fresh from the commission of murder or homicide; having the hands red with blood.'" MoveOn wants to play the dictionary-game and "cites a definition of 'red-handed' that is milder, saying Merriam-Webster defines the phrase as caught 'in the act of committing a crime or misdeed.'"

Caught red-handed is usually associated with crime, or at least fingers in the cookie jar. There's also the proverbial "fingers in the pie" version of being caught red-handed. Then there's just recent news: getting caught censoring email or manipulating terror alert status or spying on U.S. citizens. Occasionally, the hand is even dripping blood.

But the red hand has so many other meanings. It means stop, don't litter. It means stop, as in halt. Or it can mean "the jagged edge between the mainstream and non-existence" in Latvian traditional music. For children, a red-hand can have other meanings. It can also be the result of mixing iron oxide, or trying to enter forbidden areas. In war zones, red hands have their own poignancy. There's even a board game where "green with envy" you "cut through the red tape" and "roll out the red carpet" to sharpen your "gray matter;" "given the green light" you'll be be "tickled pink" to play Red-Handed®.

In history, the red hand can be a warning, such as the one issued by John Brown to Governor Henry Wise in 1859: "Thy doom is sealed! Beware of the 'Red Hand'!" It was a symbol for a Black regiment that fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in World War I. In the same war, it was a mark of the "Hun" in anti-German posters. It is also the symbol of Ulster in Northern Ireland, where legend has it that a Chieftain cut off his hand and hurled it forward to win a race, his bloody hand touching the shore before his opponent landed.

Recently, the red hand has been a symbol of political activism, whether for the plight of child soldiers, the dump-Karl Rove movement, stopping local vehicle theft and crime, or protesting against terrorism and violence. Occasionally, it is a plea for help. But it's also been the symbol of radical movements. During the Vietnam era, it was a symbol calling for strikes against the war.

These many uses of the red hand — its metaphorically rich and graphic history — remind me that symbols do have meaning. Whatever I think of Congresswoman Nancy Johnson here in northwestern Connecticut, I don't think she got caught red-handed, whether in a cookie jar or pie or pool of blood. This is a bad use of an historical symbol, and trashy politics as well.

(Note: Thanks to Steven Heller for advice and some of the references used in this essay.)
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Comments (12)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

After reading the first paragraph, I was pleasantly surprised by the last paragraph - I didn't see it coming. While I have emotionally moved to northwestern Connecticut (Lakeville), I have not done so legally so I don't really have a dog in this hunt. Symbolism is extraordinary powerful and when it is used to overstate it undermines credibility.
Dan Lewis
06.12.06 at 03:53

That was great, I love the style with which that was written. Enlightening. I approve of your opinions on Nancy Johnson.
Felix
06.12.06 at 04:58

I must disagree with Mr. Drenttel -- the Red Hand campaign is excellent in its conception and execution. The campaign maintains a national strategy, yet can be localized for each house race; the ads send a clear message, and the iconography is strong and unique.

With regard to the ad's content: it seems eminently reasonable to assert that our representatives' votes might be influenced by the money they receive. The overreach is (perhaps) in linking such normal conduct with actual illegal conduct. But even that, I think, is not too far overboard in this case: the ad clearly spells out its accusations against Congresswoman Johnson. The asserted link is merely that there is a culture of corruption in Washington, and our representatives cannot be trusted to represent their constituents honestly. MoveOn.org makes this point quite succinctly, without making an explicit distinction between legal and illegal forms of corruption. Would it be better to make that distinction explicit? Yes, but this is a short political ad, not an argument. Even if you disagree with MoveOn about the corruption of the current Congress, I don't think you can call them dishonest to make the assertion they make in this ad. On a side note, it's unclear to me whether the public has a reasonable expectation of a fair and balanced political ad.

More to the (design) point: these ads are vivid and memorable, and they have been extremely successful. The Red Hand ads, individually and collectively, send a national message, and form a national campaign that can easily be localized. That's. The key to Moveon.org's (and the Democratic Party's) strategy to make local House races a referendum on the Republican party nationally. That's the precise connection these ads make so well. In short, while I can understand that you might take issue with the the Johnson ad's tack, or with this particular candidate being targeted by the campaign, I don't think you have a case against the campaign itself, which is effective and simple, brilliant in concept and strategy. Iconic ads, tied in with a clear message and coherent campaign. This is good design.
Bob
06.12.06 at 05:52

(As a side note the permalink presented here actually points toward a different article.)

Symbols communicate meaning, but no more or less so than any other figurative trope we employ in language (including visual language). Even the "universal human" icons we find adorning restrooms require one to be versed in a particular cultural context, and are thus not "permanent" or automatic signifiers.

I'll cut short the rest of my horribly pretentious meanderings about linguistic theory, but I'm not entirely sure what is meant by the note at the end of the article that you have been reminded that symbols have meaning. Perhaps you might clarify?
the Brightside
06.12.06 at 06:26

If there's a symbol for Nancy Johnson, then let it be a discarded syringe, because she's addicted to money from the drug lobby.
Nick S
06.13.06 at 07:11

And of course, Nick Cave has that creepy song "Red Right Hand"
kickstand
06.14.06 at 01:18

r chance for his wife to bring needed reform to Sacramento, rather he was upset and concerned with the tone of the campaign and thBob makes some good points but I respectively disagree with his conclusion - and not because I am a fan of Nancy Johnson nor the politics that she represents. To get to my point let me first relate a story told to me just today.

A friend's wife recently lost a state assembly race here in California. He was quite upset about the loss, not because of the missed opportunities oe print ads that had been used against his wife. Standard negative campaigning, perhaps not as "brilliant" nor subtle as the Johnson ads, by her opponent had represented my freind's wife as a greedy indiviudal in the hands of developers; all characteristics I know to be far from the truth. One of the visual design tactics used was to manipulate photos of her by adding shadows and changing the base colors to make her look sinister. To make a long story short, there was a lot of bad feeling generated (my friend wanted to punch out the opponent for libeling his wife) and little civil discourse in this campaign which seemed in the end like most negative campaigns, more about the personalities than the substance of the arguments. Notwithstanding that there is a long history of negativity in American politics, both of us consoled each other that it was ok to lose such a election rather than stoop to the level of meaness required to win.

But then my friend asked a question that seems relevant to this post. What type of government do we have when so many of our "representatives" seem to be so willing to resort to these types of tactics which make associations that are at best a stretch and at worst dishonest? Doesn't this perpetuate a cycle of ever increasing extremism where we all, or at least the majority ulitnmately end up as losers?

I tend to agree with Bill. this is trashy politcs and for me at least abusive symbolism. While it may be good design, and effective for a population that only absorbs ideas in nanobytes, it does not speak well of the civility of our culture nor the future of our civic realm.
John Kaliski
06.15.06 at 12:20

Woops. I chopped off the beginning due to technical problems posting. Here we go again.

Bob makes some good points but I respectively disagree with his conclusion - and not because I am a fan of Nancy Johnson nor the politics that she represents. To get to my point let me first relate a story told to me just today.

A friend's wife recently lost a state assembly race here in California. He was quite upset about the loss, not because of the missed opportunities or chance for his wife to bring needed reform to Sacramento, rather he was upset and concerned with the tone of the campaign and the print ads that had been used against his wife. Standard negative campaigning, perhaps not as "brilliant" nor subtle as the Johnson ads, by her opponent had represented my friend's wife as a greedy indiviudal in the hands of developers; all characteristics I know to be far from the truth. One of the visual design tactics used was to manipulate photos of her by adding shadows and changing the base colors to make her look sinister. To make a long story short, there was a lot of bad feeling generated (my friend wanted to punch out the opponent for libeling his wife) and little civil discourse in this campaign which seemed in the end like most negative campaigns, more about the assumed personalities than the substance of the arguments. Notwithstanding that there is a long history of negativity in American politics, both of us consoled each other that it was ok to lose such a election rather than stoop to the level of meaness required to win.

But then my friend asked a question that seems relevant to this post. What type of government do we have when so many of our "representatives" seem to be so willing to resort to these types of tactics which make associations that are at best a stretch and at worst dishonest? Doesn't this perpetuate a cycle of ever increasing extremism where we all, or at least the majority, ulitnmately end up as losers?

I tend to agree with Bill. this is trashy politcs, and for me at least abusive symbolism. While it may be good design, and effective for a population that only absorbs ideas in nanobytes, it does not speak well of the civility of our culture nor the future of our civic realm.
John Kaliski
06.15.06 at 12:27

I believe that the expression, 'caught red-handed' comes from the same root as 'passing the buck'. They were used to describe poachers and poaching behaviour.

Because the poachers tended to be be poor common folk and the 'poachee' wealthy landowners, the expression gained iconic status symbolising the class struggle.
Anand R. Mani
06.18.06 at 01:01

from an etymology site I can't cite due to spam filtering:

red-handed
1819, earlier red-hand (1432), originally in Scottish legal writing, from red (1) + hand, presumably from the image of a murderer caught in the act, with blood on the hands.


The whole red-handed thing is over the top, and over-the-topness is what turns off unaffiliated voters-- presumably the target that needs reaching in a difficult race like this. Wonder how the Dem. State Senator feels about the ad???

nonymous
06.27.06 at 04:08

This post has been re-published on The New Republic website as a part of their election-year coverage.
William Drenttel
06.30.06 at 02:59

So much for my opinion.

It seems like the Red Hand campaign is moving public opinion in the polls.

Too bad for Nancy Johnson.

William Drenttel
07.24.06 at 11:42


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William Drenttel is a designer and publisher, and editorial director of Design Observer. He is a partner at Winterhouse, a design consultancy focused on social change, online media and educational institutions, and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
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BOOKS BY William Drenttel

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 2
Allworth Press, 1997

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

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