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Stimulating and optimistic, yellow is often used to inject joy and vibrancy into designs. Here’s how yellow infuses designs with sunlight and happiness.

However, yellow has a dark side too—overuse has been proven to disturb and unfocus the mind, and the color is sometimes culturally associated with cowardice and deceit.

Here, discover more of the fascinating contradictory qualities of yellow, as well as pick up tips for using yellow effectively and stylishly in your designs.

Skip to the end of the article to discover three trend-led yellow color palettes to use in your designs. You can also discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors to use in your designs with our new color tool.

Where is Yellow on the Color Wheel?

Yellow sits between orange and green on the visible spectrum of light, and on a traditional painter’s color wheel.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Color Wheel
Yellow is a primary color, alongside blue and red, in subtractive color mixing. In print design, yellow is one of the four colors of ink that make up the CMYK color model. Mixing yellow with cyan, magenta, and black (key) creates the full range of printable colors.

In an RGB light-emitting color model, used in digital design, yellow is created by mixing green and red light.

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Types of Yellow

Shades of yellow, which are achieved by mixing yellow with black, and tints, created by mixing with white, allow yellow to be used in a variety of pale (pastel) and dark hues.

In addition, there is a wide variety of historically recognized types of yellow, ranging from deep orange-yellows to green-infused lime yellows.

Some of the most recognizable yellow hues are:

  • Orange yellows like amber and golden yellow, that blend the attributes of orange and yellow. These hues make for more sophisticated, tempered yellows that look beautiful in interior schemes.
  • Brown yellows such as mustard and ochre are amongst some of the oldest yellow pigments, and as a result give designs a more traditional, somber feel than pure yellows.
  • Green yellows, including citron, chardonnay, and chartreuse, are refreshing and can have give schemes a vintage flavor. Absinthe, a punchy lime yellow named after the alcoholic drink, has a strong association with the 1920s and Art Deco design.
Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Types of Yellow
The distinctive yellow-colored Leslie Hotel in Miami, opened in 1937, was designed by Albert Anis in the Art Deco style. Image by contributor Keith Michael Taylor.
  • Pale yellows like lemon, jasmine, and pastel yellow combine the purity of white with the zestiness of yellow, making them feel breezy and springlike.

Discover how you can use a variety of yellow hues using the Shutterstock color tool. Explore palettes and images related to a range of yellows, including amber, lemon, citron, and jasmine.

Yellow’s Complementary Color

The color which sits opposite to yellow on the color spectrum, and therefore is its complementary color, is purple.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Complementary Color

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

The Meaning of Yellow

Yellow is one of the most contradictory colors historically and culturally. The color of sunlight (which appears yellow when close to the horizon due to the scattering of light), lemons, daffodils, and corn, yellow is widely associated with optimism, happiness, and the summer months.

The first emoticons (now known as emojis) were based on the “smiley” symbol, a sunshine-yellow smiling face which first originated in the 1967 summer of love and was later associated with the grunge and acid house music movements in the 1990s. Often favored by musicians and entertainers for stage costumes, in many contexts yellow is associated with celebration and spontaneity.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — The Meaning of Yellow
Image by contributor hilalabdullah.

Yellow is highly visible, making it a universally popular color for warning and traffic signage. Combined with black, bright yellow mimics the coloring of wasps, giving designs associations with alertness and caution. Yellow and black is a popular color combination for construction and DIY brands, as well as for many sports teams.

While yellow is generally perceived as a positive color, it has a double meaning as an indicator of cowardice and deceit, a meaning which may in part originate from biblical origins (see below).

The History of Yellow

In prehistoric times, yellow ochre was one of the first pigments to be used in art. The cave paintings in Lascaux, France, feature a yellow horse that has been estimated to be 17,000 years old. Ochre was used to depict the color of skin in Ancient Egypt and by the Romans.

“Indian yellow,” a pigment derived from restricting cows to a diet of mango leaves, was later used by artists during the Medieval and Renaissance periods to depict outsiders and, in particular, the biblical traitor Judas, who was traditionally pictured in a yellow toga.

The association of yellow with the betrayal of Judas contributed over time to the color’s association with cowardice and poor character. The insult “yellow-bellied,” coined during the 1920s, refers to a cowardly person.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — The History of Yellow
The Kiss of Judas (1304–06) by Giotto di Bondone. The figure of Judas is depicted wearing a yellow toga.

Artists have historically found yellow to be a particularly useful color, able to evoke light and vibrancy, with many painters of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras choosing to make yellow a central feature of their work. Vincent Van Gogh painted almost exclusively in hues of yellow during his time living in Arles, France. Fascinated with the color of the light, fields, and sunflowers in the region, he wrote favorably of yellow in his letters:

“Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can only call yellow—pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!”

—Vincent Van Gogh, in correspondence with his sister in 1888.

During the 20th century, yellow became prized for its high visibility. Signage in Las Vegas and China, where yellow is considered a lucky color, features yellow, while many emergency vehicles and signage replaced red with more visible yellow.

Symbolic of caution as opposed to danger, yellow is often used to turn attention to a pressing issue or instruction. School buses in the USA are painted yellow to improve their visibility; a shade named “school bus yellow” was designed for the purpose in 1939. In soccer matches, a yellow card indicates a caution to a player who commits a foul, before a red card is issued to send the player off the pitch.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Yellow Card
Image by contributor Paolo Bona.

How to Design with Yellow

Yellow is a strong and vivid color that designers often use to draw attention to particular elements of a design. Particularly effective in brand and logo design, you can maximize yellow’s eye-catching properties by pairing it with crisp neutrals of white, black, or gray.

These geometric poster designs by Kosovo-based studio Deep Yellow use singular splashes of color against simple white backgrounds and black typography. Exclusive use of yellow draws the viewer’s eye to the center of the layout, making for an intriguing and cheering design.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Deep Yellow
Geometric posters by Deep Yellow.

Because yellow is highly visible, it is also an excellent color choice for web and app design. In this site concept design by Istanbul-based art director Designkes, two simple yellow stripes against a contrasting black background give a stylish, urban flavor to the design, as well as helping to draw the eye to the central title and image.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Stylish Dog
Stylish Dogs concept design by Designkes.

Yellow doesn’t have to be eye-catching and garish. In the right context, you can temper its extravagant qualities with other colors to create a more elegant and soothing scheme. Teamed with soothing white and classic serif type, yellow looks effortlessly chic when used in this brand identity for Gourmet Factory by Buenos Aires-based graphic design agency Asís.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Brand Identity

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Gourmet Factory
Brand identity for Gourmet Factory by Asís.

In interior design, too much yellow can overwhelm a room. The color’s high visibility makes it an attention-grabbing and stimulating color—not suited for calmer areas like bedrooms. To make yellow easier to live with, try using it as an accent on furniture, lighting, or in art. Balance with calmer, more somber tones such as deep greens or inky blues.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Interior Design
Image by contributor

What Colors Go With Yellow?

Colors that go with yellow depend on the type of color scheme you want to use:

  • A monochromatic yellow color scheme uses paler tints and darker shades of yellow to create an entirely yellow palette. Because yellow is highly visible, it is often used as an accent color in schemes, and can be used to draw attention to particular elements of a design. Ideally suited for logo design or calls to action, bright shades of yellow can work effectively when used alone, or paired with contrasting dark hues, such as charcoal gray or inky blue.
  • Try teaming yellow with its complementary color, purple, for an unexpected but nonetheless harmonious combination.
  • An analogous yellow color scheme uses the colors bordering yellow on either side of the color wheel. Yellow’s neighboring colors are orange and green.
  • A triadic orange color scheme includes red and blue since they are equidistant from yellow on a modern color wheel.

Pale yellows, like lemon, or richer yellows, like amber and saffron, can be incorporated into broader color schemes with greater ease. Try teaming deep yellows with greens and oranges for an autumnal-inspired scheme, or pair pastel yellow with dusky pink and pale gray for a soothing and sophisticated palette.

To find the colors and exact hex codes that go with yellow, use our color combinations tool. It shows you monochromatic, analogous, triadic, and contrasting color palettes for a variety of yellow hues. Try a scheme with pastel yellow, lemon, golden yellow, or chardonnay.

Here, discover more cutting-edge color palettes to make the most of yellow.

Palette 1: Fall Forest

Lime yellows like chartreuse and chardonnay pair seamlessly with other colors that mimic the shades of autumnal leaves. This palette is inspired by the start of the autumn season, with orange, forest green, and inky blue creating a grown-up, cozy palette.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Fall Forest

Palette 2: Blue Velvet

The most trend-led of the three palettes, this scheme combines golden yellow with rich blue hues and blush pink to create a contemporary tribute to 1970s color schemes.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — Blue Velvet

Palette 3: NYC Yellow

Inspired by the bright primary colors and urban grays of the signage and buildings of the Big Apple, this palette balances youthful cherry red and vibrant yellow with more subtle buff and charcoal gray. This is an off-beat, stylish palette for both fashion and brand design.

Mellow Yellow: The Symbolism and History of the Color Yellow — NYC Yellow

Eager to discover more incredible colors to use in your designs?

Discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors with our new color tool that helps to bring your projects to life.

Cover image via contributor