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All About Purple: Origin, Theory, Design Applications & Color Schemes

Learn how to design and decorate with purple in this complete guide. From color schemes to psychological impact, it’s everything you need to know about this royal hue.

Sitting on the color spectrum between blue and red, purple is historically associated with royalty and rarity. In recent times, designers have rediscovered purple’s more intriguing and creative affiliations with spirituality, mystery and originality. From Byzantine emperors to the lyrics of a Prince song, purple has a diverse and fascinating cultural history, and its mystique and drama continue to inspire designers today.

Skip to the end of the article to discover three on-trend purple 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.

What Colors Make Purple?

The two colors that make purple are red and blue. If you look at a traditional painter’s color wheel, you’ll see that purple sits between red and blue. (See below for notes on blue’s true neighbor color, violet.)

purple position on color wheel

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Red is often perceived as dominant and aggressive, while blue is calmer and more soothing. Purple sits in a more ambiguous place between the two.

purple sits between red and blue on color wheel

The Difference Between Purple and Violet

Violet sits next to purple on the color spectrum and is often confused with and/or associated with purple. Purple sits closer to red, while violet sits closer to blue.

Culturally and geographically, the definitions of violet and purple vary and, in some cases, overlap. For example, the ancient version of purple we now refer to as ‘Tyrian Purple’ ranged from deep red to blue-purple, depending on how the dye was made. In France, purple is considered to be closer to a version of violet with dark red tones. Pourpre (purple in French) contains more red and less blue of the color thought of as “purple” in the United States and the U.K. In Germany, this particular color is sometimes called purpurrot (‘purple-red’) to avoid confusion.

Scientific evidence, however, points to a much clearer definition of both purple and violet. While purple is a mix of red and blue, violet is considered to be a ‘spectral’ color. This means that violet occupies its own place at the end of the spectrum of light and has its own wavelength as a result.

purple and violet on color wheel

Purple’s Complementary Color

Purple’s complementary color is yellow because purple sits opposite yellow on the color spectrum. This means that citrus shades are the perfect balancing color contrast for purple. Look to yellow’s close neighbors, orange and lime green, for more color palette options that bring out the best in purple.

purple complementary color yellow

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

The Meaning of Purple

Purple can be a divisive color. Don’t agree? Ask your friends and colleagues what their favorite color is. According to a recent YouGov survey the most likely answer is going to be blue, followed by red and green.

Why is purple divisive? Perhaps in part because purple has long been associated with ambiguity, mystery, and magic. Treading the line between aggressive red and restrained blue, purple occupies a cryptic middle ground. While light purple can evoke feelings of romance and nostalgia, darker purples can feel gloomier, moodier, and provoke feelings of sadness and frustration. 

Purple’s symbolic and psychological associations vary widely from religious conservatism to femininity, from nobility to protest movements. Here are a few examples of purple’s meanings, which tend to contradict themselves:

  • In the Christian church, clergy members wear purple robes to symbolize piety.
  • Purple has associations with bisexuality and gender fluidity.
  • Purple has strong links to royalty and ritual, but it’s also commonly connected to seduction and experimentation.

The Origins of Purple

Purple has ancient roots as a color that was linked directly to royalty and rarity. This is because as early as the 15th century BC purple dye (known as Tyrian purple) was sourced from a certain type of mollusk, making it a rare and special color. It was reserved for Roman magistrates, Byzantine emperors and, later, by Roman Catholic bishops.

color combinations purple shell
Image by contributor kongsky

There are many historical sources pointing to purple as an exclusive color for the noble sectors of society. In Japan, it’s associated with the Emperor and the aristocracy. In the 20th century modern monarchs continued to use the color symbolically, such as the British royal family, who chose it for their ceremonial dress and stationery.

Purple is also associated historically with femininity, sensuality, and sometimes vanity. This link has been given new ownership and a radical reshaping by the feminist movement, which has adopted purple as its symbolic color.  The color is also often associated with the LGBTQ community. It’s the symbolic color of Spirit Day, an annual event that shows support for young people who are bullied because of their sexual orientation.

womens march purple symbol
Image by contributor Sonia Bonet

In China, purple has strong connections with ritual and healing. This might explain the color’s developing associations in the West over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries with spirituality, meditation, and mindfulness.

Perhaps more than any other color, purple has changed drastically in meaning over the course of millennia. Beginning as a rare and dignified color reserved for royals it now arguably has more meaning for gender-equality movements and individuals looking to use its powerful connections to creativity and independent thinking.

How to Design with Purple

Building on the spiritual associations of purple, Pantone selected a dramatic purple shade, Ultra Violet, for their 2018 Color of the Year.

Pantone describes Ultra Violet as a color that communicates “originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking,” linking the choice of color to the growth of the mindfulness movement and a growing cultural spirit of “experimentation and non-conformity.”

pantone color of the year 2018
Image by contributor Alexei Zatevakhin

Purple also appeared as one of the three most popular colors for 2019 in Shutterstock’s Color Trends report. Chosen based on pixel data and hex codes, this neon shade of purple represents the electric undercurrent of our everyday lives.

2019 color trends neons

In the past, purple hasn’t been the most popular color in design, with creatives leaning more towards softer shades of lavender. However, perhaps due to Pantone’s backing and a general cultural shift towards inclusivity and diversity, purple is experiencing a well-deserved comeback.

Graphic designers are currently turning to purple for its association with creativity and experimentation (making it the perfect color choice for creative businesses), as well as its connections to luxury. You’ll recognize purple in the branding for several recognizable companies, including the Syfy channel, Jet, Wonka, and the Purple mattress.

When used alone, purple can bring a dramatic edge to branding and stationery, as demonstrated by UK designer Daniel Robinson’s identity for creative agency Nymbl.

nymbl purple business cards
Identity design by Daniel Robinson for Nymbl

Strong shades of violet team beautifully with pared-back black-and-white graphics. Look to these simple and striking poster designs by Flore Pillet for ‘La journée de la neurologie et de la botanique’.

purple typography
Poster design by Flore Pillet for ‘La journée de la neurologie et de la botanique’

No longer resigned to the domain of wedding stationery, pastel shades of lavender and parma violet have a fresh and breezy air when teamed with serif typography and monochrome photography.

purple brand identity
Identity design by the branding people for Academia de Negociación

Identity design by the branding people for Academia de Negociación

What Colors Go with Purple?

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

  • A monochromatic purple color scheme uses tints, tones, and shades to create an entirely purple palette.
  • A complementary purple color scheme incorporates yellow. Purple’s cousins, magenta and violet, are complementary to yellow-green and yellow-orange respectively.
  • An analogous purple color scheme uses the colors bordering purple on either side of the color wheel, in this case magenta and violet.
  • A triadic purple color scheme is made of green and orange since they’re equidistant from purple on the color wheel.

To find the colors and exact hex codes that go with purple, use our color combinations tool. It shows you monochromatic, analogous, triadic, and contrasting color palettes for a variety of purple shades. Try a  scheme with purple, violet, mauve, or lilac.

Below, discover three cutting-edge, pre-made color palettes for the color purple.

Palette 1: Dusky Purple and Coral

This palette of subtle tones brings together soothing lilac with a warm coral-toned orange from the opposite of the color spectrum. High-contrast white and a dark-slate black anchor the palette and keep it looking contemporary.

purple color combination

Palette 2: Purple and Gold

Magenta purple and gold is a naturally regal palette, and you’ll find that the precious metal is often teamed with rich tones of purple or violet in interior design to give rooms a luxurious look. This is the perfect palette for making a design feel more high-end and aspirational.

purple color combination

Palette 3: Vintage Purple

This is the most on-trend take on a purple color palette; with royal purple, electric purple, turquoise and orange making a nod to both neon signage and retro, 1980s design.

Beloved by illustrators and designers looking to inject a vintage vibe into their posters and graphics, this is a great palette for adding an instant now-factor to your designs.

purple color combination

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 Priyank G. Vora

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