Blog Home Design Design Inspiration All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes

Learn about red’s symbolic associations, as well as how to pair with other colors to create a contemporary scheme. Pick up pro tips on how to design and decorate using the color red in this complete guide.

The color of blood and fire, red is a primal color that provokes an instinctive emotional reaction. Often associated with extreme emotional states such as anger, passion, and lust, it’s also these qualities that make crimson or scarlet assertive stimulating color choices when used in design schemes.

Skip to the end of the article to discover three on-trend red 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 Red?

Red is a primary color, alongside yellow and blue. This means that no colors can be mixed to create red, but red can be used to create other colors on the spectrum. Red sits at the end of the visible spectrum of light, next to orange and opposite violet.

Red is also a primary color in both the digital light-based RGB and print ink-based CMYK color models.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Red Color Wheel

On a painter’s color wheel, red sits next to orange on one side, and magenta on the other.

red color meaning and design color wheel

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Varieties of Red Colors

Reds can range in tints (when the red is mixed with white to create a paler color) or shades (mixed with black to produce a darker color). But there are also a wide range of identifiable reds that vary depending on whether they are mixed with blue, orange, yellow, or purple.

Red is actually a catch-all term for a very broad range of red colors. Many gained their own names throughout history. In this color wheel from the 1908 book The Colorist by J. Arthur H. Hatt, you can see that red sits alongside variations of red that range from warm orange red, through to more intense scarlet red and scarlet and more purple-red crimson.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — The Colorist
Image taken from the 1908 edition of The Colorist by J. A. H. Hatt.

Beyond this simple range, however, there are more than twenty historically named reds identified by color experts, including carmine (a highly saturated red), ruby (originating from the color of the namesake gemstone), cinnabar (an orange shade of red) and madder (which takes its name from a dye sourced from Rubia or “madder” plants).

Explore the diverse world of red with the Shutterstock color tool, which explores palettes and images related to a range of bold and beautiful reds, including cranberry red, cabernet, marsala, and blood orange.

Red’s Complementary Color

Red sits opposite to green on the color spectrum, making this cool, calming color the perfect complementary color to deep, warm red.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Complementary Color

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

The Meaning of Red

Red is primal and elemental. Its associations with extreme emotions, such as anger, passion and violence, are no doubt linked to the fact that it is the color of blood and fire.

Advertisers and designers use red’s power to help consumers to make quick decisions. Placing a red banner on your website, for example, is more likely to get people clicking.

Perhaps more than any other, color red has the ability to provoke an extreme reaction. It’s not a moderate color by any means. But, designers can manipulate its emotional impact to create associations and define action. Some of red’s most common associations are with:

  • Eroticism—The color red has historically been linked with lust, seduction, and sex. Stimulate erotic feelings by using more intense shades of red on designs, or indeed on the human body. Red lips and nails are a well-known example of the association of red with femininity and seduction.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — The Meaning of Red
Image by contributor Moustache Girl
  • Danger—Red is a highly visible, jolting color, prompting immediate attention and quick action. This is why it’s chosen for high-voltage signs, traffic signage, stoplights, and fire engines.
  • Energy—Red is an energizing color (as opposed to green, which is lethargic), so it’s often used to advertise energy drinks, games, and cars, as well as in connection to sports. Perhaps red’s high-energy association explains why English football teams who wore red were 10% more likely to win competitions than if they were wearing any other color.
  • Courage and power—Often used on national flags and shields, red has a long-standing association with courage and bravery. Politicians and celebrities have also utilized the strength of the color to reinforce an impression of power. The red power tie and red carpet are two examples of red used to make a power statement.

Red also has specific significance for some cultures. In China, for example, red is representative of good luck and prosperity. Chinese New Year decorations are red, with the color believed to bring happiness and prosperity.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Happiness and Prosperity
Image by contributor leungchopan

In South Africa, red is a somber color, symbolising mourning and grief. In Russia red has associations with communism, due to the red flag adopted by socialist and Marxist groups, which links it with both patriotism and suffering.

The Origins of Red

Red is one of the oldest and most naturally-occurring colors, which means its symbology and use goes back a long way in human history.

Red made from a natural clay pigment, ochre, was one of the first colors to be used in prehistoric cave paintings. Other reds that originate from natural sources, such as the forms of iron oxide found in the Grand Canyon or the phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering which gives the impression of a red sunset, have meant that red has had an elemental and significant presence in the lives of people well before written historical accounts.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Historical Roots
San rock art at the Stadsaal Caves in the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape Province. Image by contributor Grobler du Preez.

Archaeologists have proven that Ancient Egyptian and Mayan dignitaries colored their faces red for religious ceremonies, and there is also evidence that Roman generals colored their torsos in red pigment to celebrate victories in battle.

In the Renaissance period, red became a favored color of nobles and aristocrats, who dyed their brilliant red costumes using a dye sourced from crushed insects. In the 19th century, synthetic red dyes made the color more widely available. Due to its powerful associations, it quickly became a color of revolution and anarchy—Soviet Russia adopted a red flag following the Bolshevik Revolution, and China, Vietnam, and other communist countries soon followed suit.

In the 19th century, red became symbolic of prostitution, with prostitutes in many European and American cities required to wear red to advertise their profession. Later, in the early 20th century, houses of prostitution were limited to certain neighborhoods. These areas later became known as red light districts.

In recent decades fashion designers have reclaimed red as a color of feminine power. Many high-end fashion designers, such as Valentino Garavani and Christian Louboutin, use red dominantly in their designs to express female confidence and sensuality.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Confidence and Sensuality
The Valentino Retirement Exhibition in Rome, August 2007. Image by contributor margaret.

How to Design with Red

Red is a historically impactful color, with a strong and bold presence. This makes it the perfect choice for attention-grabbing designs, with designers often looking to intense reds to give their website designs and poster designs more visibility and impact.

Red gets the blood flowing and emotions running high, so if you want to make your viewers feel something by looking at your design, red can be an invigorating choice. Red finds the perfect home in this brand identity for new York Philharmonic by Lindsay Gravette. This jaunty, anarchic typography pairs with bold red to convey the emotional extremes of live classical music.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Design with Red

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — New York Philharmonic
Brand identity for New York Philharmonic by Lindsay Gravette.

Try teaming red with black, gray, or white, like in these variations on the Coca-Cola logo for Adobe by Albanian designer Vasjen Katro. Because red is so striking, it has the ability to hold its own in an otherwise monochrome color scheme, which makes it a great choice for logo and brand design.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Brand Design

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Striking Red
Logo designs for Coca-Cola X Adobe X You by Vasjen Katro.

Red’s visible strength, however, can be tempered. Color schemes that use tints or shades of red, or team the color with softer colors like pink, can help to make red feel less aggressive.

Red can be more palatable in interior design by using a darker shade of red that edges on purple-red or brown-red. This darker version of red has a luxurious, regal flavor, stemming from its popularity during the Victorian period for interior decoration.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Red in Interior Decorating
Image by contributor Photographee.eu.

In this brand identity design for haircare business Blond Studio by YUNGBLD STUDIO, the designers paired pink and red together to create a feminine, edgy look. Teamed with vintage-flavored typography, the result is a contemporary take on retro styling.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Feminine and Edgy
Brand identity for Blond Studio by YUNGBLD STUDIO.

What Colors Go With Red?

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

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

To find the colors and exact hex codes that go with red, use our color combinations tool. It shows you monochromatic, analogous, triadic, and contrasting color palettes for a variety of red shades. Try a scheme with orange red, scarlet, crimson or cayenne.

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

Palette 1: In the Pink

Red and pink might not seem the most instinctive of color combinations, but this analogous pairing feels particularly fresh and alluring for 2019. Inspired by 1950s technicolor movies, this palette sheds its retro connotations when teamed with subtle blush and dusty pink. Use in interior design or product design for a fresh, feminine take on red.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — In the Pink

Palette 2: Military Red and Camel

A luxurious and aspirational palette, this combination of colors takes its cues from vintage military uniforms and high-fashion street style. Team bold scarlet with camel, and offset with off-white and rich black, to create an elegant and understated take on a red color scheme.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Military Red and Camel

Palette 3: Primary Palette

Here we look to vintage references to create a youthful, mid-century-influenced palette. Inspired by childlike color schemes and the painted house facades of Amsterdam, this palette of tomato red, azure blue, and golden yellow is perfect for injecting youthful energy into branding and print projects.

All About Red: Origin, Theory, Design Applications, and Color Schemes — Primary Palette

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 Sasin Tipchai