Read about the historical origins, symbology, and psychology of pastel colors, and discover how to use these pale and interesting hues in your own projects.

Lemon, pistachio, mint, and lavender—as delicious and frivolous as gelato flavors, pastel colors inject joy and lightness into design schemes.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Delicious and Frivolous Colors
Image by NCG PHOTOGRAPHY.

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Where Do Pastels Sit on the Color Wheel?

Pastel colors are pale tints of primary and secondary colors.

Pastel (or baby) pink can be achieved by mixing vivid red with a quantity of white, for example. This gives pastel colors an innate vitality and brightness, despite their diluted hue.

On a traditional painter’s wheel pastel colors are not normally present, being tints rather than primary, secondary, or tertiary colors. On more detailed or contemporary color wheels, pastels are shown as tints of brighter colors, towards the center or outer edge of the wheel.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Pastel Color Wheel

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Ravennka.

Types of Pastel Colors

A pastel color can refer to a pale tint of almost any primary or secondary color, including, but not limited to, red, yellow, blue, green, red, purple, and orange.

Within this spectrum, there is a number of historically recognized or commonly used pastel hues, such as:

  • Pistachio green—named after the distinctive milky yellow-green color of the pistachio nut, this green is both soothing and vivacious.

    Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Popular Pistachio
    Image by contributor MaraZe.
  • Pale lemon—taking its name from the citrus fruit, pale lemon is a more subdued version of vibrant lemon yellow.
  • Baby pink—the traditional pastel color associated with little girls.
  • Baby blue—the pastel most commonly associated with little boys.
  • Light seafoam green—combining green, blue and white, this peaceful and fresh pastel hue is championed for its ability to impart calm and serenity to a space.

    Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Designing with Seafoam Green
    Image by contributor nnattalli.

Discover how you can use a variety of pastel hues using the Shutterstock color tool. Explore palettes and images related to a range of pale colors, including pastel yellow, mint blue, and pistachio green.

Which Colors Complement Pastels?

A pastel color will be complementary to a tint of the complementary primary or secondary color. Meaning that, for example, pastel blue will be complementary to pastel orange, because blue’s complementary color (the color sitting opposite to it on a color wheel) is orange.

Other complementary pastel pairings include pastel red (pale pink) and pastel green, and pastel yellow and pastel purple.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Use Complementary Colors
Image by contributor Lilly P. Green.

The Meaning and Psychology of Pastel Colors

Pastel colors have a dual personality. While able to retain the vibrancy and brightness of color that other muted tints often lack, pastels are also renowned for their ability to soothe and calm the viewer.

Pastel colors represent a dramatic break with the dark and moody colors often favored in wintertime, which has long given pastels a strong affiliation with the spring and summer months. Their soothing nature has also led to the wide use of pastels, such as lemon, mint, and apricot, in hospitals and doctor’s surgeries.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — The Phycology of Pastels
Image by contributor anju901.

Traditionally associated with femininity and motherhood, pastel colors are often used to decorate the bedrooms of young children. Pastels’ youthful tendencies extend to associations with frivolity, joy, optimism, and lightness.

However, pastels are not always exclusively associated with the female gender. Their preppy origins (see below) have led to a connection with sport and masculinity, especially when combined with dark navy or green.

The History of Pastel Colors

Historically, the clothing worn by the poor lacked artificial color. Vegetable dyes offered dark, muddy shades, or fabrics were simply worn undyed. It was the aristocratic classes who were able to be more experimental with color on their clothing, as they had the means to access expensive and rare dyes.

While white, cream, and beige hues were favored by some cultures, such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans, it wasn’t until much later that clothing was purposefully dyed with pastel pigments for the sake of fashion. In the early 18th century in France, the Rococo style, which favored sensuous, pretty design across interiors and clothing, made pastel tones extremely popular among the wealthy classes.

Madame de Pompadour, the influential mistress of Louis XV, is credited with spearheading the Rococo trend for pastel tones,. But it is perhaps the later Marie Antoinette who is best known for her love of pastel colors, favoring baby blue and pale pink in particular.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Marie Antoinette, Champion of Pastels
Marie-Antoinette pictured in her favored pastel palette, painted by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun, 1783. Image by contributor Everett – Art.

During the Victorian period, with worker’s rights in evolution, a new social trend emerged amongst the middle classes in Europe—the holiday. Pastel colors became synonymous with vacations, with candy-stripe umbrellas and deckchairs in soft shades of cream, lemon, mint, and pink defining the scenery of beach resorts in England, France, and Italy.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Pastels and Leisure
A row of pastel-colored beach huts in Victorian style line the seafront of a British coastal town. Image by contributor Filip Kubala.

The association of pastel colors with holidays and escapism continued well into the 20th century. With the birth of technicolor in film technology, joyful and optimistic pastel hues found a natural home in the costumes and sets of the movies created during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

It is interesting to note that pastel colors have not always been exclusively associated with the female gender. In the early 20th century, pastel colors were the first choice for discerning sportsmen and fashionable gentlemen, who often opted for pale pink polo shirts and suits. This has led to pastel colors being commonly connected with preppy fashion and college culture.

Today, pastels continue to be a go-to color choice for designers looking to seduce consumers with promises of vacations, European glamor, and frivolity. Chanel’s recent Neapolis beauty collection plays up to pastels’ associations with holiday glamor and sugary confections, such as Italian gelato.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Pastels and Europe
Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2018 beauty collection, Napolis, was inspired by the pastel colors of the Italian city.

How to Design with Pastels

Many brands turn to pastels to purposely channel femininity in their designs, which makes pastel tones of pink, mint, and lemon a natural fit for products aimed at a female audience. A wide range of innovative female-led and female-targeted brands, such as Agent Provocateur and Maybelline,  have reclaimed pastel colors from their matronly past, wielding them instead as a symbol of feminine strength and beauty.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Pastels and Luxury Branding
Luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur has used pastel pink in its branding since its inception in 1994. Image by contributor Chrispictures.

A single pastel hue used alone can lack visual impact because of its desaturation. Pastels really come into their own when used collectively, which is a sure-fire way to channel a summery or vintage vibe in your designs.

Commit to an all-pastel palette of ice cream-inspired shades to lift the mood of a website or poster design, or combine a tried-and-tested pastel pairing, such as Pantone-approved Rose Quartz (pastel pink) and Serenity (pale blue) to fully embrace the feminine and optimistic nature of pastel hues.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Pastels and Paris Fashion Week
TANK Magazine editor Caroline Issa looks cheerful in pastels at Paris Fashion Week. Image by contributor DKSStyle.

Because of their subdued hue, pastels can generally be treated with more versatility than their brighter relations. Combining two or more pastel colors together doesn’t result in the potential eyesore that more vivid tones might achieved.

The message for designing with pastels? Be brave, liberal, and extravagant. The result may be more chic than you expected.

What Colors Go With Pastels?

A small dose of pastel color paired with a richer hue, such as cobalt blue or maroon, is useful for lightening the mood of what might otherwise be a somber scheme.

Here, Commission Studio strikes the perfect balance between frivolous pastels, vivid brights, and darker hues in this brand identity for innovation agency FranklinTill.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — FranklinTill
Brand identity by Commission Studio for FranklinTill.

The ethereal beauty of pastels is enhanced with delicate metallic accents. Try combining pastels with warm metallics like copper or gold to create contrast and conjure a luxurious mood, like in this stationery set for Soap Industries, created by Socio Design.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Pastels and Branding
Brand identity design by Socio Design for Soap Industries.

Pastel pink and baby blue is an on-trend color combination, as demonstrated by tastemaker Caroline Issa, above, with variations of the duo being named as Pantone’s first ever dual Color of the Year in 2016.

Mexican studio Daniela Arcila applied the color pairing beautifully to a Grand Budapest Hotel-inspired brand identity for Mélimélo Bakery.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Melimelo Bakery
Identity and packaging design for Mélimélo bakery by Daniela Arcila.

Ready to start using pastel colors in your projects? Below, discover three stylish color palettes to make the most of pastel hues in your designs.

Palette 1: Muted Navy

Looking for a sophisticated way to use pastel colors? Navy is perennially chic, and helps to anchor breezy jasmine and pastel blue. This is an elegant and grown-up scheme for interior and stationery design.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Muted Navy

Palette 2: Edgy Ice Cream

Combining muted pastels with edgier black creates a high-contrast palette that is reminiscent of 1980s design styles. This is an on-trend scheme that would be especially effective for brand design.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Edgy Ice Cream

Palette 3: Retro Sport

Who thought pastel lavender could be so appealing? Combined with terra cotta orange and emerald green, pastels take on a fresh and sporty mood. A contemporary update on 1950s palettes, this scheme is stylish and versatile.

Subtle but Powerful: Using Pastel Colors in Your Designs — Retro Sport

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Cover image via contributor Bro Crock.

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