Discover the historical origins, symbolism, and psychological power of pastels, and how to use these ethereal colors in your design projects.
Lemon, pistachio, mint, and lavender—as delicious and frivolous as gelato flavors, pastel colors inject joy and lightness into design schemes. While pastels have traditionally been used in children’s branding, creative designers are revisiting these oft-neglected colors for their ability to bring vitality and freshness to designs.
Pastel colors are experiencing a long overdue resurgence in packing designs, interiors, and other forms of contemporary design. Positive, life-affirming, and joyful, pastels can help your branding identities, products, and marketing designs feel spring-like and energetic. A welcome breath of fresh air after a long winter, pastels will help put the spring back in your step.
Hungry for more color inspiration? Discover a beautiful range of colors to use in your designs with our ever-helpful color tool.
The Characteristics of Pastel Colors
Pastels are diluted versions of primary and secondary colors. As a result, they incorporate both the character of the original color and the purifying, cleansing mood of white. Pastel lemon combines the optimism of yellow with the freshness of white. Meanwhile adding white to green plays down green’s lethargic tendencies, which is why pistachio green feels so fresh and zingy.
Psychologically, pastels are a strongly positive color group. You can use pastels to evoke feelings of springtime, growth, childhood, playfulness, femininity, laughter, and games. Pastels are also associated with cleanliness and freshness, making them a good fit for marketing themed on cleaning products, sanitation, health, or fragrance.
When combined with stronger or more formal colors—like midnight blue, rich purple, or burnt orange—pastel colors lighten the mood, creating complex, balanced schemes that feel at once both lighthearted and chic.
Where Do Pastels Sit on the Color Wheel?
Pastel colors are pale tints of primary and secondary colors.
Pastel (or baby) pink comes from 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 aren’t normally present, being tints rather than primary, secondary, or tertiary colors. On more detailed or contemporary color wheels, pastels appear as tints of brighter colors on one edge of the wheel.
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, purple, and orange.
Within this spectrum, there’s 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.
- 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.
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. 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.
The Meaning and Psychology of Pastel Colors
Pastel colors have a dual personality. While retaining the vibrancy and brightness of color other muted tints often lack, pastels also soothe and calm the viewer.
Pastel colors represent a dramatic break with the dark and moody colors often favored in wintertime. This 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 doctors’ surgeries.
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 aren’t always exclusively associated with the female gender. Their preppy origins (see below) have led to a connection with sports 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 simply went undyed instead. 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 some cultures, such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans, favored white, cream, and beige hues, it wasn’t until much later that people began purposefully dyeing clothing with pastel pigments for the sake of fashion. In early 18th century France, the Rococo style, which favored sensuous, pretty designs across interiors and clothing, made pastel tones extremely popular among the wealthy.
Madame de Pompadour, the influential mistress of Louis XV, is credited with spearheading the Rococo trend for pastel tones. But, it’s perhaps the later Marie-Antoinette who’s best known for her love of pastel colors, favoring baby blue and pale pink, in particular.
During the Victorian period, with workers’ rights in evolution, a new social trend emerged among the middle classes in Europe—the holiday. Pastel colors became synonymous with vacations, with candy-striped umbrellas and deckchairs in soft shades of cream, lemon, mint, and pink defining the scenery of beach resorts in England, France, and Italy.
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’s interesting to note that pastel colors haven’t 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, while the street style set have stepped out in a rainbow of ultra-positive pastel hues at the recent shows in Milan and Paris.
How to Design with Pastels
Pastel colors are timelessly popular for their ability to imbue designs with freshness and fun. Read on to discover tips for incorporating pastel hues into a range of designs, including brand identities and social media posts.
Pastels have had a long history in brand design, but until recent decades, they’ve often been used as a gender-exclusive color palette for female-targeted products. This trend continues in some sectors, with many brands turning to pastels to purposely channel femininity in their designs. Tones of pink, mint, and lemon are a common choice for products aimed at a female audience.
A wide range of innovative female-led brands, such as Grace & Green and Agent Provocateur, are going against the grain. These brands are reclaiming pastel colors from their matronly past, wielding them instead as a symbol of feminine strength and beauty.
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.
In web design, pastels are particularly effective for keeping your site visitors alert! Breezy and bright, pastel colors are the antithesis to dark, dull schemes. With their pale tone, they come to life on light-filled screens (compared to dark colors, which can appear dull in an RGB color space). Plus, pastels can behave as versatile neutrals as background colors or a vivid accent color for buttons and type.
Pastel palettes work beautifully for ecommerce because they’re optimistic and inviting. Their association with cleanliness makes pastels feel completely appropriate for beauty, health, and wellness products. Pastels can also take point in millennial-targeted retail (note how trend-setter Millennial Pink was so widely popular with young audiences). Pastels’ past affiliation with sanitation and medical products has also been extended and reimagined by savvy entrepreneurs, who have used pastel colors for contemporary menstrual and intimacy products.
Don’t shy away from using pastels for business or corporate website designs. With their youthful energy, pastels are a fitting choice for creative agencies or other idea-led services, such as consultancies, charities, or trend forecasting. They help to communicate a sense of childlike enthusiasm and creativity, and also allow these businesses to stand out in an ocean of navy-branded corporates.
Scroll down your Instagram feed and it’s likely at least a few of the images you encounter will feature pastel tones or have a pastel-hued filter. On social media platforms, pastel colors are enduringly popular, and the reasons behind this are simple. Pastels are joyful, happy colors, evocative of childhood and the bright summer months. They’re also incredibly flattering, washing subjects in a gorgeous pink glow.
For Instagram influencers looking to stand out in a sea of oh-so-flattering pastel filters, try maximizing the impact of your pastel imagery with neon pastels or holographic pastel backgrounds. These types of pastels are unashamedly attention-grabbing and can help to light up the screen for that crucial few extra seconds, ensuring a click. Or, why not color-block your Instagram account with a smattering of different pastel tones, to make visiting your page feel like a sun-soaked vacation?
In interior design, unless you’re creating a scheme for a children’s bedroom, it’s important to balance your pastels with earthier or darker tones. While pastels are lovely to look at, they can overwhelm a room if used exclusively, contributing to a hospital vibe that can feel cold and clinical.
Ground pastel accents with earth tones—like mustard, saffron, or mink gray—or team with midnight blue or forest green for a balanced and sophisticated palette. In kitchens, pastel pink, lemon yellow, or pistachio green can create a 1950s-inspired scheme when teamed with black and white metro tiles and retro cookware.
Or, why not take a leaf out of the Wes Anderson playbook? Use pastels combined with crisp white on the painted exteriors or interiors of buildings to conjure up a fantastical, retro Riviera scheme.
The final message for designing with pastels? 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 otherwise achieve. 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 Franklin Till.
Delicate metallic accents enhance the ethereal beauty of pastels. Try combining pastels with warm metallics such as copper or gold to create contrast and conjure a luxurious mood. Take, for example, this stationery set for Soap Industries, created by Socio Design.
Pastel pink and baby blue is an on-trend color combination, as demonstrated by tastemaker Caroline Issa, above, with variations of the duo 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.
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.
Palette 2: Edgy Ice Cream
Combining muted pastels with edgier black creates a high-contrast palette that’s reminiscent of 1980s design styles. This is an on-trend scheme that would be especially effective for brand design.
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.
Eager to explore 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. Want to learn more about designing with color? Don’t miss these articles and inspirational edits:
Cover image via contributor nnattalli.
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