The history and symbolism of coral. Learn how to use this bold and beautiful color, then keep scrolling for FREE coral color palettes.
Combining the aesthetic and psychological impact of orange and pink, coral’s unique warm tones made this vibrant hue the unrivaled color hit of 2019, with Pantone declaring Living Coral to be their Color of the Year. Its trend-setting traction shows no sign of slowing down, with coral continuing to be a contemporary choice for branding, graphics, fashion, and interior design.
Trends aside, coral is a surprisingly versatile and beautiful color that designers and brands can apply effectively across a wide range of designs and products. Here you’ll learn about the historical roots, symbolism, and psychology of the color coral, as well as how to use this warm accent color in design projects.
Skip to the end of the article to find three cutting-edge coral color palettes to use in your designs. You can also discover a spectrum of beautiful colors to use in your designs with our color tool.
The Characteristics and Psychology of Coral
A bold and vibrant color named after the sea animals known as polyps, coral is at once both stimulating and soothing. Coral combines various quantities of orange, pink, and red, although its remarkable color diversity can imbue it with a range of characteristics, from assertive coral red to breezy coral pink.
Naturally evocative of tropical climes, this strong color has a rich history associated with exotic travel, seafaring, and exploration. Considered a lucky color for many centuries, the Victorians used coral jewelry as a protective talisman. Other cultures, including the Chinese, thought coral to promote longevity and prosperity.
In recent times, coral has experienced a revival in popularity, with Pantone declaring Living Coral its Color of the Year in 2019. A particularly web safe color choice, coral appears vivid and vibrant on screens while retaining an optimistic and relaxing mood. More sophisticated than orange, less overtly feminine than pink, and less aggressive than red, coral strikes a wonderful balancing act between the various warm hues of the color spectrum.
Coral is rarely divisive. Strongly associated with vacations and relaxation, it’s an overwhelmingly positive color, making it a versatile color choice for a range of industries and designs, including lifestyle stores or summer events. Because coral combines a number of warm colors together, it’s enveloping and comforting. Teamed with edgier, cooler shades like cobalt blue or molten teal to offset its warm character, it’s an unusual but perfectly suitable choice for corporate branding.
Where Is Coral on the Color Wheel?
On a traditional painter’s color wheel, coral is not usually present. This is because coral is a blend of two colors that do feature on the wheel—orange and pink. Coral appears more often on contemporary color wheels, sitting between orange and red or orange and pink.
Historically, coral was often pictured on a wheel as closer to red or purple, with only a slight dose of pink or yellow to brighten it.
Coral’s Color Family
In 16th century color books, coral often appears more red or orange than pink. However, contemporary coral tends to be softer and brighter, sitting between orange and pink.
Coral’s color family varies, depending on whether it’s red coral, orange coral, or pink coral. Most modern viewers would consider coral to be a shade of orange-pink, placing it within the orange color family, and certainly within the gentler warm side of the spectrum.
Coral’s RGB Color Space
For websites and apps, coral is both relaxing and vibrant, lending a tropical feel that’s perfect for lifestyle, travel, beauty, or event-themed designs. For a warm orange-pink coral, #ED7464 is soothing and feminine, and combines with more dramatic hues like jet black or inky blue for effortless style.
#FF7F50 provides a more vivid orange coral that feels optimistic and bouncy, while #FF4040 is a bright shade of red coral, bringing extra energy and vibrancy to a scheme.
Types of Coral
Coral’s color diversity has been fluid and ever-changing over the centuries, and remains a color that’s difficult to strictly define. The Victorians probably would have regarded coral as a type of vivid red, with the hue based on the rich, deep color of coral jewelry. Over time, coral’s tone softened and diluted, so most colors we’d term “coral” edge toward pink and orange rather than red.
Typical coral hues normally contain more orange than pink, but other related coral shades, such as coral pink, contain more pink or yellow. Deeper coral shades more in line with the color of traditional coral, contain some red, or even purple, pigment.
Increasing the presence of red in a coral color can make it feel stronger and more assertive. Meanwhile, increasing the level of pink or yellow creates a peachier, softer effect.
Coral’s Complementary Color
The shade of coral you choose will influence its complementary color partner. Deeper coral red or coral pink pair beautifully with teal green, teal blue, or turquoise because red’s complementary color is green. Purer, more vivid blues, such as Tiffany blue, sky blue, or aqua blue, complement orange corals. For summer schemes, coral and blue is a natural choice, evoking tropical beaches and vast cloudless skies.
Use Shutterstock’s color tool to explore more color combinations with shades of coral like cantaloupe, peach pink, and coral pink.
The Meaning of Coral
Coral’s name is sourced from the marine invertebrates that populate tropical sea beds. Specifically, the color is named for the intensely-colored red or pink-orange skeleton of precious coral, traditionally used to make jewelry.
Because of coral’s preference for warm waters, the color coral has long been associated with tropical climes and the exotic—and, of course, coastal areas.
Today, with coral beds becoming sadly more elusive, coral represents the natural environment at its rarest and most precious. Pantone selected Living Coral as its Color of the Year because it “emits the desired, familiar, and energizing aspects of color found in nature.” For Pantone, it’s a color of positivity and hope.
Most people perceive coral as a positive color. Warm, dynamic, and invigorating, it blends the femininity of pink with the optimism and energy of orange. Corals with red tones are particularly strong and vibrant, and can fit successfully into masculine schemes.
Because coral blends three warm colors—orange, pink, and red—it’s an overwhelmingly friendly, open, and emotionally intelligent color. It also manages to shed the historical baggage of all three colors. While red can be aggressive, pink girlish, and orange mass-market, coral manages to forge a unique identity that is inclusive and revitalizing.
The History of Coral
The use of orange, red, and pink is more visible in historical records, and coral’s history is bound up with all three of these. However, coral’s standing as a treasured material has a long history. The oldest red coral jewelry dates back to about 3000 BC, to the Mesopotamian civilization.
Coral first appeared as a name for a red-pink color in English in the early 16th century. Named after the colorful skeletons formed by reef-dwelling polyp, coral jewelry was worn by the Ancient Egyptians and Romans. The latter believed it gave the wearer the power to resist evil and temptation.
Coral’s association with protection lasted into the Renaissance period. Many paintings of this era depict the baby Jesus wearing a coral amulet, for example.
Later, coral jewelry was hugely fashionable in the Victorian period, when the romance of tropical exploration was at its peak. Coral was also popular during the 1920s, when artisans incorporated the material into Art Deco jewelry. It was again popular during the hippie years of the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, coral enjoys enduring fashionability as a color of adornment.
Coral also has links to spirituality and is an important color in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hindu philosophy, a red shade of coral represents the Muladhara Chakra. The color is associated with roots and the Earth, and also represents where Kundalini energy sits in the spine.
In the 1970s, a taste for all things orange and pink led to interior design, fashion, and beauty using coral shades liberally. Stars of the disco era popularized coral-shaded cosmetics, with lips, eyes, and nails adorned in shades of orange-pink. Today, coral continues to be a popular color for beauty products. It’s believed to give the wearer a warm, flattering glow, mimicking the natural healthy flush resulting from outdoor exercise.
How to Design with Coral
Designers are starting to rediscover coral as a versatile, dynamic color that works seamlessly for a wide variety of projects. Because coral is a transitional color—blending aspects of different warm hues—it’s incredibly versatile, lacking the aggressive overtones of red and the girlish personality of pink.
In fashion and beauty, coral occupies a middle ground between classic red and feminine pink. While orange can look harsh against skin tones, coral is warmer, making for a more flattering hue to use on clothing and cosmetics.
Coral can be considered either gender-neutral or be intentionally gendered through the addition of more pink (to create a feminine coral), or more orange and red (to create a masculine tone). This flexibility makes it a versatile color for fashion design.
Although the beauty industry has long been the traditional home for coral, designers, photographers, and illustrators are starting to explore coral’s diverse potential as a color for branding, advertising, print, and interior design.
Because coral is playful, inclusive, and contemporary, it makes the perfect color choice for trend-led branding projects. The color is a favorite with design agency Paris se quema, who uses coral liberally in their set designs for brands such as Maison Castel, Mint, and Sephora.
Through the use of infrared (IR) digital technology, photographers can create surreal, coral-tinted portraits of natural and urban landscapes. Features containing chlorophyll, such as trees and grass, reflect the IR light, resulting in a vivid coral color.
In print design, corals can vary widely in the proportion of orange, pink, and yellow. However, generally warmer, pinkish corals are easier on the eye and make for calmer design schemes.
In interior design, coral can promote a warm and cosy atmosphere. It looks exceptionally chic teamed with crisp white, charcoal gray, and warm woods. Introducing house plants to a coral scheme can give rooms a tropical or Victorian-inspired glasshouse style.
Coral is an adaptable and versatile color choice for marketing to a broad range of genders and age groups. Coral is also an overwhelmingly positive color associated with vacations and leisure.
Make the most of coral’s easy-going personality on summer-themed social posts or email campaigns with a positive, optimistic message. Coral is an evocative and immersive color—immediately bringing to mind the tropics and holiday travel—meaning that using this vibrant color can really help your target audience to get into the vacation spirit even before they’ve read the content of your message.
Red corals have a stronger, more assertive energy. Make them corporate-appropriate by teaming them with darker coolers from the cooler end of the spectrum, such as navy blue or deep teal green. Pink corals are a soft and elegant color choice for cosmetics or lifestyle advertising. More contemporary in feel than pure pink, coral is feminine while not being overtly so.
A word of caution—because coral is so relaxed, it can be ill-suited for messages that require pressing action, such as flash sales or limited-time offers. In these cases, opt for a red coral to inject more strength and urgency into the design, or combine with an energy-giving hue such as bright orange or refreshing sea blue.
What Colors Go with Coral?
Coral is a surprisingly versatile color. As a warm color, it’s best contrasted against a cooler hue—coral is at its most vibrant when set against tiffany blue or teal. The combination of coral and blue is instantly evocative of tropical sea beds, making for a warmer alternative to a nautical white-and-blue scheme.
Pairing coral with navy creates an exceptionally chic pairing that balances coral’s feminine leanings with the more masculine and somber dark blue. In the same vein, pair coral with charcoal gray, deep purple, or forest green for an elegant color combination.
Combined with other warm colors, such as red, brown, and orange, coral takes on an autumnal, cozy mood. Alongside green, coral creates a supremely comforting, nature-inspired palette that works beautifully for interior schemes.
Discover three stylish color palettes to make the most of coral in your designs.
Palette 1: Coral Forest
Vibrant corals are offset beautifully by calm, natural tones of olive and forest green. Try this soothing, comforting palette in interior design for a contemporary take on mid-century style.
Palette 2: Marine Scene
You can bring out the vibrancy of an orange-based coral with cool, marine-inspired shades of blue. A pale, icy blue teams with pool blue and teal for a palette that makes the most of coral’s natural beauty.
Palette 3: Parisian Fall
This feminine, fashionable scheme gives a chic, autumnal edge to a pink-based coral. Golden yellow, teal blue, and russet brown combine to create a palette that’s perfect for transitioning coral into the autumn season.
Discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors with our new color tool that helps to bring your projects to life, and don’t miss these color-themed articles that help you to discover more about the history, symbology, and design power of different hues:
Cover image via contributor Paopano.
Apply the coupon code BLOG10 at checkout. Online, Standard licenses only.