The meaning of red

Hilda Morones

Sure, roses are red.
But other things are, too!
And red can have a totally different meaning for me and for you…

red clouds
via Unsplash

What does red mean?

It’s the color of power and strength. As well as love and Disney romance. But the meaning of red goes way beyond fast cars and heart-shaped chocolate boxes. Through evolution, and thousands of years of human civilization, red has been used to tell stories, stir emotion and to get us to spend more money. Learn what the color means to different cultures around the world, and find out how to best use it for your business in our exploration of the color red.

In the beginning, there was red

Evolutionarily, red is a signal of heightened emotions, both good and bad. Think of our how our cheeks flush with anger when we’re upset, or how they blush when our crush pays us a compliment. In nature, the vibrant patterns of poison dart frogs help warn predators to stay away. And in reverse fashion it also attracts animals by serving as a signal of ripened fruit. Either way, the color red developed in nature in order to stand out.

red sun horses mustang birds silhouette
via Unsplash

Throughout civilization, people have also applied their own meanings to red. Humans have adopted the evolutionary meaning of red and use it as a warning color (think stop signs and traffic signals). But we’ve also added layers of color psychology to give it a variety of associations. For example, in some places red is perceived as a lucky color, likely because of it’s natural association with the sun, a ready harvest and other life-giving cues.

red business card intensify
by ultrastjarna

In addition to evolutionary and cultural interpretations, individuals also have personal associations with colors. That’s why red might be your brother’s favorite, but your most hated color. Hardcore Yankees fan? Yeah, those Red Sox can eat it!

In Western culture red has become a symbol for passion, excitement, speed and strength. But where exactly did these ideas come from?

Red throughout history

gladiator clothing red
by Rom@n for marcreinhardcgn

Prehistoric peoples venerated the color red. The red ochre pigment that they used in their cave paintings was believed to hold “life-giving” powers since ochre was seen as a gift from mother nature. Because of this association with new life, red was recognized as a feminine entity. The ancient Egyptians also associated red with blood and life force, but also with death. And often red was worn for protection against evil.

In classical Greco-Roman mythology, red symbolized power. And the ancient Greeks began using red to symbolize their gods of war, developing the association with power and strength. In their culture, red took on a masculine association.

Thousands of years later, through the canon of Western fairy tales and Christian teachings, we come to view red as powerful and passionate, standing for both love as well as evil.

But not everyone feels the same way about red.

I say tomato. You say something else…

Across different cultures, red can stand for a number of things you wouldn’t expect!

china temple red
via Unsplash
  • Nice day for a white wedding? Not necessarily in China. Here, red is a symbol of good luck and brides will wear a red dress to encourage prosperity and wealth in the next chapter of their life (although in modern weddings a bride might choose to wear 2 or 3 dresses—including a white, western-style dress—throughout the day’s ceremonies).
  • Likewise red is a very important color in Indian culture and is used widely in prayer ceremonies, offerings and especially weddings. The color is viewed as a sign of purity and a bride will be decked in red on their wedding day. She will also be adorned with a red spot (tikka) on her forehead after the ceremony to symbolize commitment.
  • In the Middle East, however, red isn’t so rosy. Here it’s recognized as a symbol of danger or evil.
  • And in South Africa, red is the color of mourning (though you’ll still see many funeral attendees in black attire). Because of red’s association with death, the Red Cross has even changed it’s logo to green and white in many African countries.

So now that you’re a little wiser about red, let’s go over some wise tips on how to use the power of red in a design.

How to use red

menu flame burger red text font
by MarcyMc for moe 5

Say it with less

You already know red isn’t for the meek. It’s a strong color and it’s attention grabbing. So using it in a logo, or in advertising, will surely catch people’s eyes. But using too much can have your audience seeing red.

Red has the power to stimulate your energy by making your body create more adrenaline, making you feel emotionally charged (pretty crazy, right?). So it’s great if you’re a sports brand or if you are selling energy drinks (Red Bull has built a high-octane empire through the use of their red logo and branding). But it’s not so great if you’re promoting health and wellness (think spas, clinics and yoga studios).

But not wanting your brand to be perceived as too loud doesn’t mean you have to steer clear of red entirely. Just use it as an accent color if you don’t want your design to feel too wild. Think of red as the ketchup to your burger. A little will go a long way, but too much will overwhelm the flavor and ruin your lunch.

A clash of titans

Combining red with other energetic colors (yellows, golds and oranges) can create vibrancy and excitement in your work. Think of famous fast food logos: McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr. These brands effectively use the high energy created by their logos and restaurant decor to excite people’s hunger. Great strategy if you’re selling food. Not great if you, again, want to make people feel at ease and trust your brand.

Red for retail

If you’ll be displaying a product on store shelves then we’d suggest adding a splash of red to your packaging or logo. Red is a great color to use in a retail environment because it draws visual attention and stands out against what can sometimes be a dull landscape. Fluorescent store lighting tends to give objects a bluish-green hue so red really pops, and provides an invigorating splash of color, when wandering store aisles.

Red around the world

red Japan walkway lantern
via Unsplash

If you’re a global company, you’ll want to be very sensitive to what red means in other parts of the world. For the most part, red has an almost unanimous definition everywhere so you’re likely safe whatever you choose to do, but be cautious of some of the exceptions that we outlined above. For example, you don’t accidentally want to use red for a children’s medicine in a country where red might mean death (yikes!).

In the end, there are no strict rules to say when you should, or when you shouldn’t, use red. You desperately want an all-red logo? Go for it. You wanna stay away from it entirely? Sure, go ahead. Really, it all comes down to understanding how red works in the real world and making smart decisions about how you use it in every-day life, in business or beyond.

Tickled pink by our story on red? Tell us what you liked, or share any questions you have, in the comments below!

The author

Hilda Morones
Hilda Morones

According to my online dating profile I’m “a fun, happy girl living in San Francisco. You should message me if: Bikes, dogs, and art.”

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