How to Use Shades of Yellow in Design

Yellow evokes both joy and sorrow

Yellow and orange kitchen facilities in Fabrick Offices, Hudson Quay, Middlesbrough, UK
Jill Tate/ArcaidImages / Getty Images

Banana, cadmium yellow, chartreuse, chiffon, cream, golden, goldenrod, khaki, lemon, mellow yellow, saffron, topaz and yellow ocher are all shades of yellow.

Nature and Culture

Yellow is sunshine. It is a warm color that, like red, has conflicting symbolism. On the one hand, it denotes happiness and joy, but on the other hand yellow is the color of cowardice and deceit.

Yellow is one of the energetic, warm colors. Because of the high visibility of bright yellow, it is often used for hazard signs and some emergency vehicles. Yellow is cheerful.

For years yellow ribbons were worn as a sign of hope as women waited from their men to come marching home from war. Today, they are still used to welcome home loved ones. The use for hazard signs creates an association between yellow and danger, although not quite as dangerous as red.

If someone is "yellow," he is a coward, so yellow can have a negative meaning in some cultures.

Yellow is for mourning in Egypt, and actors in the Middle Ages wore yellow to signify the dead. Yellow also represents courage in Japan, merchants in India, and peace.

Awareness ribbons that use yellow include those for:

  • Diseases and conditions such as Spina Bifida, endometriosis, sarcoma, bladder cancer, liver disease, hydrocephalus, carbon monoxide poisoning and Ewing's sarcoma
  • Support our troops
  • Suicide prevention
  • Adoptive parents
  • Missing children or Amber Alert
  • Genocide awareness

Using Yellow in Print and Web Design

Although it can work as the primary color, yellow often works best when paired as an accent to other colors. Yellow is a perky color. Use bright yellow to create excitement when red or orange may be too strong or too dark. Use yellow to suggest freshness and citrus fruitiness. Golden yellows can stand in for gold.

Yellow pairs well with other colors:

  • Use yellow to perk up a subdued cool palette of blues and grays
  • Use lemon yellow with orange to carry out a healthy, summery, citrus theme
  • Very pale yellows can work as neutrals alongside darker or richer colors
  • Yellow and blue are a high contrast, eye-popping combination
  • Mix yellow with neutral gray and a dash of black for a high-tech look
  • Try a hot, exciting mix of red and yellow
  • For an earthy palette, especially for fall, mix yellow, olive green and brown
  • While yellows and bright or light greens can be part of a natural, fruity color palette, be careful not to use colors too close in value, or they will appear washed out

Color Palettes

These color palettes feature shades of yellow mixing it up with reds, blues, greens, browns and other neutrals for earthy, sophisticated, and psychedelic looks.

  • 2-colors: Medium to Dark Blue with Yellow
  • 3-colors: Blue with Red and Yellow

Using Yellow in Other Design Fields

  • Feng Shui Use of the Color Yellow
  • Map Colors 

Language of Yellow

Familiar phrases can help a designer see how a color choice might be perceived by others, both positively and negatively.

Positive yellow:

  • Yellow ribbon - hope, support, remembrance
  • Mellow yellow - laid back, relaxed

Negative yellow:

  • Yellow or yellow streak or yellow-bellied - cowardice or coward
  • Yellow journalism - irresponsible reporting, sensationalist writing