From the start of the rainbow to the ubiquitous advertising for Valentine’s Day, red remains one of the most evocative colors on the visible spectrum. As a primary color, red is a color entirely its own – that is to say, no other colors can come together to form a perfect red. In RGB, red is comprised of 100% red, 0% green, and 0% blue. 

True to its nature as the most intense primary color, the origin of red’s name is something of a mystery. While the term first used to describe red was the Proto-Indo-European word reudh-, the truth is that the word “red” is something of a linguistic artifact. No one is certain how this word came to be; as such, red remains a link between us and ancient history. True enough, it seems that red has been a staple since the dawn of time. Ancient Egypt proclaimed red a color of life and celebration (as well as, notably, destruction and evil), while the Byzantines wore it in their clothing as a status symbol. Regardless of time and place, one thing is clear: the meaning of red is highly intense – and highly polarized.

As such, it’s of little surprise that red has an abundance of meanings, some positive and some negative. When reflecting on why these feelings come up, consider its impact on the human body. Of all colors, red is the most physiologically evocative; it can enhance your metabolism, raise your blood pressure, and even make you breath more quickly. Similarly, red attracts our attention with more force than any other color. Given that it’s usually the first color we notice, it’s no surprise that so many places all over the world use it in “stop” and “danger” signs.

Given these physiological reactions, it becomes easier to understand one of red’s most salient negative associations: anger. When looking at an overuse of red, the impact it has on our body is notable; when our brain registers this, it naturally assumes that this state of arousal is due to irritation. This makes sense given our association of red with danger, as well. When our body is on high alert, we tend to assume something is coming – and, usually, get stressed out about it!

Perhaps one of the most prevalent meanings of red is that of power. From the color of a king’s royal cape in cartoons to the strength of a burning fire, red is generally seen as a force that’s difficult – or impossible! – to overcome. Not only that, but red also makes us feel more powerful ourselves. Research has found that athletes wearing red uniforms tend to win more than those wearing blue uniforms, and considering how powerful the color red makes them look and feel, this makes a lot of sense.

To spin it a happier way, red is high-energy! It excites us; it invigorates us. As we venture away from the angry and dominant side of the color red, we’ll quickly find one of its other claims to fame: its status as the color of love. From the days of the Ancient Greeks and Hebrews, red has been held up as a symbol of unadulterated love and romance. Anyone who’s been outside in February knows just how strong – and persistent! – this association is. In that vein, it’s no surprise that it’s also linked to passion. Everyone knows that red roses are a sign of romantic love, but similarly true is the fact that people in red are consistently rated more sexually attractive. In fact, waitresses in red even receive more tips than those in any other colors.

Given what we’ve discussed about red and biology, we can begin to explain the duality of red and pink when it comes to expressing affection. While pink is usually associated with the softer, more emotional side of love, red errs more towards passion and lust. This makes sense when we consider that perceiving the color red makes us more physically excited!

Often closely intertwined with passion, red is also known for its link to vitality and life. The color of blood and the heart, red represents an important link to one’s body and health. While the association with fire is often linked to power, it goes hand in hand with the matter of heat: the warmth of a healthy person or the life-giving glow of survival.

With such a polarizing color, it can be difficult to know for sure how your usage is coming across. To this end, focus on context! Whether it’s the amount used, the type of work, or the surrounding colors, keeping a careful eye on your usage of red is the best way to achieve the results you want.

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