The Origins, History, and Design Power of Neon Colors

Electrifying and intense, fluorescent neon colors inject excitement and energy into designs. Enliven your work with these tips and neon color palettes. In line with a revival of 1980s design styles, artificial-inspired neons are used by creatives to attract the viewer’s attention and give designs a summery or nightlife-themed mood.

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Image by contributor Katya Havok.
Discover a range of striking neon colors to use in digital and print design, as well as pick up tips for using bright and bold colors in your work. Skip to the end of the article to find three cutting-edge neon color palettes inspired by Miami sunsets, Indian festivals, and the natural world.
Hungry for more color inspiration? Discover a beautiful spectrum of colors to use in your designs with our new color tool.

Where do Neon Colors Sit on a Color Wheel?

Fluorescent or neon colors are extremely bright versions of primary and secondary colors, such as blue, red, green, yellow and purple.
Fluorescent colors stand apart from other types of color due to the fact that they emit light, making them luminescent. When the emitted light falls in the visible spectrum of light that can be seen by the human eye, the luminescence is rendered in color.
Image by contributor Mickael Guyot.
Traditional painters’ color wheels that predate the 20th Century don’t feature neon colors due to the fact that these super-bright pigments were later created using chemical methods. Even now, because neon colors have to emit light to appear fluorescent, they are difficult to achieve using standard print design methods.
For example, because CMYK is an additive color model, the layering of colored inks “muddies” the final color result. This makes fluorescence near-impossible to achieve. To create neon colors in print, designers will often turn instead to specialist pigments such as Pantone spot colors.
On digital color wheels neon hues are more prevalent, because their composition is better suited to a light-emitting RGB color model. Here, ultra-bright hues are scattered throughout, as relations of their primary or secondary color relations.
Color wheel image by contributor Julia Murchenko.

Types of Neon Colors

The gas element neon actually only produces a red-orange color, but the word neon can broadly apply to a wide range of fluorescent and ultra-bright colors.
There is a fluorescent or ultra-bright version of almost every primary and secondary color, including:
  • Green—Neon (or “UFO”) Green, Electric Lime
  • Red—Bright Red, Electric Orange
  • Blue—Electric Blue, Electric Cyan
  • Pink— Neon (or “Plastic”) Pink, Neon Magenta
  • Purple—Bright (or “Proton”) Purple
  • Yellow—Neon Yellow, Bright Chartreuse, or Absinthe
Three of these bright hues—UFO Green, Plastic Pink, and Proton Purple—were named by Shutterstock as the colors growing fastest in popularity in 2019 across web design, photography, and print.

Complementary Colors for Neon Hues

Ultra-bright versions of primary and secondary colors follow the same complementary rules as their more subdued relations. So, neon green pairs well with neon magenta, because green is complementary to magenta. Electric blue pairs beautifully with electric orange, and neon yellow makes an unexpectedly good teammate for bright purple.
Image by contributor KRIACHKO OLEKSII.

The Meaning Behind Neon Colors

Neon colors adopt some of the psychological traits of their related colors. Electric blue can feel calm and tranquil, much like pure blues, while neon pink takes on the fun and playful characteristics of pink.
However, the fact that neon colors are ultra-bright can distort their inherited traits. For example, while pure greens are associated with growth and the environment, the artificiality of neon green strips these meanings away. As a result, it’s more evocative of chemicals or digital, Matrix-inspired code.
Image by contributor Luba V Nel.
Because fluorescent colors are bright, brash, and artificial, they haven’t always been associated with good taste. While muted tones tend to have a more chic and intellectual reputation, neon hues are affiliated with fun, frivolity, and excess. Links with fluorescent signage further cement neon’s connection with nightlife, clubbing, and cities after dark, particularly when combined with dark colors like black or midnight blue.
Neon colors can also be associated with warning and danger, due to their use in high-visibility clothing and signage.

The History of Neon Colors

Luminescent paint was first invented by Bob Switzer in the 1930s. After suffering an accident, the Ohio teenager was advised to recover in a dark room. To pass the time he played around with waving fluorescent minerals around in the air, which inspired his later experiments with mixing wood varnish and the minerals. The resulting product was named Day-Glo. The same technology was later used to create high-visibility jackets for World War II GIs.
As highly visible colors, neon shades have since been used on signage and industrial clothing to either turn a viewer’s attention to a warning message, or to increase the visibility of individuals working on building sites, highways, or railways.
Image by contributor Andrea Slatter.
While more muted colors were favored during the 1970s, ultra-bright colors, including hot pink and electric purple, characterized the 1980s, making it the decade of neon.
Neon’s high visibility has also made it a favorite among nightlife and festival fans. During the Acid House music movement of the 1990s, club goers often sported a neon yellow smiley symbol on clothing and waved glo-sticks in the air. Neon rave events are now popular at universities and festivals, where attendees wear neon paint on their faces and bodies to achieve a psychedelic effect.
Image by contributor David Tadevosian.
With the dawn of digital design, neon colors came into their own on the world wide web. Web designers were able to achieve very vivid, attention-grabbing colors on screens with very little effort, compared to the more trialled efforts of print designers.
A recent leaning towards maximalist design and a revival of 1980s color palettes has all-in-all put neon colors firmly back on the style map.

How to Design with Neon

Neon colors can enliven designs as well as attract the viewer’s eye. When creating websites or apps, neons can be particularly effective for making designs look compelling and clickable. Try setting a “buy now” button in a bright color to make an app more usable, or reimagine a logo in neon to make a brand more memorable.
Print designs can also benefit from the vitality of neon hues. In these campaign designs for the Women’s Foundation 25th Anniversary, graphic designer Morgan Stephens and creative agency Design Ranch collaborated to create posters, banners, and merchandise that use a simple pop of fluorescent color. Teamed with black-and-white photography and and a neutral palette of black, white, and beige, the choice of neon pink makes a statement about modern femininity.
Designs for Women‘s Foundation 25th Anniversary Campaign by Morgan Stephens and Design Ranch.
In interior design, industrial styles are a natural context for neon colors, resulting in casual, playful spaces evocative of urban streets. But be wary of neon saturation—a fluorescent sign or cushion is easier to live with than day-glo walls or a luminescent sofa.
Image by contributor Meng Chatchai.

What Colors Go With Neon?

Maximalist design is definitely back in 2019, and with it a more experimental and eclectic approach to color. Achieve psychedelic-style designs by using a neon-on-neon color palette, like in these poster designs for the Katowice Street Art Festival by Polish designer Marta Gawin.
Take a tip from Gawin and combine a variety of neon spot colors with more muted typography. Black or white type will help to temper an all-neon palette and keep your designs looking stylish.
Poster designs for the Katowice Street Art Festival by Marta Gawin.
Give neons a chic makeover by combining with neutral colors, such as camel, biscuit, or gray. This is a particularly effective approach for larger-scale projects, such as in fashion and interiors. These projects can benefit from a single pop of neon.
Actor Tina Kunakey di Vita gave a lesson in pitch-perfect neon street style at Paris Fashion Week, by teaming neon boots with otherwise muted, biscuit-toned clothing.
Image by contributor Creative Lab.
Here, discover three stylish swatch palettes to make the most of neon colors in your designs.

Palette 1: Miami Sunset

Inspired by the vivid colors of a dusk-set Miami, this palette combines cool tones of neon cyan and cobalt with coral red and hot pink. This is a simple and balanced scheme that is summery and atmospheric.

Palette 2: Indian Market

This scheme lifts colors from the vivid powder paints used by festival-goers during Holi celebrations in India. Combining bright magenta with burnt orange, deep red, and bright yellow, this is a warm and cosy palette that would be a great way of introducing bright colors into an autumnal design.

Palette 3: Gecko Brights

Nature is often the best source for perfectly balanced color palettes. Here, neon green is combined with cornflower blue, orange, and mustard to pay tribute to the beautiful colors of green geckos.
Ready to discover more beautiful 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.
Cover image via contributor