Upon being hired to work for what was then a growing technology company back in 2001, I noticed that the bright green carpet gave the office a ‘fresh’ feel.
This, I was told, was no accident. Indeed, the company, known as Pracom, had selected the colour not only to match its logo and branding as a progressive outfit but also to give the office a brighter and warmer feel. With green signifying ‘go’ in traffic lights, the colour had also been used to promote a sense of upward and forward momentum.
Sadly, the company crashed and was eventually sold for a fraction of what had once been its value.
Nevertheless, the impact of colour upon attitudes, emotions, mood and behaviour stands. Ancient cultures including the Egyptians and Chinese used different colours to aid healing according to the area of the body which was in pain. In the contemporary world, several studies have demonstrated relationships between colour, mood and behaviour.
In areas such as Glasgow in Scotland and Nara in Japan, suicide and crime rates improved following the installation of blue coloured streetlights (a relaxing colour). A historical analysis of penalty records of the National Football League and National Hockey League found that teams who wear black typically incur more penalties against them compared with those who wear non-black uniforms – possibly either because the black uniforms promoted higher levels of aggression on the part of the players themselves and/or because the black uniforms affected the judgement of referees.
In another study, students assigned a red ‘number’ prior to taking a five-minute test performed 20 per cent worse than those assigned green or black numbers.
This raises questions about how designers might apply colour within buildings to influence the ‘mood’ or emotional state of occupants. Judith Briggs, national president of the Colour Society of Australia and author of a recent book Bye Bye Bland- How to Create Sensational Space Using Colour offers some insight.
To be sure, ‘mood’ is not the only consideration in colour selection. Numerous factors such as lighting, architecture style, special considerations, wayfinding, amongst other things, must be taken into account.
Moreover, Briggs cautions against straightforward presumptions about the effect of individual colours. Colour, Briggs says, may be perceived differently among different people according to factors such as memories and prior experiences or cultural connotations which an individual colour may invoke.
Nevertheless, she says some generalisations are possible. Warmer colours such as yellow, orange, red, warm brown and warm grey are generally proven to alter people’s perception of time – that it is passing faster than it really is. In a waiting room, for example, you would not want a warmer colour which may lead people to mistakenly feel that they are waiting longer than what actually is the case.
In addition, Briggs says it is not so much about individual colours but combinations of colours. Where you have a number of ‘deep’ tones (like navy blue or burgundy) in the colour, people tend to feel more relaxed. A similar outcome can be derived from pale colours, such as light blue or peach or pale yellow. On the other hand, where you want to create energy, you might bring in a greater contrast of colours – a phenomenon which tends to energise the space in question.
As for specific emotions, Briggs says there are a number of typical features with each colour.
Like many colours seen often in nature (found in water, trees, and the sky, for instance), blue is typically a relaxing colour. Nevertheless, caution should be observed in the tones of blues which are used. Some of the more greyed off blue colours can potentially induce feelings of boredom and even depression over time, which is typically not the case with paler blues, which are also relaxing on the eye, Briggs says. By contrast, she says turquoise can induce a sense of stimulation and can be stimulating in the workplace.
Also seen in nature, brown resembles the colour of the earth and can promote sentiments of feeling ‘grounded’ with a strong sense of stability.
Red is interesting. Often used in warning signs, the colour induces an immediate reaction.
In carefully chosen contexts, Briggs says red can be highly effective. In certain retail environments, for example, the colour can be used to create a sense of urgency and to prompt an immediate purchasing decision. In other environments where people require stimulation, red can also be used to good effect.
Nevertheless, caution should be observed as red in used in the wrong context can arouse aggression. Homes with red walls, for example are not ideal for families with a hyperactive child, Briggs notes.
Another colour which can create a strong effect but must be carefully used is black. Used wisely, Briggs says black can be associated with elegance and prestige, making it well-suited to an environment such as a luxury retail store.
Again, however, there is a need for caution, especially as black can also be morbid and ‘defensive’. Accordingly, its use in the wrong context can promote a somewhat unapproachable sense to the environment. Indeed, Briggs says, black is often worn during periods of mourning out of a desire on the part of people to protect their emotion.
On the other end of the scale, there is white. Whilst she acknowledges that white as a ‘pure’ colour has a ‘clean’ feel to it, Briggs says pure white is not actually seen in nature and in fact confuses our brains and induces a subliminal form of stress. Accordingly, stark white interiors are unfriendly, even when used as a contrast to other colours.
Nevertheless, Briggs says white can be fine when tinted with another colour.
Orange, Briggs says, is the ‘social colour’, which encourages open communication and conversation especially in a group. Orange also helps to stimulate appetites. Accordingly, Briggs says, it is a good colour to use in environments such as restaurants or cafes.
Finally, grey invokes feelings of ‘balance’ which complements and works well as a backdrop to other colours and is thus making a resurgence. Whilst not often noticed, Briggs says there is actually a surprising amount of grey in nature.
A common mistake as some become caught up in the fashion of grey, however, is to elevate grey to use tones of the colour for the entire colour scheme. This, Briggs says, is a mistake. Grey, she says, should be the backdrop to other colours. It should not be the primary colour.
In addition, Briggs says different colours can be combined in different ways. To create excitement, for instance, a contrast of colours can be used. To facilitate learning, stimulating colours such as turquoise and/or yellow could be combined with a whitish grey – the former colours stimulating creativity and the latter adding a sense of stability within that stimulation. To create a relaxing and ‘safe’ space, hotels are using combinations of pastel colours (such as pink, apricot, pale yellow, or powder blue). These create a cosy feeling in an immersive space which is still mildly stimulating and conducive to conversation but not overly so.
How might this be applied in practical settings?
Start with hospitals. In the past, these have adopted a somewhat uniform colour which is quite subdued. Nevertheless, for those who are there for a long time, Briggs says having a variety of colours can make what can otherwise be a somewhat staid environment more interesting. For those unable to go outside and experience nature, green can be particularly beneficial. This can be complemented with pastel colours to create the sensation of serenity and security whilst still remaining modestly stimulating.
In retail, meanwhile, a number of companies choose their colour to match their corporate brand and create a consistent branding statement. Accordingly, many borrow colours from their logo or those used on their merchandise.
In another example, an atmosphere for a ‘funky’ bar in the city could be created using different tones as well as less usual patterns and textures. Wallpapers and other types of finishes, as well, could create a ‘unique’ feel.
Another interesting case are shopping centres, where landlords want to create an environment that is vibrant but in which customers do not feel rushed. With many people wanting to go to shopping centres on a hot day to get into a cooler space, Briggs said colours should be kept on the cooler side (blues, greens and the like). This would create a more relaxing environment so people are happy to shop longer and thus wouldn’t feel rushed.
Whilst it is useful to have some colours which stimulate people, Briggs says shopping centre landlords need to balance their need to create an attractive environment for shoppers with that of their tenants to create their own branding statement within individual shops. In this regard, Briggs says, ‘breakout’ spaces within shopping centres are important to provide a place where people are able to relax. Patterns and colours in carpets and walls could be conducive to that and give these spaces more personality.
Finally, Briggs laments what she says has been a proliferation in the use of brown in hotels. Whilst brown is good for grounding, too much of it can be uninteresting and there are many hotels that could do with more imaginative colours, she says.
Around Australia, different colours invoke different sensations or emotions within the built environment.
Through careful selections in this area, designers can assist their clients to create the best possible mood for the environment in question.