The definitive color study to confirm the term color psychology doesn’t exist. Rather, the term psychology of color is the newest focus of research in this field. Interior spaces are the largest living laboratories we have in which we could understand the effects of color upon us. However, true research on color is very hard to control due to the way color interacts with light and envelopes us.
Color and lighting work together to create an “atmosphere” and, though that term sounds “designer-y”, it carries important implications. The atmosphere of a space creates haptic reactions in our bodies that leave impressions upon our psyche. We remember memorable spaces.
Haptics is the study of touch and sensation. If you have ever walked into a dramatically lit, colorful, visually stimulating environment and had the hair raise on your neck or goosebumps, you’ve had a haptic reaction to the space. This space moved you; moved parts of you, albeit small parts.
Interior Designs Impress Through Light
The galvanic skin response is used to test physical reactions in the skin to a stimulus. It’s been used for years in research on color and its effects on humans. Color causes much more complex reactions than only involuntary nerve ending responses. Color filters through layers of association, socialization and medium.
We ascribe to color, symbolism and attributes, based on our lived experiences and culture. We learn that reds and oranges are warm colors on the color wheel, that they create a warm looking atmosphere, and they are associated with fire and sun. Isn’t that also the haptic experience of these colors in nature? A sunset and its visual and physical warmth are often mimicked indoors. Fireplaces, warm paint accents, and natural materials such as copper and warm-toned woods, create a place with this sense of warmth.
When people experience an effectively designed interior space where all the elements work together, their reaction is to the atmosphere, or the impression, of the space. Most visitors can’t name a specific element that created that impression.
The adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is accurate for great interiors. Designers would seek to analyze it and denote the pieces parts. Architects might say it was the space or the structure. Lighting designers would attribute its success to the light, and they hold the closest truth.
Why has it been so difficult to pinpoint the effects of colors on human reaction? Designers who are precise in their color selections will insist on knowing the light source, its Kelvin temperature, its color rendering index (CRI) and even the lumen output of the lamp. They know that colors shift with the light it’s given. Color is lighting defined; wavelengths and particles of light reflect the color we see.
The next research variable to consider is that color is literally in the “eye of the beholder.” The aging eye is subject to yellowing and won’t see color the same as a younger person. Physiologically, men have fewer color receptor cones in their eyes and therefore see fewer colors than women. Across all genders, the response to a color has more to do with contrast from its background, rather than its hue.
All reactions to the built space are filtered through a person’s perception. We perceive through our senses and any changes to our sensory state affect our perception. For an aged person, senses aren’t as acute as they once were. Eyes perceive less light, ears perceive less sound, nerve endings dull. A person living through mental health issues, such severe anxiety, depression, addiction or anger issues, may be overwhelmed by input from their senses and the environment.
Haptic Environment Affects Behavior
Recent research in design for behavioral health and dementia have led to similar conclusions about the effects the environment has on behavior. Topping the list of design elements that have positive effects on behavior and mood are access to daylight, nature and views. Additionally, low clutter, calming and subdued spaces offer the best outcomes. Why? The answer involves “cognitive load.”
Cognitive load describes the amount of working memory we have available. If our personal resources (sight, hearing, feeling, sensing) are compromised, we have less “bandwidth” for new or complicated information. Wayfinding in a state of stress has been proven to be more difficult. Environmental cues are harder to notice. Destinations are hard to find. Agitation increases.
In recent studies in behavioral health, where hospitals are intaking patients through the emergency suite, best practices are suggesting that a crisis suite be placed adjacent to the emergency room, where behavioral health cases have a more private area for observation. In these suites, a living room approach is being studied to help reduce agitation and take a more humanistic approach to these cases.
The living room creates a homelike atmosphere that might include warm colors, natural materials (wood), soft furnishings, fish tanks or lower level lighting. The idea is to create a quiet, non-threatening space that can offer comfort. This contrasts with the more institutional, high-paced emergency room setting which could escalate the patient’s agitation. The psychosocial aspects of the living room include peer-to-peer counseling, nutrition, music and audiovisual programming. A main component of the design, though, is (positive) visual distraction, such as artwork and fish tanks.
Positive distraction describes those elements of a space that can help take our minds off the pain, away from our agitation. Healthcare designers work hard to incorporate these items of delightful distraction. We strive to create that focal point with bold colors to help you remember the hallway where you need to turn. We work hard to devise theming to create memorable icons in colors you will notice. We plan floor patterns that you might even glimpse while reading a text on your phone. We overcompensate in the environment for your distraction, stress, cognitive load and yes, your agitation. And we love doing it.
Bring in Color
Designers are problem solvers and use design elements to solve the human-centered issues of our busy world. Color theory discusses the reasons we have “positive aesthetic response” to certain colors and their combinations, as well as how color can create contrast, value and generally help us to see objects clearly. Color can be used to call attention to an object from its background. Color can be used to organize the visual reading of a space. Color can be used to help people perceive the space better.
Color psychology may not be a recognized field, but color affects our psyche. It barrages more than one sense at a time. It leads to a change in the electrical resistance of the skin as measured by the galvanometer. It’s integral to both materials and atmosphere and therefore, haptic in its nature.
While the trend may be to surround ourselves with shades of whites, even the color white brings with it a haptic response. In these tones, we seem to be seeking a purer and simpler world, a neutral backdrop to our busy lives. But let’s not forget to add some true color- bold enough to engage our haptic sense. Through lighting, color and atmosphere, let’s help people find their happy place.
Nancy Bounds is a Certified Healthcare Interior Design and senior designer with NB Interiors specializing in Integrative Interior Design. Nancy holds a Master of Science in Healthcare Interior Design, with a specialty in Wayfinding. She serves on the board of the American Academy of Healthcare Interior Designers.