CRTKL_Los Angeles Office_02-web_0
CRTKL_Los Angeles Office_02-web_0
CRTKL_Los Angeles Office_02-web_0
CRTKL_Los Angeles Office_02-web_0
CRTKL_Los Angeles Office_02-web_0

Color Association and Its Role in the Return to the Office

Feb. 17, 2022
As employees return to the office, designers must consider how emotional responses to color will influence the way we work and interact with our peers.

Our brain has created associations between colors, objects and emotions for thousands of years. The more we understand these associations, the better we can cater to the needs of those in our day-to-day lives.  

In the workplace, our feelings and responses to the surrounding environment are a powerful tool that can support branding and design efforts. And as the return to the office continues to be a topic of conversation well into 2022, as designers, we must consider how our emotional responses to color will influence the way we work and interact with our peers. 

Understanding Color Associations 

According to 99designs, color associations stem from psychological effects, biological conditioning and cultural developments. Some color associations are deeply rooted in our brains because they’re visible all around us. We often equate white to snow, blue to water and green to grass, for example, because it is what we’re familiar with.

On the other hand, some colors have developed cultural meaning over time, and their significance has been adopted by society. There is more to color trends than color itself, and the associations explain why we prefer one over another and why a particular tone works well in one space. 

Reimagining the Space 

As we approach two years of a global pandemic, we’ve had time to reflect upon the evolving needs of the hybrid and fully remote worker. Because our desires have changed so drastically, designers need to think about what this new work environment will look like and how the colors, furnishings, amenities, physical objects and even views from our windows will trigger specific responses amongst its employees.  

Besides productivity, one of our challenges is how to maximize the dopamine effect, and to do that, we must consider some of the following questions. How do we use colors as a vehicle to improve our mood and satisfaction? Without being so literal about color, how do we paint a space to evoke a synonymous response with the brand’s messaging and goals?  

We often hear about color psychology and how specific hues and tones are used to elicit emotions. This tactic has been used in marketing for years, some of them are universal, and some are culturally driven. But there isn’t a definitive answer that will be the solution to productivity because it is a unique experience that is shared amongst cultural groups or organizations.  

The way our brain associates an object with a hue is much stronger than the association of a flat color on a wall. And ultimately, associations can explain why blue makes some of us feel calm, for instance. It’s because our brain perceives it as the sky and why the same blue color makes us feel cold in the winter. The answer isn’t so straightforward.  

[Related: New Resource Identifies Emerging Color Trends Shaping Our World]

When we start to design spaces, we begin to understand who our client is, what messaging they wish to convey and their physical environment. Some color palettes are universal, and we all recognize them. What makes them so unique and special is that there’s an extra layer of cultural, geological and specific goals that can also influence your choice of color. 

With regard to the branding of spaces, this opens up to a larger conversation on color theory and the science of happiness. Branding used to be about logos, signage and specific colors that are used company-wide, but this is changing. We’re focusing heavily on experiences and what people feel as they make their way into the office.  

What are shared community spaces going to make people feel like? Expressing a company’s brand is going from the very tangible way of slapping a logo or color onto the walls to creating experiential touchpoints.  

Companies are putting their staff first, and experiential design is the physical manifestation of it. Colors are taking a backseat, and organizations are placing a focus on spaces that foster collaboration and engagement.  

Color While Remote Working 

As we go back to the workplace, do our associations with color in the office follow us home? For some, the workplace is no longer the traditional office, but instead, it’s our living area. And typically, our living quarters are vastly different from the spaces we were once accustomed to because we try to disassociate from work. Thus, our remote offices might be paired with colors that spark joy within us and make us feel calm. On the other hand, organizations that go back to the office will pull in colors that make its workforce feel good at home and colors that resemble the work-from-home structure.   

While Pantone’s Color of the Year will continue for years to come, it is not a one-size-fits-all indicator of what should or shouldn’t be present within a space. Evidently, color associations take precedence over the physical colors we see on our walls and in branding. As the workplace continues to evolve, organizations will move their shift to focus on the individual employee experience and how color plays a role in their health and wellness within a space. 

About the author: Irene Lok, LEED AP, is a senior associate at CallisonRTKL. ​​Bringing 15 years of experience, Irene is highly skilled in the area of interior design. She has lent her expertise to projects in a number of areas, including mixed use commercial interior, travel retail, department store and education. She holds a bachelor of fine art in Interior Design from California State University Long Beach, and a Master of Science in Architecture from NewSchool of Architecture & Design, focused on neuroscience research and evidence-based design. Irene has also taught Design Fundamentals and Color Theory courses at Cal State Long Beach and Interior Design Foundation at Los Angeles Institute of Architecture and Design (LAIAD). 

Read next: Color Theory Helps Explain Our Relationship to Nature and Wellbeing 

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