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Colour : Can it be a step to positivity?

Eimear Ennis, Associate Director at NODA Architects investigates the importance of colour in our lives, how it can affect our mood and how we can reduce stress through use of colour in the design of spaces. 

It seems uncanny that 23 years ago I was intrigued about colour psychology so much so that I completed my final year thesis on it. This stemmed from when I was a trainee architect in Liverpool. The city was vibrant, and the bar/club scene was booming. With this came pulsating colours saturated oranges, lime greens in the interiors - it was electric and the place to be. What interested me then, was to know if it was just pure coincidence that these colours were picked and did they enhance the experience in the space more? Now, considering our current situation with Covid I am back thinking about colour psychology again and the positive effects colour can bring to the built environment.

Colour is so important in design, if creates a feeling an emotion. Knowing how the majority of people will react to a colour is very important in setting a scene, or branding an object. One downside is that colour is also in the eye of the beholder, and more significant it has cultural context so it can be quite subjective.

When designing a space, we are quite governed by trends. For 2020, it was all about optimism, the start of a new decade losing the dark hues and branching into saturated tones of greens and natural tans with cobalt blues. To understand these colour choices we need to know the terminology and what does it mean?

The science:

Colour or hues can be warm or cold. We know the primary colours are red, yellow and blue. With red and yellow being warm colours, that of the sun, and blue being cooler. Any secondary or tertiary colour made between two warm colours will maintain a warm hue. Cool colour blue, represented by water, can still be relaxing as it relates to nature.

In creating secondary colours from blue it therefore is a mix between a warm hue that of yellow or red and the cool blue. The greater percentage of those warm hues in the colour will made the overall experience of that colour feel warmer.


                                                                 Cool Blue more blue less red                                  Warm Blue more green less blue  

Cool Blue more blue less red.jpg
Warm Blue more green less blue.jpg
Colour wheel


Saturation is the term used to describe the intensity of the hue or colour. The scale goes from the bright hue which is vivid to a more washed out grey hue. So for instance below we can see red and blue as it becomes less saturated to its greyscale. These scales are common to us now in the age of technology where selecting colours in photoshop is based on a saturated hue tab.

There are some studies that have reviewed colours and established the emotions that are evoked on viewing them. Again there is clarification needed. The perception of a colour in a room is on initial impact and with everything the eye gets used to it, so what may seem very dark at first within a few minutes the eye becomes accustomed to it.  So in terms of choosing colours in ephemeral spaces such as restaurants, bars or branding it is the first impression that counts.

These are some of the interpretations of emotions from colour and what they been concluded, positives and negatives:

Red: Exciting, Love, Passion, Anger

Orange: Friendly. Creativity, Health, Vitality

Yellow: Optimism, Happiness, Cheer, Deceit, Hope, Intense

Green: Peaceful, New Beginnings, Growth, Balance, Good Luck, Relax

Blue: Calm, Peaceful, Spiritual, Stability

Purple: Power, Wealth, Luxury, Wisdom

Pink: Feminine, Calming, Compassion

Black: Elegance, Power, Fear, Sadness

Grey: Formality, Neutrality, Safe

Brown: Nature, wholeness, Resilient, Loneliness

From this we can see that 2020 was the year of green – new beginnings of a decade, with blue a look to more spiritual influences which all seemed very poetic. Back in 1997 in Liverpool, the club scene was embellishing a friendliness and vitality of growth in the new youth club culture with its limes and oranges. So, from this it seems that colour trends are a  reflection of the times. It is not surprising that for 2021 the colours are warm soft neutrals in blushes of pinks, they want to evoke comfort, calming uplifting colours and frankly after the last eight months I would love to be cocooned in a coral blush room.

blue saturation.jpg
red saturation.jpg
blush pink tones

Biophilic Design:

In terms of Biophilic Design, colour plays a particularly important role. We have reviewed this previously in our blog on this topic. Colours evoked by nature have the ability to calm us - blues, ground us - earth colours,  make us feel comfortable – greens. There is a wide tonal variety in these colours and ones we should look at as ways to reduce stress in the built  environment.



Designing Spaces:

In designing spaces, it is important to choose the right colour and the right amount. Too much of a bright orange for instance may seem too frivolous. We also need to consider natural lighting and artificial lighting as how colours are perceived can change under different light sources.

Offices are a mix of areas, there are open plan spaces, meeting rooms, quiet rooms, relaxation areas, coffee points and each one can be designated with colour. For instance, in open plan areas light neutrals such as blues can aid with concentration and help calm the mind. Where teams meet to discuss their work in the open plan office this could go into a darker hue and saturation as this in turn helps to focus thoughts and stimulate the brain and also puts focus on that area as being different

When high energy collaboration is required brighter colours work best, you need staff to be vibrant and have energy, so oranges to yellows, however care must be taken as yellow can also be a very oppressive colour if used too saturated.

earth colours
Calm lake view
Yellow room
Blue corridor



It is so easy to see how colour can have a good effect on those going into hospital, from all aspects, from entering as an outpatient, to visiting a sick loved one, to the operating theatres. Colour can be used to aid in making the experience less daunting. It also can act as a way finder breaking up the monotony of long corridors. We can see from the list that blues and green are very relaxing and can help to promote a better wellbeing, it would also seem that a more muted tone can also help. That is not to say that stronger hues cannot be used to highlight areas such as nurse’s stations, reception desks etc as it is easier as a map finder than reading signs. Each facility would be treated differently, a child’s ward for instance can be more vibrant, whereas research has indicated that newborn babies cry more in yellow rooms. In theaters a surgeon needs concentration and something easy to read against viewing their patient and blood, hence why gowns are green, and the walls are either blue or green.

In reading about colour in hospitals it is interesting that if too much blue or green is used in mental health facilities that it can also have the opposite effect of calming the patient but make them feel uneasy and more depressed.  When designing for patients with Alzheimer’s the contrast between floors and walls are equally important in terms of cognitive behaviour in moving around a space. So as designers it is important how significant our choices are.

Green hospital surgery room

So when you are next looking at painting a room in your house you will now know that the colour you select will have be created by paint manufacturer’s to reflect the mood of that year, be it optimism, comfort, or desire. You will know what saturation of colour means - do you want an intense colour or more muted tone.

Fundamentally what is important is that it is subjective, and we shouldn’t read too much into the psychology of colour - it is useful as noted to know what the majority of people feel and it is important when looking at zoning areas what emotions can be evoked, but there is still the personal factor, what works for one person may not be true for another.

Painting room in house.jpg
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