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Colour in Public Spaces: Is well being considered number one?

I’ve spent many years studying the correct way interior designers should be choosing colours for their designs of public spaces. It may not win me the popular vote, but I do truly believe that colour is art and science. Remember, I’m not talking about your home, it’s the local hospital, healthcare centres, schools, the airport, rec centres, etc… the public spaces we all share. So here are some key things that interior designers need to remember when selecting a colour palette:

Colours should not trend driven.

As designers, we are enticed at least once a year, sometimes twice, with new collections of fabrics, wallcoverings, flooring choices, lighting, etc…not to mention ALL the paint companies “colours of the year!” It’s an endless train of new introductions to keep us specifying the latest and greatest.  The problem is last year’s colour choices no longer seem fresh and new, so we must stay on top of the most current to stay relevant.  Marketing trends are simply that- a way for companies to make money.

What designers need to think of first is whether the colour being selected supports the mood and function of a space and is the overall impact on human wellbeing considered? It should have nothing to do with marketing or making money. 

I certainly understand that those new colours make us feel fresh and are important to keep designs up to date and hip. They help drive the manufacturing economy. But the big questions I have… (and don’t necessarily have to) is this-

Are following colour trends going to be sustainable and does it support a positive psychological outcome for those using the space over the long term?

Personal taste should NOT be involved.

We all have personal tastes for colour- nothing news breaking here.  I have discovered over many decades that people generally fall into 2 colour categories- blue people or green people.  Don’t ask me why but for the most part, people either like one or the other…

I grew up in a brand new 1975 spec house.  We had orange crush counter tops in the kitchen, dark heavy brown cabinets, a celery green linoleum floor and the appliances were harvest gold. It was like autumn in your face all year round.  For the most part, my childhood was happy and I loved what my mom cooked and baked in that kitchen.  To this day, I personally feel autumn colours are quite lovely.  Would I spec them for a project because I need my Brady Bunch groove to come out? Absolutely NOT.  Colour choices should never have anything to do with personal choices!

NOT the exact 1975 kitchen I grew up in!

Support a positive psychological outcome for the user of that space.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association:

  • Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.
  • In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.
  • Mental illness affects people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures.
  • Approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.

So these stats mean we should all do what we can, not only acknowledging, but helping where we can.  As interior designers, we probably don’t have mental health training, but if our designs and colour choices support a positive psychological outcome, then it’s a help!

Are appropriate to the mood & function of the space?

This is hopefully pretty self-explanatory and basic colour design 101.  Obviously red shouldn’t be chosen as main colour for a hospital acute care unit or waiting room.  Likewise, red is not a good colour-even as an accent, where we don’t want one’s blood pressure to raise or get people revved up.  Find out first what the overall mood needs to be. Clearly and completely know what the function(s) of the space are.

Planned Parenthood, Queens NY. Stephen Yablon Architecture 2016

Next, follow these 10 steps:

  1. A designer needs to interview, survey, gather information with questionnaires from all the people that will be using the space. The end user, the client, the workers, everyone involved in the space needs to involved.
  2. Gather plans and photos if available or applicable.
  3. If the space is existing, catalog and document given colors, materials, finishes in hard surfaces- flooring, tiles, laminates, equipment, etc
  4. Graph and analyze the data.
  5. Add in LRV, function and purpose of the space, history, style, period, details, accents.
  6. Location, setting, natural surroundings is it applicable to the interior or exterior?
  7. Factor in time of day, lighting source- natural, artificial, if so what is the specifics of the lighting temperatures?
  8. Demographics? Who will be in the space? Male, female, ethnicity, cultures, age etc…?
  9. Research the appropriate colour choices based on what the desired psychological/physiological outcome is to be from all the information gathered.
  10. Start creating the palettes and now ask, is there colour harmony?

The overall emphasis of the colour choices in PUBLIC spaces is human well-being summarized:

  • Human well-being is the focus- not trends, marketing, or profits.
  • Personal tastes should have nothing to do with colour choices in public spaces.
  • Support a positive psychological outcome at all times
  • Knowing the intended mood and psychological outcome is the most important next step in colour selection.   
  • Finally go through the 10 steps and finally start looking at colours!

Sheri Peterson, IACC, Vice President- IACC-NA

Accredited Colour Consultant/Interior Designer

[email protected]