Ask any interior designer and they’ll tell you that colors absolutely affect how you feel. Artists will agree with that sentiment as well.
And this isn’t just lip service – experts in fields that range from psychology and sociology to neuroscience and marketing agree that colors have a very real and tangible effect on how people act and feel.
In fact, color is a powerful means of communication. It can be used to influence someone’s mood, affect their physiological functioning, and even impact productivity and on-the-job performance.
Specific to the workplace, how do colors and their placement affect the human element? Here’s what we know.
The History of Color Theory
Famed scientist Sir Isaac Newton is credited with developing the color wheel in 1666. As such, he is considered the father of color theory.
What’s important about Newton’s color wheel is that it organizes colors based on how humans perceive them, rather than organizing them based on scientific features like wavelengths of light. Thus, his understanding of our perceptions of color led to the development of three clearly defined color groups:
- Primary colors, which include red, blue and yellow
- Secondary colors, which are created by mixing primary colors together (i.e., red and blue make violet, red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green)
- Tertiary colors, which are created by mixing primary and secondary colors (i.e., blue-green, red-orange, red-violet).
Newton’s classification system helped usher in the development of more advanced studies of color which aided in our understanding of how people perceive colors and the properties of colors that affect those perceptions.
For example, color has since been defined as having three characteristics:
- Hue, which is what it looks like or the color family (i.e., red) and is linked to the color’s wavelength
- Saturation, also known as chroma, which quantifies the purity of the color (i.e., how vibrant or dull the color is)
- Brightness, also known as luminance or value, which describes the shade (how dark a color is) or tint (how light a color is)
What’s more, there are different color classifications. For example, there are warm colors (i.e., from yellow to red) and cool colors (i.e., from violet to blue). There are also classifications based on the colors’ relationship on the color wheel:
- Complementary colors exist opposite one another on the color wheel (i.e., red and green, blue and orange) and enhance one another when presented together. Typically, one color will be dominant while the other color will be used as an accent.
- Split complementary colors include three colors, including the two colors on either side of one of the complementary colors. For example, rather than using red and green, you would use red, blue-green, and yellow-green. Again, one color is usually dominant with the other two serving as accents.
- Triadic colors exist an equal distance apart on the color wheel and form a triangle (i.e., blue, yellow, and red). One color is used as the main color while the other two serve as accents.
- Quadratic or tetradic colors include two sets of complementary colors, like blue and orange, and yellow and green. Typically, these colors are presented in fairly equal amounts.
- Analogous colors include three colors that are next to one another on the color wheel, like blue-green, blue, and blue-violet. Usually one of the three colors is dominant.
So, why is it important for us to understand these properties and characteristics of colors for the workplace?
The Power of Color: The Science
Color is a powerful influence on the human mind. The reasons for this are believed to vary but are somewhat universally thought by the experts to involve deeply woven bits of survival information instilled by nature and evolution, one’s own cultural and personal experiences, and even matters of the brain’s interpretation methods for sorting incoming data such as that provided by color observation.
In other words, there are many reasons why color is believed to be of such significance to the human psyche.
As for the workplace, organizations aware of these principles often take advantage of their potential benefits. Utilizing a color known for its exciting effects, for example, might be utilized in a work atmosphere in which speed and intensity are important.
In other words, we can use the qualities of our visual perception system and what we know about frequencies of light and color classifications to enhance and direct the workplace. After all, when we choose what clothing to wear, we often do so based on color. When we paint our homes, we do so with our perception of color in mind. Heck, when we drive down the road, our movements are guided by color – to maintain our lane of travel, to warn us of dangers ahead, and to tell us when to stop and go at an intersection.
This being the case, it only makes sense that color can help make a workplace more organized and efficient.
For more specifics on individual colors and their effects, the following are some common examples.
Sample Colors and Their Power in the Workplace
With a better understanding of how colors are classified and the characteristics of color, we can go about exploring the features and benefits of using certain colors in the workplace.
Before we do, though, a word of caution – painting an office or other workplace a certain color doesn’t guarantee certain benefits. Color isn’t used in a vacuum. Instead, how we perceive color and its potential impact on our feelings, mood, productivity, and so forth, is the result of color’s interaction with other elements of the workspace.
For example, the color temperature of the lighting in a room can influence how we perceive the color of the walls. Likewise, the pattern of colors, their transparency, and sheen affect how colors are perceived.
Likewise, the design of the workplace has much to do with how color psychology can be used. For example, painting the employee break room in a manufacturing plant a calming and soothing color likely won’t help elicit calm if the furniture is uncomfortable or if the room is subject to excessive noise from the manufacturing floor.
Therefore, if we want to use color to influence the workplace, it needs to be a collaborative effort with architects, interior designers, ergonomics psychologists, and other stakeholders to ensure the spaces being designed can achieve their desired function.
According to Forbes, blue is believed to be the most widely accepted and satisfying color to the widest audience.
Blue is considered one of the most calming colors and is widely revered for its symbolism of steadiness, trustworthiness, calm, and coolness. These very trait symbols are believed to be responsible for this color’s wide use in popular culture with regard to baby boys.
In the workplace, however, this psychological emission can be quite valuable and is often used in places such as high-stress call centers, organizations built around cooling or cold products, and doctors’ offices.
But, somewhat counterintuitively, some blue colors can actually make people feel less sleepy and more energized.
Blue colors in the 17,000k color temperature range suppress melatonin production in the human body. Melatonin is important in regulating our circadian rhythm, which controls when we sleep and when we’re awake.
A good example of this is your smartphone. With the ability to shift the color of the screen away from blue towards a redder light, you eliminate the feature of blue that keeps you awake. But used in a workplace setting, that same 17,000k temperature of blue can help keep employees awake and energized throughout the day.
Green is somewhat similar to blue in many of its recorded psychological effects.
Green is a color of agreement and is believed to be among the least stressful to the eyes and brain when viewed. For these reasons, green is also used in many of the same places that blue might be, and also in conjunction with blue quite often.
Examples of green’s use in the workplace often include call centers, meeting rooms, child centers, and educational facilities. Likewise, hospital rooms are often painted green because of its ease on the eyes – it helps reduce eye strain for medical staff who work long hours.
Additionally, green is said to facilitate a greater level of alertness, which is precisely what you want for medical workers. But it isn’t just hospitals that are turning to green for interior workspaces. As awareness of the environmental problems we face in the short-term and long-term, green’s association with the environment has made it a prime choice for workplaces that are related to nature and the environment.
Aside from the widely-held view by experts that yellow is the most visible color, it also has become very well known for its psychological likening to joy, cheer, and energy. If you want to help create a work environment that’s fun, vibrant, and fuels innovation, yellow is your color.
Of course, yellow is often used in matters of drama, caution, and attention – a yellow light at an intersection signals caution and school busses are painted yellow to enhance visibility.
Because of this range of output, yellow has historically been utilized in workplaces for an equally noteworthy range of purposes. “Safety Yellow” is a standard and even a legal obligation in many work environments. It’s also required for many types of work-related gear, tools, and clothing.
On the other side of its many purposes, yellow can be seen acting as a greeter as well as a secondary color or accompanying complement to other color schemes and messages at work. McDonald’s, for example, uses yellow as a secondary color to red. The combination of red and yellow is associated with making people hungry – a good choice of colors for a restaurant chain.
The color red has an almost infamous backstory of being used for representations of daring, excitement, danger, heat, and even anger. In nature, it’s found accompanying fire, poisons, potent resonances and messages, and blood.
As such, red is typically used more caringly and selectively in the workplace. Effective modes of placement here are those where excitement is desired and attention to detail and analytical thinking are not.
Gaming and entertainment arenas, the sports car industry, carnivals, and fair games are likely among some of the most recognizable utilizations of this color scheme to most.
One thing to note about the color red is that it helps improve blood flow. Studies have shown that when in an environment in which red is the main color, people’s heart rate will increase and blood flow will increase as well. And, as noted earlier, red is associated with hunger. So, as noted above, red is often used sparingly in the workplace.
Brown usually evokes a sense of strength, warmth, reliability, and comfort. Since it reflects many colors found in nature, it’s found to be calming and down-to-earth as well as secure and safe.
Brown is also associated with professionalism, which is why you often see shades of brown in office settings. And since it’s a rich, muted color, brown is a nice complement to more vibrant colors like red.
In the workplace, shades of brown might be used to portray an air of professionalism. Waiting areas and reception areas, for example, might be painted a light brown or beige to give customers a sense that the business they’re entering is steadfast and strong.
White is a cool color that often gets criticized for being too sterile and clinical. When used in large quantities, white can actually reduce employee productivity. The thought is that since white can be so clinical, employees that are surrounded by white tend to get off task and daydream about things other than work. White can even make employees more prone to making errors on the job.
However, its clean nature can be useful in a workplace setting when used in small quantities. For example, rather than using white as the main color in an office, it can be used as an accent color to help tamp down the impact of brighter colors. White can also be used to help reflect natural or artificial light to make a workspace feel brighter.
Color Theory in the Workplace
From evolutionary reasons to current cultural influences and personal experiences, the ways in which colors manifest and affect the human psyche are definite. In the workplace specifically, “color psychology” as it is often called, can be used with great results for the employee and the intended customer alike.
Though color theory has been a work in progress for hundreds of years, its application in workplace settings is still evolving. The likelihood is that it will continue to evolve as we develop further understandings of how color influences the ways we think, act, and feel.
For those interested in learning more about the subject of color psychology, the fields of industrial-organizational psychology, psychology, and neuroscience, as well as their affiliated associations, are those with which additional inquiry could be helpful.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated September 2021
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