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Colour is one of the most important factors when designing building interiors. Following the AJ's conference 'Colour in Design 2006' we take a look at the latest research in the use of colour.

It is a truism that blue is a soothing colour and red is an exciting one, isn't it? Well, not exactly. Byron Mikellides, who is a professor of architectural psychology at Oxford Brookes University and has decades of experience in the field of colour, demolished some myths at the AJ's conference 'Colour in Design 2006'. Physiological studies in specially created rooms have shown conicting results, Mikellides explained. For example, subjects in a red room will show higher levels of alpha activity in the brain, indicating critical arousal, than if they are placed in a blue room. But, paradoxically, heartbeat will be higher in a blue room than in a red one, although the incidence of arrhythmia increases in a red room.

Mikellides' summary of all this research is that one should not jump to simplistic conclusions. Quizzed by one audience member about how to react when a client issues a blanket ban on red, Mikellides retorted 'tell them they are wrong'. When told you can't speak to clients like that, he gave one of those quizzical looks used by academics who don't have to deal with realities.

One architect who certainly doesn't bow to perceived wisdom is Pam Bate of Hopkins Architects, a key member of the team that designed Evelina Children's Hospital in London. Despite the fact that this is intended as a healing environment, Bate had no qualms about making the key lift shaft an eye-boggling, bright red.

'A lot is published on colour theory, ' she said. 'It shouldn't be taken too seriously. We feel that the use of red is to do with energy and hope, and getting better.'

One area where colour must not be disturbing is in designing schools for children with special educational needs, an area in which Haverstock Associates has considerable experience.

When looking for guidance, partner John Jenkins said: 'We found that there was nothing helpful - it was all contradictory.' This is partly because there is an inherent contradiction in designing for children with special needs. Whereas many children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) are so impaired that they need the triggers of high contrast and sound, for children with autism the situation is very different. 'Over-stimulation is often the difficulty, ' Jenkins said. 'They may be very susceptible to colour and want an environment with minimal stimulation.'

Problems arise when special schools group together children with all kinds of special educational needs, leading to a conicting set of requirements. Whatever the mix, white is not likely to be the solution since it would be too uninteresting for the PMLD children, and for those with autism could trigger another of their sensitivities, to do with glare. 'Light and the patterns it causes can provide stimulation in a negative sense.'

So does this mean settling for boring old magnolia?

Jenkins hopes not, but said wryly that there is a world of difference 'between off-white and magnolia'. Where colour is used, there are some important rules to remember:

don't forget the amount of material that accumulates in a school - noticeboards, artwork, etc, which can become overwhelming;

ceilings can be good places for use of colour, precisely because they won't be interrupted by other material;

colour is good for guidance, such as on a portal;

if you are using colour as a wayfinding device, don't confuse the issue by then having randomly coloured feature walls as well;

if colour is used in a directional way on oors, make sure they are not over polished. Glare can be very confusing;

maximise control of lighting with indestructible interstitial blinds (not venetian blinds that let light through) and dimmers. The extra investment is a wise way to spend the budget; and hydrotherapy pools can be therapeutic, using coloured light as part of the treatment. Get an expert to design them.

A similar set of rules was laid down by Patrick Spears of Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, who deals with another specialist group, in this case the 'elderly and confused'. He said:

avoid representational design;

avoid pattern as it can cause cognitive overload;

use high levels of illumination in circulation areas;

design garden rooms to look like external areas;

use colour and contrast to give visual clues to people, who may have lost the ability to read. Deliberately 'concealing' staff doors by making them the same colour as the walls, may obviate the need for locking them. On the other hand, the doors to residents' own rooms should be highlighted with colour and contrast;

blue is a bad colour for oors as people can fear that they are about to fall into a pool;

use colour and contrast between walls and oors and walls and doors to help with orientation; and glare is debilitating, avoid point light sources.

Much of this evidently echoes good practice in terms of designing for people with visual impairments, which most older people will suffer to some degree, but it goes beyond it, in some cases to considerations that are not intuitive.

The cultural content of colour should be understood as well. Byron Mikellides, for instance, made reference to the unusual punishment for disobedient prisoners in Texas, who are placed in pink cells that 'make them blush', something that will only work in a culture where pink is so firmly 'girly'.

Perceptions do change with fashion, so it is essential to understand changing trends while avoiding ephemeral inuences.

Mary Ward, creative director of sponsor ICI Paints, showed some of the latest thinking in colour trends, but was at pains to emphasise the difference between hype, fashion and trend, distinguished by their increasing longevity. The wise architect will only pay attention to the last of these when tackling the fascinating but complex topic of working with colour.

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