Color Psychology: How Nature Can Inspire Design

Photo of red flowers showing color psychology and design insprired by nature
Photo by Christine John

My small windowless office frequently made me feel as though the days would never end. Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend too much time in there. I worked on both the inpatient and outpatient units. This allowed me to spend a good amount of time walking past the large windows at the front of the hospital. The view outdoors helped to distract me from the bland beige and green walls. Normally the color green reminds me of nature, healing and feeling calm. But this particular shade of green reminded me less of nature and more of a sense of sickness. I wondered if color psychology and design could help in finding the right shade of green.

I’m guessing that most people passed by those walls every day without giving them much thought. But I couldn’t help but obsess over the fact that a hospital, a place where people go to heal, would paint the walls such a lackluster color. I wondered how different the place would look with a healthy shade of green painted on the walls. To make matters worse, indoor plants were subject to bacteria and not allowed on the inpatient units. Although there were a few random plants on individual desks, the majority of the hospital lacked any healthy green at all.

The Science Behind Color Psychology

Still to this day, I can’t help but wonder if a more cheerful green would have made a difference in the hospital setting. I decided to look into the psychology behind the color. I was hoping to find something straight forward suggesting which shade of green would be best for a hospital wall. Instead, I discovered that there hasn’t been much research on color and psychology at all. And that our perception of color is heavily based in cultural preferences and personal opinions. That being said, I was able to find some basic science behind color.

In 1810, Goethe wrote about how warm colors promote a feeling of excitement and cool colors a feeling of relaxation. More recently, studies done in 1964, proved that longer wavelength colors such as red and yellow feel arousing, and shorter wavelength colors like blue and green feel cool and relaxing. Further studies on longer wavelength colors have confirmed that the color red can lead to dominance and aggression. We also know that red is linked to better athletic performance but it can also undermine academic performance.

Photo of orange roses showing color psychology and design inspired by nature
Photo by Christine John

Individual Colors May Not Have an Affect on Human Behavior

As I researched further, I discovered a more recent study suggesting that individual colors do not have an affect on human behavior, but that the combination of colors does. This study suggests that certain color combinations create harmony whereas others do not. It also suggests that color combinations are crucial to consider when looking at color psychology. According to professor I C McManus, people often attribute an emotional response to a singe color on which they are consciously focusing, when in fact, the response is actually triggered by a color combination. In addition, since colors are open to different interpretations, it can be difficult to establish firm rules about what responses are based on one or even two colors. This may be why color psychology is considered subjective and difficult to predict.

Hue, Lightness and Saturation Also Affect Color Psychology

To make matters even more complex, the way we react to colors may depend on hue, lightness and saturation. A variation in any or all of these properties could influence affect, cognition or behavior. Lightness and saturation also have implications for psychological functioning. Looking at a bright lime green color will likely get a different response than looking at a cool mint green. Our interpretation of color also depends on where we are viewing the color. Blue on a first place ribbon will undoubtedly produce positive feelings whereas blue on a piece of meat might produce very negative feelings.

More recently, an interest in marketing and branding has led to new studies being done on color. Marketing research suggests that blue promotes feelings of trust and quality. It also suggests that blue increases alertness and improves performance on attention based tasks. These studies have also found that while a large majority of consumers prefer color patterns with similar hues, they also favor palettes with a highly contrasting color. Current market research also tells us that gender plays a role in how color and color combinations are perceived.

Photo of purple pansies showing color psychology and design inspired by nature
Photo by Christine John

How Color Combinations in Nature Can Inspire Design

After all of this research, I felt a bit confused and overwhelmed. As it turns out, there does not seem to be a simple formula for using color to alter mood. I still have no idea which shade of green would be best for a hospital wall. It appears that it would depend on each patient’s cultural background, gender and social learning. Not only that, but the color green may be fine. Perhaps it is the combination of green and beige that doesn’t feel right.

So when designing for mental health, how do we know what colors and color combinations to put in a space? I contemplated this as I stared out my office window observing several different shades of green. That’s when I realized that nature, with it’s perfect blend of color combinations, seems to have the answer. Perhaps if we spend some time outdoors noticing how a space makes us feel, we will be able to come up with the perfect color combinations for every mood.

Photo of red and white flowers showing color psychology and design inspired by nature
Photo by Christine John

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