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Positive Design – Color!

Use color to live better.

For several decades, design psychologists have been carefully investigating how the physical world influences us mentally - and they've learned a lot. People consistently find certain sensory experiences (colors, smells, sounds, textures, . . .) more pleasant. Being in a pleasant space that meets our psychological needs is just as good for our physical health as our mental health - our immune system works just a little better when we're less stressed.

Except for helping professors earn tenure, research is wasted if its not applied. This column will break design psychology out of the ivory tower and deliver it to your living room or office.

The design television networks have showed us that colors are our friends - but they don't help us understand which ones we should invite into our homes and offices. The findings of rigorous scientific studies, reported below, do that.

When you're trying to decide which color to use on the walls or surfaces in a space, it's important to consider color saturation and brightness. Hue is the wavelength of a color. It's the name we use to identify it, such as "green" or "blue." "Saturation" describes color purity- fire engine red is more saturated than maroon, for example. Brightness is, well, how bright a color is - baby blue is brighter than navy blue, for example. At the same lighting levels, more saturated colors appear brighter than less saturated ones. When choosing between two colors, remember that colors are more pleasurable and more relaxing if they are bright, but not too saturated. Many of the colors traditionally used in children's rooms (i.e., baby blue and light pink) are pleasant and relaxing. Relaxing colors are good choices not only in resting spaces, but also in places where people need to concentrate.

Environments that use several intensities of the same color - generally referred to as monochromatic spaces - can be very relaxing. Except if that monochrome is shades of white or beige. White/beige spaces make us tense, moody. Testing in healthcare environments, where many rooms, particularly in surgical suites, have white/beige walls, floors, and ceilings, has determined that this color scheme upsets patients.

Colors that are across the color wheel from each other (red and green, yellow and blue, etc.) make exciting pairs; colors nearer each other on that wheel (blue and green) are more relaxing when used together. The differences in saturation and brightness between colors also influences how energizing or relaxing combinations are, with large differences in saturation and brightness doing the most to increase energy levels. You'll want to choose accordingly.

Never use reds that are more saturated and less bright (basically the color of teachers' marking pens) in a space where people will be doing mental work. When people see red, they give up on intellectual tasks sooner than if there's no red, and don't do as well on tasks that indicate their abilities before they do give up.

Blue is the world's favorite color. No matter who you ask, anywhere on the planet, about their favorite color, the response to your query will probably be blue. Yellow and orange are not generally popular colors - although people who do like yellow REALLY enjoy it. In North America, yellow-yellow-green almost always meets with a negative response, except among designers who work with colors a lot and have developed a refined color sense.

Humans feel more comfortable when darker colors are used on lower surfaces, such as carpets and bottom sections of walls, and lighter colors are used on higher surfaces, such as ceilings. Designating one wall in a spacecraft as ground by painting it a darker color and grading lighter colors away from it keeps astronauts from feeling nauseous and from losing their sense of balance

These responses to colors are interesting, but they only go so far. There are two additional issues you should consider when selecting colors to be used in a space.

First, what associations do you, individually, have to your various color options? If a particular brilliant turquoise seems like the perfect shade to use in a space, but every time you look at that perfect turquoise you taste the noxious cough medicine you had to take regularly as a child, don't use that color. There are plenty of other ones around, and it is nearly impossible to block bad sensory memories.

The second thing to think about is cultural associations to particular hues. In North America, for example, blue is linked with men and boys and pink is associated with women and girls. Blue and pink don't have those associations in all countries, however. Some areas have political associations to particular colors - the reformists in Ukraine chose orange as their party color - and every Ukrainian knows that and selects new ties and scarves with it in mind. Some hue associations are particularly tricky to apply. In North America we associate green with healthy, natural food, but in some parts of Southeast Asia green is linked to spoiled food, instead - and the hue chosen for a dining space in each area should reflect that difference. In western societies, white generally has positive associations, while in eastern cultures, it brings death to mind. The Research Design Connections blog ( reports other culture specific color associations.

The language we are speaking influences color perceptions. Russian has totally separate words for light blue and dark blue (unlike in English where separate adjectives are used with one common base term). Russian speakers are particularly quick to spot, and sensitive to, differences in shades of blue.

You can use color just as savvy design psychologists do - apply the rules that researchers have identified to brighten your life and saturate it with positive mental and physical experiences.

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