Since ancient times, people have believed that color has profound effects on the mind and body. The Egyptians, for example, thought that certain colors could be used to treat health problems. They painted therapy rooms orange to lessen fatigue, purple to improve the skin, and blue to relieve pain. Color was also used to treat ailments in Ayurveda, an ancient system of medicine developed in India, and traditional Chinese medicine.
Although people have believed in the power of color for thousands of years, the field of color psychology itself is relatively new. Psychologists didn’t begin formally studying the effects of color on human behavior and emotions until the twentieth century. Since research began, psychologists haven’t found any evidence to support the idea that color can treat health problems. But they have discovered that color can lower blood pressure, influence mood, affect appetite, boost creativity, and more. Because color has the potential to affect mood and behavior in so many different ways, it’s a powerful design tool that all businesses should utilize.
To help you better understand the field of color psychology, we’ve put together this guide. Keep reading if you want to learn more about color psychology and how you can use it to improve the design of your commercial space.
Beginnings of Color Psychology
In 1810, German poet and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published one of the first books on color psychology. He believed colors could elicit certain emotions and talked about the meanings of different hues throughout his book Theory of Colours. He described yellow as “gladdening” and “serene” and associated blue with melancholy, for example.
When the book came out, the scientific community rejected it because it wasn’t grounded in scientific research and was mainly based on Goethe’s own opinions. But some of his insights, especially the idea that colors can affect our moods and emotions, have been validated by modern research.
One of the first psychologists to conduct scientific research in the field of color psychology, Kurt Goldstein, expanded on Goethe’s work. Goldstein was a prominent German neuropsychologist who treated patients with central nervous system disorders. In 1942, he conducted a series of experiments on five of his patients to determine whether or not certain colors could have an effect on motor function.
Goldstein had his patients look at different red and green objects and observed the effect it had on their symptoms, such as balance problems and tremors. Red seemed to increase their symptoms, while green decreased their symptoms and improved their overall motor function. Goldstein hypothesized that red impaired motor function because it was a stimulating color, and green improved it because it was a calming color. He believed viewing the color green would benefit everyone, not just his patients.
Goldstein’s hypothesis is regarded as inaccurate because it couldn’t be validated by other researchers. Still, Goldstein’s work had a profound effect on modern color psychology. It popularized the idea that colors can cause physiological responses, which is still the subject of research today.
Modern Color Psychology Research
Modern color psychology research has focused on a few main areas—physiological responses to color, color preferences, and the effects of color on human emotions and behavior.
When studying physiological responses to color, researchers measure things like blood pressure, heart rate, and electrical activity in the brain to determine whether or not a color is physiologically arousing. Colors that are arousing usually increase blood pressure, heart rate, and brain activity, while colors that are calming decrease them. Researchers such as Ali and Gerard have found that red is stimulating and blue is calming. Studies have also shown that warm colors in general are stimulating and cool colors are calming.
Researchers often determine people’s color preferences by asking them to rank a series of colors. Studies have consistently shown that blue is most people’s favorite color and red or green is their second favorite, as first observed by Eysenck in the 1940s. People also tend to prefer colors that are bright and highly saturated. People’s least favorite colors, on the other hand, tend to be dark. Brown, black, and yellowish green often come up as people’s least favorite colors.
Researchers have tried to quantify the emotional effects of color by using psychological tests like semantic differential scales to determine people’s attitudes toward color. A semantic differential scale is a type of rating scale that features two different adjectives. They’re always opposite in meaning, like the words happy and sad. There are usually five or seven intervals on the scale between the two words. Study participants are presented with the scale and asked to choose where an object—in this case, a color—belongs on it. This helps researchers gauge people’s emotional responses to color.
To observe people’s behavioral responses to color, researchers often run experiments and simulations in the lab. A study in the journal Psychology & Marketing, for example, simulated two retail stores, one with red walls and and one with blue walls. Researchers directed study participants to shop and observed what effect the different colored environments had on purchasing behavior.
Studies in this area of research have consistently found that people’s emotional and behavioral responses to color vary based on context. Take the color red, for example. Studies suggest that your date may find you more attractive if you wear a red shirt. But red causes a much more negative response in achievement contexts. A study by the University of Rochester found that participants who saw the color red right before taking a test scored lower than those who didn’t. So a big part of choosing the right color is knowing whether or not it’s appropriate for your particular space and context.
To help you choose the right colors for your commercial space, we’re going to talk about the effects that different colors have in settings such as offices and retail stores.
Effects of Color in Commercial Spaces
Blue is a calming, soothing color because it reminds us of water and the sky. People associate blue with trust and dependability, so it may help build brand confidence. Blue is also the most preferred color here in the United States and around the world, so it’s an excellent choice for most business spaces.
When used in offices, blue may foster a more creative environment. In retail spaces, blue has been shown to increase sales. In restaurants, blue is used to encourage leisurely dining and create a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere. Blue may also relax patients, particularly children, in a hospital setting. Pediatric patients prefer medium blue-green shades over all other colors when it comes to hospital design.
People view the color purple as dignified and regal, possibly because it was worn by emperors and monarchs throughout history. Because of this association, purple is an ideal color for upscale retail stores and restaurants that want to create a sense of luxury.
Purple may not be a good choice for offices, however. Studies have shown that people prefer working in offices with white or beige walls over offices with purple walls.
Red is a powerful, stimulating color. We associate it with passion, failure, and even danger because many harmful things in nature, such as fires and poisonous snakes, are red. In office environments, red walls seem to remind people of failure. A study by the University of Texas showed that people work more carefully and make fewer mistakes when working in red offices, possibly because failure is on their minds. Red also improves performance on detailed, analytical tasks.
Shoppers tend to like cool colors better than warm hues such as yellow and red, so a predominantly red color scheme may not be ideal for retail stores. One exception, though, is fast casual restaurants. Painting the walls of your restaurant a stimulating, bright shade of red can prevent customers from lingering and encourage a high table turnover rate. Red has also been shown to stimulate appetite, which could cause customers to order more food.
Bright shades of red are also a good choice for health facilities that serve seniors. Unlike children and adults, seniors seem to like red and green more than blue. Seniors also have a much harder time seeing light colors than children and adults because of changes in vision that occur with age. So older adults may respond best to vibrant shades of red or green in a healthcare setting.
In general, people think yellow is a bright, cheerful color and associate it with energy, warmth, fun, and happiness. Bright shades of yellow may be overstimulating for some people and increase anxiety, however. People also tend to prefer yellow less than other colors, especially when it has a greenish tinge.
But in general, yellow works well in business spaces such as fast casual restaurants and hospitals. Like red, vibrant shades of yellow are stimulating and may increase table turnover rate in restaurants. Pediatric patients especially like pastel and medium shades of yellow, so it’s a good color choice for health facilities too.
Green is a calming, pleasant color that conjures up images of nature. It’s mainly associated with health, growth, plants, and trees, but can also symbolize wealth. People respond positively to green and often rate it as their second favorite color.
Like blue, green has been shown to increase creativity, so it’s an excellent color choice for office walls. Green also works well in health facilities because it helps reduce stress.
The only setting that green doesn’t work quite as well in is retail environments. Shoppers view stores with green color schemes as low-end, so upscale stores and restaurants may want to go with other colors. But because of its strong associations with nature, green is still a good choice for healthy, fast casual restaurants and stores that sell environmentally friendly products.
Orange is an attention-grabbing color that’s associated with energy, happiness, fun, and playfulness. It’s also seen as cheap, which has implications in retail environments. Shoppers tend to think that stores with orange color schemes are low-end, especially when they have bright, fluorescent lighting. So if you have a high-end retail store or restaurant, you may want to steer clear of orange.
Orange can be used successfully in other settings, including children’s hospitals. Pale shades of orange are well-received by pediatric patients and can make windowless corridors and playrooms look brighter and more cheerful.
White is associated with cleanliness, peacefulness, purity, and health. Studies have shown that people prefer white over all other colors in hospitality settings and enjoy working in offices with white walls. But using too much white can make a room feel cold and clinical, especially in healthcare settings. So if you paint the walls of your space white, make sure that you incorporate lots of brightly colored paintings, accessories, and rugs to keep the room from looking cold.
People say that brown and black are their least favorite colors, but they actually respond well to them in commercial settings. A study in the journal Clothing and Textiles found that people associate both brown and black with luxury and view stores that use the colors as high-end. Black is also seen as powerful and strong, while brown is viewed as earthy, warm, reliable, and homey.
Even though black and brown have positive associations, you shouldn’t use too much of them in your design. If the walls are all brown, your room may come across as dull and boring. Too much black can make your room appear smaller, so it’s best to keep it as an accent color.
Overall, current research supports the idea that certain colors can have positive psychological effects on both your employees and customers. But you shouldn’t rely on color alone to make your business space comfortable and functional. Psychologists warn that a nice paint color won’t make up for poor design. Painting the walls a stimulating shade of red won’t hide or distract from problems like improper lighting, uncomfortable furniture, and bad acoustics. To create the most welcoming environment for your customers and employees, you have to attend to all areas of design, not just color.
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