True Colours

We explore how colour can transform your mood, mindset and your productivity, with reference to a couple of our newest (and brightest) work spaces

Blue Monday. Black Friday. Red hot. Green credentials. How many of us describe and perceive the world is coloured, literally, by tone, hue and saturation.

From learning the names of colours as children, to discovering their symbolism for emotions, seasons, fashions and brands, instead of being something that slips into the background, colour is central to our experience.

It has a strong connection to how we feel and we often have opinions about different shades and how they’re used, making colour choices a source of debate. Pantone’s often contentious ‘Colour of the Year’, for example, made the news with this year’s choice of two tones. Their selection of Ultimate Gray and a yellow called Illuminating – a combination they state is ‘a marriage of colour conveying a message of strength and hopefulness that is both enduring and uplifting’ – was described by US Vogue magazine as simply ‘really weird’.

Whatever you make of it, research shows that colour does have a non-visual impact on us; think about the blue light of a smartphone and how alert it makes you feel on a sleepless night, or the much-cited claim that red makes a person’s heart beat faster. The physiological changes, although sometimes quite small, are well documented.

But Stephen Westland, Professor of Colour Science and Technology at the University of Leeds and Chair of Colour Science and Technology at the university’s School of Design, highlights that colour also has a – sometimes contradictory – psychological effect.

Johannes Carlström, co-founder of NOTE design studio

Physiologically, research shows blue light has an alerting effect because our brains interpret it as daylight but psychologically blue is also demonstrably calming. ‘We almost certainly associate blue with the sky and the sea, which invoke pleasant and calming memories,’ he explains. ‘In practice, it depends on the context. If you shine a bright blue light in someone’s face at 10pm the light is likely to have an alerting effect. But if you’re in bed with a bedside lamp and the walls of the room are blue, the intensity of this blue light is highly unlikely to generate an alerting effect.’

Netflix and Channel 4 have made a small fortune out of exploring the importance of context in countless home improvement programmes, but now many of us are working from home, perhaps we’re considering for the first time the impact of colour in a work space. It’s an area that architect and designer Johannes Carlström, co-founder of Note design studio, based in Stockholm, believes has been criminally overlooked in many instances.

‘I have seen too many offices with just white walls, carpets, white desks, black chairs, black screens, and office light which illuminates everything and has no shadows, no gradients, nothing,’ he says. He considers that only taking into account the physiological effects of colour is to forget that we are human. ‘The rationale is about productivity – people need somewhere to sit, a place for their papers or their computer, and they need light so they don’t get too tired during the day. But this isn’t an environment that can trigger different emotions, get you energised or give you some peace of mind.’

In other words, the psychological impact of different colours are as important to consider in the design of any space – and work space in particular. ‘Red raises your pulse – yes, if you look at it in a lab,’ Carlström says. ‘But imagine yourself in an old English castle’s library with deep red walls and a warm cup of tea – that might feel super-relaxed. It’s all about context.’

Context is key, agrees Claire McPoland, senior interior designer at The Office Group, who’s worked closely with Carlström and his team on several TOG buildings. She points to the mindfulness lounge at United House, in Notting Hill, as an example of the importance of colour being used for a purpose, with its deep green carpet, walls and ceilings. This is in contrast to one of the break-out rooms at White Collar Factory, in Old Street, where every surface is a bold orange. ‘They’re both really immersive spaces,’ she says, ‘but the mindfulness lounge uses colour in a calming way, and the White Collar Factory break-out room is incredibly invigorating.’

‘We need different spaces for the different kinds of tasks we do during a work day,’ Carlström explains. ‘We need places that are calm, where the light isn’t too bright and it’s a little darker, where you can get your pulse down and think, as well as places that are high tempo and energetic.’

McPoland also finds that context can help bring inspiration. ‘Every building I’ve worked on has a story linked to its design. The architecture affects the light levels of the space, and that helps determine the colour palette.’ Liberty House, for example, which takes its cues from Liberty’s department store and their use of pattern ‘meant we could use colour quite playfully – there are big arches that link spaces which we’ve painted dark green and terracotta. The colours really accentuate the openings between the lounge areas and create warm, inviting communal spaces, which we think are essential.’

Lisa Pilley, Colour Consultant for Dulux Trade

This is what Lisa Pilley, Colour Consultant for Dulux Trade describes as ‘an occupant-centred focus’, something she believes will be increasingly important as people return from working at home to using work spaces. ‘Colour can be used instead of signage to signal areas where you might be required to keep your distance, or where it’s safe to congregate,’ she explains. ‘Through association, colour can be a subtle nudge for us to change our habits.’

But in many ways, making choices about what we do in a space because of its colour, is an alchemy already at work. ‘That’s the beauty of big work spaces like TOG’s – there are so many different environments you can choose to work in, and when we map them we often find that certain people find one particular space and return to it regularly,’ says McPoland. ‘Something about that setting and how it makes them feel keeps them coming back.’

When colour is so personal and has so much power to shape how you feel, it’s clear that it’s too foundational to good design to ignore. ‘Colour really is one of the strongest materials we work with,’ says Carlström. ‘It’s always the biggest part of any work we do, because it has so much power to set the tone.’

Of course there will always be trends to consider, but it seems there are no ‘rights and wrongs’ of when to use red or green, or when a pastel is better than something bold. It’s not so much which colours you choose as how you use them and why, that really matters.

Johanna Derry Hall is a food, travel and design journalist who writes for the Evening Standard, the Telegraph and Mr Porter, among other titles