Udo Schliemann, principal creative director at Entro, has the scoop on why more color — expertly deployed — can improve your workplace.
Last year, a news story was released about the discovery of the world’s ugliest color, Pantone 448C, which was used by the Australian government on tobacco packaging to discourage smoking. This, and many other strategies are the result of the increasing amount of insight in recent years on color theory, which surrounds the meanings, effects, and use of color.
One of the primary items in the designer’s toolkit, the discussion around color is one that is always evolving. As we’ve entered this era of heightened focus on workplace design, color is now also a major consideration of psychologists and major businesses and organizations. It is a key quality of our visual perception, describing different frequencies of light through our familiar classifications such as red, yellow, or green. Our observation of different colors results from a unique combination of hue, tint, tone, and shade. It is one of the many ways we understand the world around us, and we often don’t realize how it affects many of the choices, thoughts and interactions we have on any given day. We think about color when getting dressed for work, or rely on the colored traffic lights to direct us on our commute. Our memories are filled with color, and we recognize some of the biggest brands through color.
What was once merely a stylistic choice is now used as a tool to connect employees to the organizational brand, by helping them understand who they work for and why.
Our color choices in the built environment are made not only through personal preference, but also through the knowledge of the benefits that certain colors can bring. We know that certain colors can positively contribute to happiness, productivity, and even physical health in a workplace. However, we cannot rely solely on a coat of paint to reach these objectives alone — it is the combination of color, lighting, and other environmental features that can make a space the most supportive for employees. Our work involves finding the right balance between customizing the space with unique company attributes, and ensuring it is a comfortable and enjoyable place for people to work effectively.
Making color choices
There are many theories about the effects of different colors, for example, that yellow can evoke feelings of optimism, warmth, and creativity. It is key to consider, however, that there are thousands of shades of yellow, which can have varying effects on the human psyche. Not only does the shade change how the color affects the environment and its users, other variables such as sheen, pattern, and translucency also affect how the color and overall environment is perceived. Other elements also change the perception of color — it can interact with light to create different observations of a space, for example, yellow-toned lighting can create a completely different color perception than a more cool-toned light. This is one of the reasons that early collaboration between interior designers, architects, and graphic designers is beneficial.
The effect of a certain color also changes the moment another color or group of colors is added. Much attention should be paid to color combinations as they are so specific and can make or break the overall setting. Designers follow basic rules of thumb for when combining different colors in a space, as well as multiple strategies that are tailored to different uses.
One general rule is that if all colors on the spectrum are used together in a space, this can actually be too predictable, becoming uninteresting for observers. In choosing a family of colors, it is more effective to eliminate one to two colors. Another approach is to choose complementary colors. This is beneficial for spaces like hospitals where we commonly see the color green in patient rooms. Green is said to reduce eye fatigue, important for doctors and nurses working in situations where being alert is more than necessary. As a complementary color to red, it also provides a visual break from medical equipment and blood.
Accessibility is another important social consideration for color combinations, as it is often mandatory in office spaces and the best way to accommodate as many needs as possible. This is especially pertinent in wayfinding and signage, where high color contrasts must be chosen carefully to ensure the maximum amount of visibility for users, especially those that have impaired vision. Other conditions may require special attention to the use of color as well. For example, those with Alzheimer’s or dementia may not be able to interpret a sudden color contrast, causing them to misunderstand their surroundings and trip or falter in another way.
For other purposes, another approach is to stay within one segment of the color wheel. This can create an environment with a certain character and can also help to designate “zones”. This approach was used during our work for the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, a legacy building of the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. A somewhat unconventional workplace, the centre is now home to staff from the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, University of Toronto Scarborough Athletics & Recreation, and City of Toronto Parks & Recreation while it continues to provide sports programming.
We were tasked with creating a graphics program that lasted beyond the games, bringing life to a traditionally sterile environment and tying these distinct organizations together through the shared love of sport. For areas near the aquatics section of the building, along with varying hues of blue, we used an abstract graphic form, influenced by waveforms interacting with light and shadow for large-scale wall treatments and as a key element on signage. Not only do users of the building feel the energy associated with the graphic representation, they are also in an environment that promotes a sense of calm and focus — favorable for both employees and athletes.
Creating a sense of connection
People are wired differently and our experiences, abilities and associations affect the way we perceive visual stimuli. Not only do we perceive colors differently from each other, we also use colors in multiple ways across cultures. For example, in a city as diverse as Toronto, many people come from cultures that use richer colors more liberally in everyday applications. A space that is exemplary of this diversity is Daniels Spectrum, a community hub that serves as both a performance space and working space for multiple arts organizations, situated in the recently redeveloped area of Regent Park.
For our work on the exterior façade and internal environment, we considered this notion and brainstormed how we could celebrate this sense of diversity and provide a welcoming atmosphere for all. We used a unique algorithm to distill the flags of the countries of where residents and community members had originated from, into simplified colored bands. These bands served to ignite a welcoming feeling and the familiarity of home, while also speaking to the vibrancy of the community and the arts centre.
Reflecting the brand essence
Colors also have the powerful ability to connect people to an organizational brand or vision through ideas, feelings, and associations. Many companies and organizations will collectively spend billions in ensuring that this is achieved with the public, but often forget to look inward and nurture the brand ambassadorship of their employees, using the built environment as a tool. A branded environment is a physical space that visually reflects the essence of the organization or company through features such as experiential graphic design. Reflecting the brand can be a great opportunity to find what is unique and engaging about the work you do, and there are ways to incorporate this through patterns, textiles, and — importantly — color.
An obvious strategy may be to use the primary brand colors or even just one color, but this conservative approach can be too simple, and fail to provide meaning for employees. Many leading companies are developing sophisticated palettes and understanding that it is not just one color, but the combination of colors that makes a unique environment. Every company should have brand guidelines that include a set of primary and secondary colors, finding a unique combination that further distinguishes the brand and evokes the intended emotional associations from employees. If you can achieve this while also being ahead of the curve of color trends, this will keep the environment fresh and differentiated.
For Sobeys, we used color in a number of ways, always ensuring we reflected the brand and their corporate commitment to better, fresher food. Using hues inspired by this corporate vision, we used different colors to inform people where they were in the space, by giving each floor its own unique color, and also utilizing a color gradation to signal the north (lighter shade) and south (darker shade) of the building. We also brought the essence of this idea into the space by using abstract representations of fruits in two ways. First we used a close-cropped form of fruits and vegetables — from a distance the observer just sees color, but coming closer they recognize what is being displayed. The second way was to use white outlined drawings of the fruits and vegetables with a boldly colored background that reflected the richness and vibrancy of the grocery produce. This technique generates interest and excitement from passersby and connects them to the brand in an intuitive, emotional, and subtle way.
Color is deeply ingrained in our lives, and affects our experience of the world greatly. What was once merely a stylistic choice is now used as a tool to connect employees to the organizational brand, by helping them understand who they work for and why. Color can also improve one’s experience at work, positively affecting their concentration, stress levels, and mood. To achieve these objectives, it is important to understand how different colors interact with each other and also with other elements such as lighting, textiles and patterns. For these reasons, we should be sensitive to all aspects of color, using it to positively affect the workplace and its everyday users.