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Design Series: Colour & Wellbeing

Continuing our Design Series with a mixture of current topics and design history – staff at EWD share the research that informs their own projects and adds to the enjoyment of the world around us. We feel passionately that only by understanding our design heritage and staying informed, can we successfully design for today. We have condensed our internal reports here and hope you find them enjoyable and informative.


The environment in which people live or work can make a deep impression on their productivity and mental health. This has obvious implications for how well students learn or even how profitable a business might be. The interiors company, Saracen, did a large study of 1000 UK office workers which found that over 70% of workers said that their uninspiring office was having a negative impact on their productivity – with 30% saying this was a high impact. Also, 51% said their uninspiring office has had a negative impact on their mental well-being.

When asked what would help to increase productivity, 50% of respondents cited having more natural light as the priority. This was followed by vibrant colours (17%), open plan designs (13%), ergonomic furniture (10%), breakout areas (8%) and inspiring meeting rooms (3%).

So interestingly, the most important factors that people wanted to see included in their office design were natural light and colour. We are going to look first at colour and then move onto natural biophilic design.

The Impact of Colour

The electromagnetic spectrum including the visible light range (400-750nm)

This is the electromagnetic spectrum – all of these are waves that travel at the speed of light but have different energies. Starting on the right at the low energy waves, we have radio waves, microwaves and infra-red (which is heat). In the middle is the visible spectrum and after that we get to Ultraviolet, Xray and Gamma rays – all of which are ionizing and damaging to human health. So when we think of how different all of these waves are then it seems reasonable that the different energies of light may affect humans differently.

Each colour of light has a different energy and it seems that each can trigger different pathways in the brain or in the body’s biochemistry. So colour may then have an impact on both our thoughts and our feelings.

There have been numerous studies showing the effect of different colours on human beings. Colours have been shown to change alpha brain waves and heart EEGs. The eye links directly to the brain and the brain can cause hormones to be released which affect emotion, focus and energy levels.

As the light spectrum is a continuum (red through to blue), there is overlap in how individual colours affects us but also individuals may well respond differently, perhaps to associations of a particular colour with a good or bad event or experience. But it is useful overall to look at some of the general research into colour.

A green wall in an office can create a calm feeling

GREEN – concentration & relaxation

As long ago as 1942 Goldstein examined the effect of colour on patients and discovered important effects on Parkinson patients. While the colour red caused a deterioration in the pathological problem observed in Parkinson patients, green led to improvements.

Green is a relaxing colour, perhaps partly as it reminds us of nature. Before performances, actors wait in a ‘green room’ which is made to be a relaxing space. Our eyes are constructed such that it is easiest to focus on green light, which is in the middle of the visible spectrum and has the strongest receptors. (Normally, blue light focuses slightly in front of the retina, red light slightly behind). This may aid the calming effect of green light. It was found that on the Blackfriars bridge in London (which was black iron), when it was painted green, the suicide rate dropped by 30%.

Researchers have found that green can improve reading ability. Some students may find that laying a transparent sheet of green plastic over reading material increases reading speed and comprehension.

Green is a good colour for keeping long-term concentration and clarity, making it a pretty good choice for an office. Some studies have shown that people who work in green offices have higher rates of job satisfaction. And a study, led by Dr. Kate Lee, gave 150 university students a really boring computer task with a break in the middle. In that 40-second window half of the group viewed a green roof, while the others looked out onto a bare concrete roof. The research showed that students who looked at the green view made fewer errors and had overall better concentration and she proposed that this was due to the ‘restorative’ nature of this very short break had a revitalizing effect for those who were finding it hard to hold their concentration.

Blue can enhance creativity

BLUE – creativity & calmness

The European doctor Ponza conducted various experiments in 1875 using coloured rooms. He studied red and blue in one of these and found that an aggressive patient put in a blue room calmed down in a period of one hour. So this seems to be a shared characteristic with green.

But also, some research suggests that people with highly intellectual work, which requires a high cognitive load, for instance, programmers or academics, are more productive in a blue environment. We have probably all heard of the association of too much blue light from screens being a bad idea just before sleep as it can enhance alertness (there was one study that compared it to caffeine for this purpose!).

Between 2007 and 2008, researchers tracked more than 600 participants' performance on six cognitive tasks that required either detail-orientation or creativity. Most experiments were conducted on computers, with a screen that was red, blue or white. Red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 per cent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red colour condition. So blue appears to be a colour that promotes exploration and perhaps willingness to think more deeply and so creatively.

Red can invigorate and energise

RED and warmer colours – energy & appetite

Looking to the warmer end of the spectrum (nearer infra-red) we find a different set of effects. Red is, as you would expect, the colour of competition and aggression. Researchers found that at the 2004 Summer Olympics, for all four combat sports, players wearing red won more. The same was found for football teams when matched for ability.

Orange also can be a good colour for learning environments as some theorists argue that this increases the oxygen supply to the brain, stimulating mental activity while feeling invigorated and getting ready to ‘get things done.' However clearly care should be taken to avoid overstimulation perhaps of younger children or those with ADHD.

For our purposes, it is useful to note that it appears to be a colour that attracts people to eat. Going back to doctor Ponza that we saw earlier, he found that putting a depressed man who never wanted to eat, into a red room for a few hours, suddenly started wanting food. Often we see cafés painted in red, yellow and orange as this is thought to increase appetite. Diners appear to eat more quickly and consume more food in these colour rooms compared with a blue room where they consume three times less calories.

So colour can influence us in many ways as can a lack of colour. For example, a completely white environment leads to lack of stimulus and this, contrary to expectations, does not cause a balanced or neutral effect. Too little stimuli can lead to anxiousness, sleeplessness, excessive emotional reaction, loss of concentration and nervousness.

Having indoor plants provide a connection with nature

Natural Wellbeing & Biophilic Design

Biophilic essentially means ‘love of nature’ and it focuses on the ability of the natural world to calm, de-stress and make us feel more human. So biophilic design incorporates elements from nature, such as plants, and natural lighting, into the indoor environment. Apple, Google and Amazon are investing heavily in Biophilic Design elements as it is good for productivity and also for staff recruitment and retention.

The benefits of this are key to many aspects of wellbeing.

Physical Health

Firstly, just a brief look at natural light as this is difficult to change unless it is a new build property. But, as designers, we may be able to choose the materials and colours used in walls and ceilings that also contribute to the light levels. For example, ceiling tiles with high light reflectance can help natural light have more impact. As natural light can be hard to get hold of in the UK, especially during winter, it should be complemented by high quality electrical lighting.

By introducing plants, either in pots or in the form of living green walls, into the office environment, it is possible to improve air quality as the vegetation absorbs pollutants, toxins and airborne microbes, such as mould spores and bacteria. Plants also help to put water vapour back into the air, which inside offices is naturally dry. This is beneficial as breathing in dry air can irritate sensitive membranes in the nose and throat, making staff more susceptible to viruses and allergens as well as respiratory ailments, such as asthma.

For example, research by Norway’s Agricultural University in Oslo indicates that plants remove harmful volatile organic compounds, such as formaldehyde and benzene, found in the paint, carpet and furniture of most buildings. As a result, their presence reduces the symptoms of so-called sick building syndrome by a quarter.

Children are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, so this is obviously important when we are designing schools and boarding houses. Studies show that children in better ventilated environments perform learning tasks faster and more accurately. In schools built since 1995, new carpets, wall paint and furnishings were some of the key sources of airborne chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Formaldehyde is the most prevalent VOC, and can be particularly harmful. Formaldehyde sources in indoor environments include: furniture and wooden products containing formaldehyde-based resins such as particleboard, plywood and medium-density fibreboard; textiles; paints, wallpapers, glues; and electronic equipment, including computers and photocopiers.

So new wooden or melamine furniture purchased in the previous 12 months, or where painting or varnishing had been done in the previous 12 months have high levels of VOCs. Similarly, relatively high levels that can be measured in schools are usually considered to be linked to the high density of furniture in the classrooms (and to poor ventilation).

According to research by the US Joint Commission, 40 per cent of all sickness absence is down to indoor air pollution or poor air quality. So as well as being alert to the issues of poor ventilation, and the immediate issues with emissions from brand new furniture we should also seek to try to introduce plants into indoor environments to improve physical wellbeing.

Employers are recognising the importance of mental wellbeing

Mental Wellbeing

It is estimated that most people in the developed world spend as much as 90% of their time inside buildings and cars. But according to the mental health charity Mind, being out in green spaces or bringing nature into everyday life can help reduce feelings of stress or anger, making people feel calmer.

Philippe Pare, design director at architecture and design consultancy Gensler explains, “quite a few studies show how a proximity to nature, or even a visual image, helps foster a more positive outlook. If you ask someone to give you an image of something inspiring, nine out of ten people will show you a landscape, so there’s something innate in nature that equals happiness.” Plants in the workplace, even when it is otherwise quite a stark environment, can make the place feel more human and give a sense of belonging.


Studies show that plants increase focus and attention. A year-long study at The Royal College of Agriculture in Cirencester, England, found that students demonstrate 70% greater attentiveness when they’re taught in rooms containing plants. In the same study, attendance was also higher for lectures given in classrooms with plants.

Research shows that school children who spend time around plants learn better. Ornamental plants are conducive to generating a positive learning environment, reducing children’s tendency towards distraction and helping them to be better able concentrate on their school work. Specifically, for children with problems paying attention, adding plants to the classroom can have a dramatically positive effect on the way they learn. For example, children with Attention Deficit Disorder, learning in a natural environment can help them to engage more in the classroom, improving their focus and concentration on the task at hand. The soothing effects of natural aesthetic beauty help to minimise the distractions that would otherwise occupy their minds.

In the workplace too, psychologists have found that, as well as oxygenating the air, bringing some flora into the workplace can improve employee satisfaction and can increase productivity by up to 15%.

Research by Helen Fox, Practice Manager.



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