The Psychology of Color

How your palette influences workspace design

by Haworth, Inc.

As organizations realize that their greatest asset is people, they respond with human-centered space design focused on employee needs. One facet of the design process is integrating color into a space to make an emotive connection. But each person’s emotional response varies by culture and experience.

To better understand color psychology, Spark interviewed Sally Augustin, PhD, principal at Design With Science and environmental/design psychologist. Her vast experience and expertise includes science-based insights that drive recommendations for the design of places, objects, and services to support cognitive, emotional, and physical experiences.

“All your various sensory, space, and user experiences influence your emotional state. I’m interested in moving people to a positive mood and ensuring they stay there. When we’re positive, we think more broadly—and that means we’re better at problem solving, apt to think more creatively, and get along better with others.”

–Sally Augustin, PhD

Universal Color Preferences
Although color preferences aren’t always universal, Sally has noticed some patterns that span international boundaries.

“It’s interesting, you ask people worldwide what their favorite color is, and most people prefer blue,” says Augustin. “We don’t know exactly why yet, but we think it’s because when our sensory apparatus was developing eons ago and we saw the color blue, it usually had positive associations for us. For example, blue is the color of the sky on a clear day. It’s also the color of a watering hole seen from a distance. These links feel really good and may be why we generally prefer blue as a species.”

The second favorite color universally after blue is green. But is there a color most people dislike? Augustin notes the least favorite color worldwide is yellow, as well as yellow-green. So, if you mixed yellow and green, then mixed some more yellow into it, you’d have the world’s least favorite color.

Designing Workspaces with Color Psychology in Mind
Augustin’s knowledge can influence how to incorporate color psychology into workspace design for the office environment. For example, the two best colors to consider are blue and green, and you want to avoid yellows, with one exception. “For some reason in our society we tend to feel really good about having yellow kitchens. In a workplace, the one area you could incorporate yellow is a breakroom or kitchen,” says Augustin.

In addition to the colors you use, it’s also important to consider saturation and brightness. “We’re generally put in the right sort of mood for knowledge work when we’re in a space where the surfaces are specified in less saturated but relatively bright colors. A color that’s not very saturated may seem like it’s got an almost grayish tint to it,” says Augustin. Consider the comparison between two greens: Sage green is less saturated while Kelly green is more saturated.

Brightness indicates how light or dark a color is. So, combining white with sage green will make it lighter and brighter. Augustin notes for focus, meeting, and brainstorming spaces, colors like sage green work well.

“There’s been research done with specific colors. For example, seeing varying shades of green has been linked to more creative thinking. If you have a room where people will be brainstorming it would be great to feature shades of green there,” says Augustin.

Conversely, for spaces meant to energize, consider colors that have greater saturation and less brightness, like pumpkin orange or Kelly green. “Seeing red, even very briefly, has been found to degrade our analytical performance—it’s generally a difficult color to use in a workplace. Red does give us bursts of strength each time we look at it. It would be a good color for a corporate fitness center,” says Augustin.

Cultural Differences and Global Design
When designing for US locations, we tend to inherently know which colors work. But what happens when you’re working on projects abroad? It’s important to consider the local culture. Augustin cautions, “Different cultures have different associations with color. In the US, we think of green as nature and goodness, so shades of green in a company cafeteria would be a positive choice. But in some Asian countries green is linked to disease and rot.”

Let’s consider an example that spans cultures. When Augustin was working for the FAA one summer while in grad school she learned that lots of people on airplanes are afraid to fly. “If you Google the statistics, you see numbers between 20-25% indicating how many people on the plane are actually scared to be there,” Augustin says. “Years ago, an airline held a promotion where each gate agent wore a white carnation. For flights leaving the US, that went over fine because here we associate white with purity, goodness, and cleanliness. However, in Asia, white is the color of mourning. In the same way we associate black with funerals, they correlate white with death. So, you had all these gate agents in Asia wearing white carnations, reminding people—who are already anxious about getting on a plane—of death.”

An important step in any global design project is to talk to someone who lives in the area and find out what the local associations are with specific colors. “Another thing to consider when designing across cultures is whether colors are linked with political parties and avoid inadvertently using colors of controversy in a space that you want to be neutral,” advises Augustin.

Colors are everywhere—from the chairs in which we sit to the walls that create boundaries—and being mindful of color choices in workspace design can have a profound impact on employees. Brightness and saturation have different effects and serve different design purposes. Although there are some universal likes and dislikes, color meanings vary based on culture, and it’s important to consider these differences.

Learn more about space design and the effect on people in our article, “Affordance Impacts on Human Performance.”