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A colorful makeover of architecture | Paul Eis

The Perception of Color in Architecture

Color is an integral element of our world, not just in the natural environment but also in the man-made architectural environment. Color always played a role in the human evolutionary process. The environment and its colors are perceived, and the brain processes and judges what it perceives on an objective and subjective basis. Psychological influence, communication, information, and effects on the psyche are aspects of our perceptual judgment processes. Hence, the goals of color design in an architectural space are not relegated to decoration alone.

Aug 20, 2017 · 13 min read

Especially in the last eleven decades, empirical observations and scientific studies have proven that human-environment-reaction in the architectural environment is to a large percentage based on the sensory perception of color. These studies include the disciplines of psychology, architectural psychology, color psychology, neuropsychology, visual ergonomics, psychosomatics, and so forth. In short, it confirms that human response to color is total — it influences us psychologically and physiologically.

Color is a sensory perception, and as any sensory perception, it has effects that are symbolic, associative, synesthetic, and emotional. This self-evident logic has been proven by scientific investigation. Because the body and mind are one entity, neuropsychological aspects, psychosomatic effects, visual ergonomics, and color’s psychological effects are the components of color ergonomics. These being design goal considerations that demand adherence to protect human psychological and physiological well-being within their man-made environment. The color specifier/designer has the task of knowing how the reception of visual stimulation, its processing and evoked responses in conjunction with the hormonal system, produces the best possibilities for the welfare of human beings. This is of utmost importance in varied environments, such as medical and psychiatric facilities, offices, industrial and production plants, educational facilities, homes for the elderly, correctional facilities, and so forth. Each within themselves having different task and function areas.

Color has not always been so detached from architectural design. Historically, the artist’s profession encompassed all, but not exclusively: painting, sculpture, and architecture. Color was used lavishly in architecture, because of the desire to glorify gods or kings or to celebrate the marvel of the building itself. The thought-to-be bare and neutral stone temples of ancient Greece have recently been proven to have been richly painted with deep jewel — toned pigments. The cathedrals of medieval Europe were also painted, as well as the palaces and temples of China, which were filled with color symbolism.

The architect must consider the color effect of every element of a building’s construction, from the earthy colors of primary construction materials like wood, stone, brick, and marble, to the expansive variety of colors available for paint, doors, windows, siding, and trim.

Color Psychology

One of the most striking results concerning color connotations and color mood associations is its consistency cross-culturally from one individual to another and group to group. The great number of studies comparing human subjects worldwide, such as men to women, children to adults, laymen to architects, and even monkeys to humans show that color is an international visual language understood by all.

The impression of a color and the message it conveys is of utmost importance in creating the psychological mood or ambiance that supports the function of a space.

During the 1960’s the psychological and even physiological impact of color started to become a consideration. Following in Goethe’s footsteps, Faber Birren (1900–1988) was one of the first people to do extensive research on the human perception of and response to color. He wrote over 20 books and 200 articles on the topic. Today contemporaries such as Frank and Rudolf Manke and Carlton Wagner are picking up where Faber Birren had left off. This section of human color response will first cover the functions color can have in our everyday environments, then it will expand on the different levels of experience we have, and finally it will discuss the primary and secondary hues and their specific effects on people and in spaces. In his book ‘Tbe Wagner Color Response Rebort” Carlton Wagner thoroughly talks about the functions of color in our environment.

As you can see, color has many influences in our everyday lives. We have learned to respond to certain colors in certain ways. For example, red
means caution/ stop / blood, but there are also reactions that are subconscious. The book ‘Mensch, Farbe, Raum”(“Human, Color, Space”) outlines an interesting breakdown of the different levels in which we sense and experience colors:

Biological Reaction to a Color Stimulus

Biological reactions to color are solely physical in nature. Instead of the obvious optical reaction to color, it is in fact a reaction to the energy of the light waves. Tests show that even if a person is blindfolded his or her pulse will noticeably increase when exposed to the color red and decrease when exposed to blue.


This reaction to color is also not governed by the intellect. It is a reaction that originates out of our genetic imprinting. In some cases it might also be triggered by a former personal experience. For example, after an accident, a person might dislike the color red without consciously making the connection to the color of blood.

Conscious Symbolism Association

Conscious Symbolism develops through personal experiences. There are some universal associations that are surprisingly uniform from culture to culture. Blue for example is usually associated with sky and water, yellow with sun and light, and red with blood and fire.

Cultural Influence

There are also cultural influences on our experience of color. For example,
in the English language, if a person is said to be green he/ she feels sick; in
German, on the other hand, if a person is said to be green he / she is hopeful.

Trends, Style, and Fashion Influence

Almost every year there are new color trends, especially in fashion. Even though color trends are short-lived they still influence our associations. However, it is not useful for the architect to follow these color trends since they hardly ever consider psychology or visual ergonomics.

Personal Relations

Our personal relations to color vary greatly. It is a field that the designer
has hardly any control over. Generally speaking younger people prefer more
saturated and primary colors Where older people prefer less saturated and
subdued colors. The same logic exists for extroverts and introverts.

As we have just learned, a person is affected both personally and universally
by the colors in their environment. Studies have traced certain patterns in color preference that are related to age, socioeconomics, and character traits. The younger a person is, the more likely one is to prefer more saturated colors, but as one gets older one will begin to prefer lighter and less saturated colors. The diagram to the left shows how character traits and socioeconomics might influence a persons color preference. However, since one cannot affect the individual’s personal history in relation to color, the designer is forced to design toward the experiences of color that affect the vast majority of people in the same way.


Effect: exciting, stimulating
Positive: passionate, fervid, active, strong, warm
Negative: intense, aggressive, raging, fierce, bloody
Character: Red is the most dominant and dynamic color. The eye actually has to adjust focus, since the natural focal point of red lies behind the retina. Consequently red appears closer than it is.
Ceiling: intruding, disturbing, heavy
Walls: aggressive, advancing
Floor: conscious, alert


Effect: exciting, stimulating, cheering
Positive: jovial, lively, energetic, extroverted
Negative: intrusive, blustering
Character: Orange is less masculine than red. It has very few negative associations. However, it may appear cheap or without vigor if low in saturation.
Ceiling: stimulating, attention-seeking
Walls: warm, luminous
Floor: activating, motion-oriented


Effect: cheering
Positive: sunny, cheerful, radiant, vital
Negative: egocentric, glaring
Character: When pure, yellow is the happiest of all colors. In radiates warmth, cheerfulness, and inspiration and signifies enlightenment, and communication.
Ceiling: light (towards lemon), luminous, stimulating
Walls: warm (towards orange), exciting to irritating (highly saturated)
Floor: elevating, diverting


Effect: retiring, relaxing
Positive: tranquil, refreshing, quiet, natural
Negative: common, tiresome, guilty
Character: Contrary to red, when looking at green the eye focuses exactly on the retina, which makes green the most restful color to the eye. Green can symbolize nature but also mold and sickness.
Ceiling: protective, reflection on the skin can be unattractive
Walls: cool, secure, calm, reliable, passive, irritating if glaring (electric green)
Floor: natural (if not too saturated), soft, relaxing, cold (if towards blue)


Effect: retiring, relaxing
Positive: calm, sober, secure, comfortable, noble
Negative: frightening, depressing, melancholy, cold
Character: Blue appears to be transparent, wet, cool, and relaxing. Opposite to red, blue will decrease a person’s blood pressure and pulse rate.
Ceiling: celestial, cool, receding (if light), heavy and oppressive (if dark)
Walls: cool and distant (if light), encouraging and space deepening (if dark)
Floor: inspiring feeling of effortless movement (if light), substantial (if dark)


Effect: subduing
Positive: dignified, exclusive
Negative: lonely, mournful, pompous, conceited
Character: Purple is a mixture of red and blue (the two colors that are psychologically most opposed). Purple can appear delicate and rich, or unsettling and degenerate.
Ceiling: disconcerting, subduing
Walls: heavy, overpowering
Floor: fleeting, magical


Effect: lively (bubble-gum pink), calming (light pink)
Positive: lively, calming, intimate
Negative: too sweet, weak
Character: Pink must be handled carefully. It is generally considered feminine, but depends much on the nuance used (bubble-gum pink, or old rose)
Ceiling: delicate, comforting
Walls: aggression-inhibiting, intimate, too sweet if not grayed down
Floor: too delicate, not used very often


Effect: subduing
Positive: warm, secure, stable
Negative: oppressive, heavy
Character: There is a great difference between wood and brown paint. In certain institutions brown should be avoided since it evokes fecal associations. Wood and stone on the other hand appear very comfortable, and warm.
Ceiling: oppressive and heavy (if dark)
Walls: secure and assuring if wood, much less so if paint
Floor: steady, stable


Effect: disconcerning
Positive: clean, crisp, bright
Negative: empty, sterile
Character: There are a lot of psychological and physiological justifications for not using white as a dominant color.
Ceiling: empty, no design objections-helps diffuse light sources and reduce shadows
Walls: neutral to empty, sterile, without energy
Floor: touch-inhibiting (not to be walked upon)


Effect: neutral to calming
Positive: neutral
Negative: boring
Character: Gray fails to have much psychotherapeutic application. Thus, the current fashion of using it with various accent walls defies all logic.
Ceiling: shadowy
Walls: neutral to boring
Floor: neutral


Effect: ominous
Positive: deep, abstract
Negative: dungeonlike, night, grief, death
Character: Black is associated with oppressive power, darkness, and the unknown. In architecture it is often used to make something appear as receding, such as the HVAC in a ceiling.
Ceiling: hollow to oppressive
Walls: ominous, dungeonlike
Floor: odd, abstract

Of course the effect of these colors also depends on their position and context, since colors are almost never seen in isolation. Our perception of and reaction to a hue will change if it is on the interior or exterior of a building, whether it is located on a ceiling, a wall, or the floor, and what the current light condition is. The attributes of the different hues should not be handled as end results to the designer, but used more as a starting point.

Neuropsychological Aspects

A part of neuropsychological investigation is to discover how the brain processes and reacts to sensory information coming from the external world and how this affects humans.

Especially important for the color specifier is the research concerning the presentation of two perceptual extremes within the environment known as sensory deprivation and sensory overload, also termed monotony (or understimulation) and overstimulation. Involved is the reticular formation which always seeks to maintain a level of normalcy, but it can (and will) malfunction. Stress research has shown that states of sensory monotony or overstimulation can trigger dysfunction in the organism.

Architectural Environments — Emotions and Psychosomatics

The environment produces emotions which in turn is linked to psychsomatics. Psychosomatic medicine emphasizes that physical disorders may originate through psychological factors, be aggravated by them and vice versa. It is common knowledge that stress may cause headaches, anxiety makes the heart beat faster, and anger and distress may affect the stomach, to name the most common occurrences. Of course the list includes high blood pressure, heart palpitations, migraine headaches, eczema, impotence, and so forth.

Scientific research has also established the link to PNI — Psycho-Neuro-Immunology which clearly shows that networks of nerve fibers and molecular bridges connect the psyche and the body with each other and that emotions penetrate completely into the cells of the organism. Henceforth, research indicates that a positive emotional mood strengthens the body’s defensive system against illness, whereas a negative emotional frame of mind has a weakening effect.

Visual Ergonomics and Color

Probably one of the least known factors of appropriate color specification is its role in safeguarding visual efficiency and comfort. The eye’s adaptation process involves the immediate reaction of the eye to changes in the degree of illumination. Lower light reflectance causes the pupil to dilate, and the reverse is true for higher reflectance. The eye sees luminous density and not the intensity of illuminance. Luminous density is what the eyes receive when light is reflected from a surface (floors, walls, furniture). If the differences between the luminous densities within view are too great, the iris muscle is strained due to constant adjustment, thus causing eye fatigue. Studies have shown that appropriate differences in luminous density can prevent eye fatigue and raise visual acuity, and thus also productivity.

The colors of surfaces absorb and reflect a certain amount of light. These measurements are referred to as light reflection values. Practically all paint companies show them on their color fan decks under LR or LRV.

The international norms are the 3–1 light reflection ratio within a space. This suggests that floors should reflect about 20%, furniture 25–40%, walls 40–60%. The 3–1 designation means the lightest color (60%) divided by the darkest (20%) is a ratio of 3–1. However, visual ergonomists are not color designers. A yellow wall at 60% is not a yellow anymore but a tan. The only solution is if the walls are raised to 75% light reflection for example, so must then be the percentage of floor and furnishings also be raised to insure that there still exists control of extreme contrasts in dark and light. Interesting fact is that if these rules were known by the design community, white walls would not exist — only ceilings are where 80–90% is accepted.

Color and Perception

In order for us to understand the complex relations between the human and
color we have to understand some of the concepts of color science and vision. Color vision is always dependant on the three suppositions that there is light, that the person’s eye has the ability to see color, and that the person’s brain has the ability to process the color stimulus from the eye.

Thanks to Sir Isaac Newton, we know today that color is a function of light. By refracting a ray of sunlight through a prism, Newton was able to prove that light contains the full spectrum of the rainbow. He identified the basic colors as the “Visible 7”: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (ROYGBIV). Each hue corresponds to a certain range of wavelength of radiant energy, with red having the longest wavelength, and violet having the shortest of the range of electromagnetic waves that we can see. Although red and violet are very different in terms of wavelengths they can be combined to produce purples that cannot be seen in the spectrum itself. Now, we have developed what we can see in the image to the left: The Chromaticity Diagram.
It shows all hues of light that the human eye can see. Newton also proved that mixing lights of all colors produces white. This phenomena is described as additive since the more you mix colored light with other colors, the lighter it becomes.

In contrast to additive color, subtractive color mixing combines pigments
rather than light. When mixing pigments the more colors that are added the closer the result comes to black. The primary colors of additive and subtractive color mixing can be seen to the left. In additive mixing, the primary colors are green, blue-violet, and orange-red, while in subtractive mixing the primaries are red, yellow, and blue.

With our present scientific knowledge there is still debate about the exact
process of color perception as color registers in the eyes, the inputs are classified, and transferred to the brain. In very simplified terms the eye works similarly to a camera. Light enters the human eye through the cornea, the outer covering of the eye, the muscles of the iris control how much light is entering the eye through the pupil. The light is then focused on the back surface of the eye: the retina. The retina is made of the photoreceptor cells called rods and cones. Rods allow us to see forms in dim light, but are limited to black and white, while cones work better in brighter lighting and
allow us to perceive hues.

Without doubt, the assumption that color is no more than decoration and color specifications can be satisfied or solved by personal interpretations or the following of color trends and design idioms in current fashion is absolutely false and counterproductive. Humane design places the human being in the center of its concern and purpose. Therefore, it should show interest in human welfare and dignity.

Thanks for reading! :)

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Written by

Decentralized architectural practice working at the intersection of design and technology | We accept #Bitcoin London • Prague

TMD STUDIO’s Insights

Everything you need to know about the future of architecture and design. Discover what we’ve been up to. Read about insights, news, trends that we share on architectural, engineering, construction management, interior design, and MEP.

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