Illustration by Lindsay Gruetzmacher
We all know how important visual characteristics such as light and the handling of space are in a user’s experience. But colour is often seen as less significant, something to be added in later stages of planning when we begin to design a room.
However, colour plays a more complex role in human psychology than many may realise, according to Dr Stephen Westland, a renowned professor of colour science at the University of Leeds in England.
“Colour is a deceptively simple topic,” Westland said. “And it’s a very nice topic to teach because people love talking about colour, so everyone thinks they know something about it. But once you start really getting into colour, no matter what background you have when you approach it, you start to find that it’s stretching you in areas that you feel uncomfortable in.”
“Designers have to confront a bit of neuroscience and a bit of psychology,” Westland added, “and people working in physics have to start thinking about philosophy or aesthetics and art. It’s an incredibly complex and multi-disciplinary topic.”
Far from being the lighthearted aesthetic consideration most are familiar with, the world of colour research has revealed the surprisingly large extent to which colour shapes our experience of the built world. “There’s evidence to suggest that colour can have some quite extraordinary impacts,” Westland said.
Why colour matters
Why is colour able to affect us so powerfully?
Part of the answer, according to Westland, lies in the way our brains process light. “Until 20 years ago, we thought the eye only had one function, which was sight,” Westland said. “Then we discovered a new set of photoreceptors in the eye, which sent signals to the centre of the brain — the hypothalamus— that controls our hormones and our body temperature, rather than to the back of the brain — the occipital lobe — where vision takes place.”
Our brain uses these light receptors to train our internal clock, regulating the production of hormones that control our cycles of sleep and alertness. “Before the advent of artificial light, we would have lots of light outside, and in the evening, there was no light apart from maybe a candle or a flame,” Westland said. “But now we make our homes brighter in the evening, as well as using iPads and phones, which produce blue light, effectively telling the body that it’s still daylight.” This prevents the production of melatonin and reduces the amount and quality of our sleep.
Westland said that one solution to the problem of too much blue light is to create integrated lighting systems that can change the colour and quality of their output throughout the day. “Dynamic lighting is the idea that you don’t just have the light fixed with intensity and colour,” Westland said. “As the day progresses, it gets gradually less and less blue and a little bit warmer,” mimicking the natural cycles of light the body needs to stay alert.
“Studies show that if we use dynamic lighting to alter the colour of light within an office space, for example, people will become less tired and can concentrate for longer,” Westland said. Being conscious of the ways we expose our brain to colour could have a profound change in the culture and functionality of both office and educational spaces.
A pathway to the brain
Because of the way that our brains process light, colour can have a direct and dramatic impact on our well-being and psychological functionality. “There are some effects of colour which are quite extraordinary,” Westland said. “In 2011, in Tokyo, they put blue lights on the platforms of 29 subway stations where they had the highest incidences of suicide,” Westland said. “Using the blue lights reduced suicide attempts at these stations by 70%.” This result was so impressive that they’ve put the same kind of blue lights on the platforms of London’s Gatwick train station as well as a train station in Scotland.
There’s also evidence that coloured light can bypass the neural pathways that cause physical, as well as mental, pain. “There was a study recently at Oxford University where they exposed migraine sufferers to narrowband coloured light,” Westland said. “And they discovered a particular hue of blue-green light, the same colour of the light which activates the hypothalamus and it made their headaches better.”
Westland said we can imagine a future where a migraine sufferer might turn their in-house green light treatment station on instead of popping an aspirin — and obtain the same pain-reducing result.
Building in full colour
Despite its many benefits, Westland said that colour is one of the least-studied aspects of the physical environment, even though it is one of the most frequently discussed by the actual users of built spaces. Colour nevertheless remains the topic of some of the most optimistic claims about morale and efficiency.
“We’re fairly confident that wall colour could probably bring some benefits to performance,” Westland said. “And adding more colour generally to interiors will have a positive impact on the user’s well-being.”
Westland said that architects, designers and builders need to think more about the impact of colour when they begin to design and construct a new structure.
“Colour is often not put into the design of buildings because it incurs an additional cost, though that cost might be quite small compared to the benefits it could bring,” Westland said. “I think it just is being underutilised as a design feature. There are lots of opportunities to use colour and lighting more creatively, in offices and homes, both therapeutically for well-being and even for performance benefits.”