As a child, I would stand barefoot in the corridor waiting for the moment; that perfect moment when the sun would finally visit our front window and our crisp white walls were bathed in the soft glow of a rainbow prism. It was a moment where I would be in awe of something I could not explain. Of course, now, the science of ‘refraction’ and ‘dispersion’ has perhaps slightly worn away my youthful wonder of such magic. And yet, there remains something unequivocally captivating about color. It is a way of seeing, feeling, and understanding the world around us. And it is a gift that designers often take for granted.

Color psychology is the study of color as a determinant of human behavior and perceptions. Although colors are visually processed, they are an evocation of emotions through memories and personal experiences. Even more so, for Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter and art theorist, the effects of color were synesthetic. In many ways, his art was a visual exploration of sound, whereby he sought to evoke the same emotions one felt listening to music, through shades and hues. Kandinsky’s theories offer contemporary architects and designers, a unique approach to color. That is, designers should not approach color purely as an aesthetic, but instead, a means of emotional stimulation.

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‘Squares with Concentric Circles’ by Wassily Kandinsky. ©

The idea of color psychology then becomes integral in positively influencing human well-being. A designer’s preoccupation with this concept can have an enormous impact on how space is received by its users, particularly in healthcare and educational facilities. Thus, there are a number of considerations for designers when applying color psychology.

Color is not an afterthought. 

The first and foremost is that no choice should be unfounded. Perhaps this is blatantly obvious but it should be said. Just in case. Every designer should ask themselves: How do I want people to feel within this space?

For example, the color red is highly dualistic, in that its connotations to passion may suggest either love or anger. It is this dualism that often makes it difficult to successfully incorporate into architecture or interior design. For in its purest all-encompassing form, it can assume an overwhelming dominance. And yet, if done properly, red offers warmth such as that of the deep ochre-stained walls of the Agricultural Training Centre by Studio Advaita. The building’s Barragán-like simplicity, in both color and composition, reads between the cut-out vista of blue sky and the interior red walls.

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Agricultural Training Centre, Nimblak ©Studio Advaita

Furthermore, designers must also recognize that every color is imbued with symbolism and meaning that may differ according to region and culture. Therefore, color selections should be contextually appropriate and in support of the spatial function.

Colors do not stand alone. 

Rather, colors are always read in relation to each other. The colorful neighborhood of Burano, for example, exudes a vibrant positivity as you meander along the cobbled paths. And yet, despite the playful whimsy of the facades, there is an overall coherency to the eye.

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Colorful houses in Burano, Venice ©Annie Spratt

In contrast, Central St. Giles Court, by Renzo Piano and Fletcher Priest Architects, is almost garishly annoying to look at. The incongruity albeit intentional between the brightly intense red, orange, yellow, and green facades and the surrounding urban context, is an example of overstimulation.

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Central St. Giles Court, London ©Michel Denance

This discomfort can also be produced through overly complex contrasts and an abundance of color patterns. Conversely, under-stimulated environments are a product of monochromatic or monotonous color harmonies. Whilst sensory overload is confusing and stressful for users, sensory deprivation induces irritability and a lack of concentration.

Colors change our spatial perceptions. 

As all of us truly come to terms with the realities of self-isolation in the confines of our homes, our spatial experiences have gradually monopolized. Thus, it is now more than ever that designers should endeavor for good interior design. To do so, designers must consider how individuals will spatially experience and perceive, the spaces they create. In particular, color is almost illusionary in how it can drastically alter one’s experience. The most important rule to remember is that lighter colors will immediately open up a room whilst darker colors will create an intimate sense of enclosure. However, this can be further refined to create specific spatial experiences. For example, by painting the vertical planes a darker color against a white ceiling, the height of the room is perceptively lifted and negates the sense of claustrophobia one would otherwise feel with lowered ceilings.

Look beyond paint.

However, in no way should designers limit themselves to paint. Color psychology can be implemented through various materials, textiles, and lighting – all of which further enhance a user’s experience within a space. One need only look to Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Iran, a dazzling culmination of stained-glass windows, colored tiles and rugs, and robust pillars. Despite the richness in color and textures, they are not in juxtaposition, or competition of each other. Every morning due to its strategic position, the interior sits in an ethereal kaleidoscope of colors. And it is here, that visitors are unexpectedly greeted with a technicolor serenity.

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Iran ©

Color is a powerful form of expression, one that should not be underestimated. There is no right or wrong, only balance. That is, designers should strive to be thoughtful but not predictable, bold but not loud, fearless but not rash. To quote Steffanie Wettstein, Director at Haus der Farbe: “Color is one of the oldest architectural design elements – colorless architecture does not exist.”


Jessica Richardson is an architecture student from the University of Melbourne, with a passion for design histories. She believes that, now more than ever, critical thinking and meaningful discussion is crucial for architecture to be at the forefront of change.

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