As a San Diego-based professional interior designer for the past 30-plus years, I understand only too well that color is a fundamental element of the design environment. We have created millions of square feet of healthcare environments for our acute-care and senior-living clients all over the United States and overseas. Our clients have asked us, too many times to count, what would be the appropriate color scheme for their projects. What would make their patients and staff feel better and work better?
According to Color in Healthcare Environments: A Critical Review of the Research Literature, color choice “is linked to psychological, visual, aesthetic, and technical aspects of human-made environments.” Therefore, we tend to choose colors based on geography, culture, and user characteristics. Similarly, the lighting, size, and shape of the space will also affect the color palette we choose. This color study was funded by the Coalition for Health Environments Research (CHER, now known as The Center for Health Design [CHD] CHER) in 2002-2003, and written by Ruth Brent Tofle, PhD; Benyamin Schwarz, PhD; So-Yeon Yoon, MA; and Andrea Max-Royale, MEDes.
The necessity for a color study of this nature became clear to CHER committee members after much discussion about the possible links between color and patient health. It was decided that a research study would help determine if in fact there was evidence to prove that various colors do make a difference in patient health, staff effectiveness, and healthcare facility efficiency. We felt that this topic affected everyone and would have a broad range of influence for the entire healthcare field—designers, planners, and end users alike.
The authors' goal was not only to provide a literature review on color in healthcare, but also “to separate among common myths and realities in the research and application of color in healthcare design.” It is important for us as design professionals to realize the relevance of the evidence that is presented in this study. It is clear that color use is not based on empirical data, but rather on “pseudo-scientific assertions.” As a result, many trends in color choices are based on inappropriate information.
After reviewing all available research on the topic, the following conclusions were reached:
There are no direct linkages between particular colors and health outcomes. There was not enough evidence to promote a causal relationship between environments painted in particular colors and patients' healthcare outcomes.
Specifying particular colors for healthcare environments to influence emotional states or mental and behavioral activities is simply unsubstantiated. While studies have shown that color-mood association exists, there is no evidence to suggest a one-to-one relationship between a given color and a given emotion. In spite of contradictory evidence, most people continue to associate red tones, for example, with stimulating activities and blue tones with passivity and tranquility. Clearly, colors do not contain inherent emotional triggers. Emotional responses to colors are caused by culturally learned associations and by a person's physiological and psychological makeup.
There are demonstrable perceptual impressions of color applications that can affect people's experience and performance. For example, there are indications in the research literature that certain colors may evoke a sense of spaciousness or confinement. However, the perception of spaciousness is attributed to the brightness or darkness of color and is highly influenced by contrast effects, particularly brightness distinctions between objects and their background.