Michael Chotiner

Over the last 50 years, there has been ample research on the functional uses of color in healthcare facilities. Many guidelines have been set. You can read about most of them in the 2004 paper “Color in Healthcare Environments,” or you can just cut to the chase which is “oversimplification of the psychological responses to color pervades the popular press, and direct applicability to architecture and interior design of healthcare settings seems oddly inconclusive and nonspecific.”

Among the theories treated in the paper is the widely held belief that elderly people tend to prefer blue to other colors, but at least one of the more recent studies noted a shift in preference to green. What is more certain than the matter of color preference, however, is that changes in the eye associated with aging change color perception. In a paper titled “Design Considerations for Retirement Homes,” Annie Rose H. Nicholson writes, “. . . [it is] difficult to imagine a world where there were colors, but they were indistinguishable in many cases, and shades of certain colors were indistinguishable. It would be similar to wearing glasses with yellow lenses.” Ms. Nicholson is referring to the condition called presbyopia. Cataracts can cause similar effects. For this reason, designers of long-term care facilities recommend bright colors for at least some areas, rather than pastels, which are barely visible to those with failing eyesight.

Where to start with paint colors

A 2012 paper titled “The Application of Color in Healthcare Settings” gives some specific advice on how color can affect the performance of given spaces within facilities, and the ways in which residents experience them:

  • Lighter colors can create the illusion of a higher ceiling or a wider room
  • The wall opposite a window should generally be kept light, or it will absorb much of the daylight. A window wall should also be light so as not to contrast too much with the daylight sky.
  • Distinct colors and color schemes applied in defined areas can help residents know where they are and help them find their way around the facility.
  • Playful graphics on ceilings or on a wall at the end of a long hallway can draw residents and visitors toward them, or provide cues for wayfinding.
  • Contrasts between the floor and walls can help residents with poor vision differentiate planes and maintain their balance.
  • Too much contrast within a space can result in eyestrain and headaches.

While the extensive study of the literature on color theory and practice in healthcare published during the last 50 years concluded that there’s insufficient evidence to evoke a certain mood, and there’s not enough evidence to link specific colors to particular health outcomes, the current color design trend is to use hues that are found in the natural setting around the facility and/or have particular relevance within the local culture. “Functional Color and Design in Healthcare Environments,” published in Architectural Record, provides a number of brilliant examples. A table of colors created by the authors, Celeste Allen Novak and Barbara Richardson, annotated with their take on the mood and character associations of each, is partially recreated below.

Michael Chotiner is a DIY expert and former general contractor and cabinetmaker who has years of experience in design colors and construction for commercial and home buildings. Michael writes about paint topics for the Home Depot. To view Home Depot’s wide assortment of paint colors available, you can visit the company’s website.