Office Design

The Dynamics of Color in Office Design

David Spence
April 9th, 2014

We Respond Differently to Different Colors

What’s the best color for increasing productivity? That depends. Unfortunately for designers and facility managers, there’s no cure-all color that will appeal to each and every worker. University of Texas professor Nancy Kwallek says that bringing out the best in a person with color depends on their individual working style.

Kwallek conducted a study where workers were placed in three rooms with different color schemes: purely white, “predominantly red,” and a mix of blue and green pastels. The workers were then asked to report their moods in each room.

Some workers performed more positive moods in the red and white offices, while others did better in the pastel room. The former group was identified as workers who needed strong stimuli in order to work better. In contrast, the latter needed fewer distractions to succeed. (Think of the difference between people who need background noise to work, versus those who need more quiet. It’s a similar idea.)

But In General, We Don’t Like White and Beige

While some of the workers in Kwallek’s study didn’t seem to mind working in a totally white room, other studies have reported that white, beige, and gray have a negative effect on people’s productivity.

According to Dr. Sally Augustin in Psychology Today, “Testing in healthcare environments, where many rooms, particularly in surgical suites, have white/beige walls, floors, and ceilings, has determined that this color scheme upsets patients.” Similarly, writers for both Fox Business and The Telegraph agree that white is a low-energy color that won’t inspire employees to do their best work.

Gray also seems to be an unpopular choice—Fox Business contributor Michael Woodward lumps it right in with white in the “unmotivating” category. According to The Telegraph story cited above, the design company Aquent experimented with color by painting its offices a different shade every week for six weeks. Gray was by far the least popular.

When Combined, Colors Have Different Effects

Just as individual colors can have varying effects on a worker’s emotions and productivity, the same is true for different color combinations. Contrasting colors, like orange and blue, are more stimulating. In contrast (pun intended?), complementary colors, like blue and purple, are more relaxing.

For this reason, Sarah-Jane Osborne, a design director who’s worked with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, chooses different colors for different areas of a building. She’ll use complementary colors for the break room, and contrasting colors for areas that need to “move people through more quickly”—like a fast food restaurant.

“Greens and blues are soothing because the eye has to do less work to perceive them,” says Osborne. On the other hand, “colours at opposite ends of the spectrum such as green and red force the eye to focus and refocus.”

Of course, there’s another thing to think about when choosing the office color scheme—the company logo (Hopefully, it doesn’t use a large amount of white, gray, or beige). If you’re not constrained to using company colors, however, the choice may be much more difficult. While it can be hard to choose that perfect, productivity-boosting color, don’t worry too much over the details. You can always promote good work with other design elements, like natural light, office plants, and good ergonomics. Just stay away from beige.


photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML via photopin cc