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Colour Psychology: How Colours Influence Our Perception

Colour is everywhere, it is present in the natural environment as well the man-made built environment - informing our psychology and physiology. Like music, colour serves as a universal form of communication that connects us all. Scientific studies have found that sensory perception of colour heavily influences human response to the environment and architecture.The function of colour in design and architecture is simply not just decoration, as colour psychology impacts user’s experience in varied built environments (such as healthcare, educational, industrial and living facilities). With colour, an architect or designer has the power to greatly influence human wellbeing, therefore appropriate colour specification is vital.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Courtesy of Juhasz Imre via Pexels


Evolution of Colour and Architecture

Colour is a form of sensory perception and has affected human perception of the world since time immemorial. In ancient civilizations colour was used to emphasize the grandeur and status of their leadership and deities - as seen in ancient greek stone temples rich pigmented undertones and ornamented chinese temples with colorful symbolism - showing the importance of colour in cultural expression. However it was not until the 1960s when the impact of colour on psychology and physiology was studied, with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Faber Birren being the pioneers of this exploration - looking at human perception and response to colour. The study of colour as sensory perception has since continued as Frank and Rudolf Manke and Carlton Wagner and others have carried the torch on the subject - understanding the influence of colour on the psyche and investigating the best applications of colour to evoke positive stimuli in users.

Colour Psychology and Neuropsychology

Neuropsychological serves to uncover how the brain processes and reacts to sensory information from the outside world and how this affects humans.

When designing a space it is important to consider sensory deprivation, also known as monotony (or understimulation) and overstimulation. Studies have shown that people in understimulated environments tend to suffer from excessive emotional response, difficulties in concentration, perception disorders, restlessness and irritability among others.

Indicators of an under-stimulated environment include:

  • weak colour intensity,

  • weak colour contrasts,

  • monochromatic harmonies.

Conversely, overstimulation is said to cause a change in the rate of breathing, increase in pulse rate, blood pressure, muscle tension; psychiatric reactions of varying types; and other medical complications.

Indicators of an over-stimulated environment include:

  • strong colour intensity (high colour saturation),

  • very strong contrasts,

  • too many complex visual color patterns,

  • complex colour harmonies.

The Experience of Colour in Architecture

Daily we are confronted by colour which governs our actions. Colour can be both subjective and universal: subjective, as people can have personal connections to certain colours, which can trigger memory and evoke emotion due to events in the past; universally we all share similar reactions to certain colours, such as red, which is associated with passion, blood, love as well as danger throughout the world - on seeing red, a motorist is aware that they should stop.

Studies have found that certain patterns in colour preference are linked to personality, age and socioeconomic differences. Younger persons have been found to prefer more saturated colours, whereas they preferred lighter, less saturated colours as they got older.

The diagram below illustrates the influence of personality and socioeconomics on colour temperature and saturation.

Image courtesy of Studio MD via MediumColourbox

Colour plays an important role in the experience of space and appropriate specification by the designer can govern the atmosphere a space exudes, causing positive visual stimulation and sensory response to a space (which in turn affect wellbeing). A lot of factors need to be put into consideration - the challenge is designing experiences of colour that will affect a wide variety of people in similar ways.

Colour Application In Architecture

Designer Carlton Wagner conducted twenty years of research on colour response and application, here we highlight some of his facts combined with contemporary findings:


Image courtesy of Pierre Châtel via Stocksnap

  • Relaxing, subduing effect - decreases pulse rate and creates a comfortable, secure atmosphere.

  • Pale blue encourages fantasy.

  • Often not very successful in real estate and an ideal choice to use when selling a house.

  • Colour preference of most people in the United States.


  • On ceilings: light blue in gives off a cool atmosphere and visually - a receding effect (avoid dark blue - feels oppressive).

  • On walls: a light blue gives a cool effect, while a darker blue gives a deepening effect to the space.

  • On floors: light blue creates a feeling of movement.


Image courtesy of Bill Liao via Flickr

  • Gives off relaxing, tranquil, refreshing and quiet effect.

  • Relaxing, subduing effect - decreases pulse rate and creates a comfortable, secure atmosphere.

  • Known to be the most restful colour for the eye.

  • According to Wagner, green is the ideal choice for interiors for people who have been relocated.


  • On ceilings: may not be ideal as it causes an unattractive reflection on some skin tones.

  • On walls: gives off a calming, secure effect, however some highly saturated forms of green (e.g. electric green) may be irritating to user.

  • On floors: lighter, less saturated tone of green produces a natural, relaxing effect.

  • Caution - a blueish-green tone can give off a cold effect


Image courtesy of Pixabay

  • Gives off Gives warmth, cheer, inspiration, signifies enlightenment, and sparks communication.


  • On ceilings: a lighter shade of yellow gives off a stimulating atmosphere and illuminates an interior.

  • On walls: the shade of yellow is important as it could bring warmth (orange-ish tone), whereas when highly saturated it could could bring about excitement or irritation. Wagner’s report states it is also unflattering for makeup application.

  • On floors: elevating and diverting.

  • Ideal colour to use to bring attention to a product display in a retail space.

  • Caution - Yellow is known to be a cheerful colour, however according to Wagner, children tend to cry more in yellow. spaces, therefore is not ideal for playrooms or nurseries.


Image courtesy of Joshua K. Jackson via Pexels

  • Reportedly the colour in which inspires creativity among creatives.

  • Makes things appear more exclusive and sophisticated, as it is associated with business attire - symbolizing success.

  • Calming, neutral effect, however could also be perceived as dull.


  • On ceilings: gives off shadow effect.

  • On walls: neutral to dull.

  • On floors: neutral.


Image courtesy of Pexels

  • Signifies sophistication, refinement and a sense of delicacy.

  • Associated with cleanliness and competency and is used often in the medical field attire.

  • All white work spaces are said to encourage precision.

  • White environments can also come off as sterile.


  • On ceilings: feels empty, however design-wise helps diffuse lighting and reduce shadows.

  • On walls: neutral, passive.

  • On floors: deters touch, discourages users from walking upon.

Image courtesy of Jatuphon Buraphon via Pexels

  • Powerful colour which brings an ominous feeling in an interior, often used in architecture to create a receding effect and conceal unflattering equipment such as HVAC systems.


  • On ceilings: creates a hollow effect, may come off as oppressive.

  • On walls: may give off a dark, negative effect as a main colour. Wagner encourages the use of black as an accent colour in residential and corporate interiors.neutral, passive.

  • On floors: not ideal

  • Acceptable colour on car exteriors, however not airplane exteriors.

  • In clothing it is seen as a power colour.

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