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  • RK Signature Living

The Science of Colour

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

As an interior designer, it is not surprising that colour plays a huge role.

Whilst it might seem simple on the face of it, the use of colour and the effect it can have on a space is far more complex than most people would imagine.

How individuals see colour and the preferences they have over one shade than another fascinates us. The perception of colour is formed in the brain and not the property of an object itself. For example, a red apple appears red due to the light it reflects. Our eyes and brain process this light reflection and categorise the object as red.

We perceive colour differently depending on the environmental conditions. Daylight, tungsten or fluorescent light will cause colour to vary. Additionally, the reflection of other colours surrounding an object will also cause a colour to change.

The recent visual illusion of the ‘black and blue dress’ is a great example of how the same object can be seen completely differently by different people. Due to the yellow lighting that was used in the photograph, our brains filled in the gaps to make sense of the image that we were seeing. People who assumed that the dress was in 'shade' perceived it to be white and gold and mentally subtracted the blue to compensate for the lighting conditions.

Colour, therefore, is a perception generated by light reflected in different combinations of wavelengths to our brains.

However, we also have an emotional response to colour. Our brains respond to stimuli and are constantly shaped by our environment, meaning we have associations with different colours based on past experiences. We may have specific experiences where emotion is held in the colour, for example, magenta may conjure up a great holiday memory somewhere with beautiful bougainvillaea. This is very personal and unique to everyone.

Colour is fundamental to how human beings live and respond to the world, even having a physiological effect on our brains. Certain hues of pink, for example, will be physically soothing. The Swiss prison system found that prisoners were extremely agitated and sometimes violent in holding cells. Swiss psychologist, Daniela Späth rolled out what was referred to as the ‘Cool Down Pink’ project designed to soothe inmates. Pink cells were introduced in ten prisons and results monitored over four years. The study observed that aggressive prisoners in the pink cells became more relaxed than those in the white cells and returned earlier to the main prison.

Specific tones of colour will significantly change the way colour makes us feel. Whether a colour is cold or warm can create a totally different mood. In fact, the original pink cell study was conducted with a hue that is known as 'Baker-Miller' pink. This was a vibrant hot pink that had the opposite effect of the cooler pink tone used in the later Swiss study.

Cultural references also shape our response to colour. At some point, colour will have been decreed to have had a meaning which becomes folklore over time. In China, for instance, red is given to mean prosperity and good luck whilst in Ireland green is believed to be lucky.

Working with colour, therefore, is not simply about combining complementary shades. It is far more complex. As designers, it is important that we are aware of all of the elements that affect our response and mood, colour perception, emotional response and cultural meaning.

As part of the interior design process, colour can be used to facilitate wellbeing, creating spaces that drive behaviour, where people can retreat to and feel nourished and energised.

If you would like to discuss colour palettes as part of an upcoming project we would love to hear from you.


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