How Color Affects Emotional Environments

When used correctly, color can be incredibly powerful. When used incorrectly, however, color can be staggeringly detrimental. For decades, marketing companies and designers have understood these principles and chosen to utilize color to accomplish very specific goals.

Have you ever noticed any of the following uses of color?

  • Schools and offices often use muted blue tones to produce a sense of tranquility and stimulate productivity. However, they also tend to accent these blues with warmer design elements so that the environment doesn’t become cold and uninviting.
  • Companies that want to be thought of as chic or elegant with often use white with black and silver accents.
  • Many fast food companies and other restaurants incorporate various shades of red and yellow into their logos and decor because these colors stimulate appetite.
  • Almost all retail stores utilize red as well, but they use it in their sale and clearance signage to induce a feeling of urgency.

As you can see, you’ve been surrounded by the calculated use of color most of your life, and it’s possible that you have not even been aware of most of it. Color is so powerful, in fact, that it is very uncommon for large companies to choose logo colors or interior design elements without consciously utilizing the psychology of color.

Use of Color in Emotionally Charged Environments

Today, the application of color theory is also used in emotional environments like hospitals to help evoke specific reactions. Let’s look at hospitals as an example of how color can be used in these types of environments.

Historically, most hospitals and other healthcare facilities were designed with almost stark white interiors. This was probably done in an attempt to give a feeling of cleanliness and sterility. Also, items that were colored white tended to have fewer problems with the harsh cleaning chemicals like bleach that were used to clean the facilities. Later, many facilities began incorporating pale green in an attempt to induce some level of tranquility in patients, staff, and visitors. These colors, when combined with harsh lighting conditions, unfortunately, came to define an institutional look that was seldom conducive to peace and healing.

Many modern healthcare facilities have chosen to move away from the institutional look of the past and create environments that promote happiness, tranquility, and healing. Often, hospitals will use warm beiges to create an inviting base that is complemented by warm woods and soft, tranquil blues and greens. These color combinations are designed to put the patient at ease and help doctors, nurses, and other staff maintain a calm demeanor. In assisted living facilities, on the other hand, you’ll find richer, warmer tones that induce a feeling of hominess to put the patients at ease and help them feel welcome. However, you will seldom see healthcare facilities decorated in yellow as the color tends to increase agitation in both patients and staff.

Strong, vibrant colors are mostly reserved for areas where the medical staff wants to promote cheerfulness and movement. Activity rooms in children’s wards are a prime example of this. Often, these rooms will be decorated in a variety of bright, stimulating colors that will help the children feel happier and more energetic. Similarly, physical therapy rooms will often be designed around a single, bright color that isn’t distracting but encourages energy and focus.

Using Medical Clothing to Introduce Color

Even if a hospital is unable to redecorate their facilities in order to utilize color to their advantage, they can help add color to the environment. One way is through artwork or accents, but another, simple way is through medical clothing.

These days, most hospital staff doesn’t wear a white coat with a white button up shirt underneath. Instead, many facilities encourage their doctors, nurses, orderlies, and other staff to wear scrubs. Scrubs, if you don’t know, are comfortable, loose fitting pant, shirt, and sometimes cap sets that have become the go-to clothing choice for many medical professionals. They are available in a range of cuts to fit different body types and can be purchased in a plethora of different colors and prints.

These colorful outfits help to break up even the starkest, most institutional environment and help patients feel at ease. They can see that nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff are comfortable and able to perform their duties with ease. That observation can subconsciously allow the patients and their families to relax more than they would in a harsh environment of white walls, white floors, and white-clad people.

In fact, for many medical professionals, scrubs are their official uniform. Some hospitals even require personnel from different departments to wear specific colors of scrubs so that they can be identified quickly and easily at a glance. For example, a hospital may have people working in the ER in blue, OR personnel decked out in green, and pediatric personnel in purple.

In addition to their scrubs, you may see OR workers in many hospitals adding a little bit of fun to their outfit by donning colorful scrub caps. Surgical caps are a necessary part of working in an operating room for a variety of reasons, but many nurses and doctors are trading in their boring, standard issue caps for something with a little bit more personality. Their brightly colored scrub caps offer them a chance to be an individual in the sea of masks and gowns in the OR. Other medical professionals also choose to wear surgical caps as an easy and stylish way to keep hair out of the way and even some cancer patients choose the colorful caps as a way to cover their heads after chemo or radiation treatments have caused them to lose their hair.


As you can see, color can be far more influential than many people think. And it’s not just hospitals that have the potential to take advantage of these types of effects. Any environment that has to cater to emotionally charged people can use color psychology to make things easier on everyone. This is true in airports, schools, office buildings, and even stores. The question is: how will you use color in your environment?

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