Psychology of color and design

United Colors of Benetton - Nuovo Store di Milano

What are the effects of color on our emotions? Can the aesthetic of a space influence our moods? The psychology of color is a discipline that was already developing in the color theories of Johann Wolfgang Goethe or Wassily Kandinsky. The latter describes colors on the basis of the sensations and emotions they trigger in the observer. From a factor of experimentation in 20th-century art to a code in the architectural theory of space, color takes on a precise value in the culture and the historical period in which it is experienced, also in relation to neuro-aesthetic perceptions.

[Watch also “Color in modern art” and “Color in architecture and design”]

Color is not static. It does not act on its own, as an element isolated from a context. It is both a reflection of our perception and a study topic: through the collaboration with designers, who have brought their chromatic sensibilities into the industrial world, for years Arper has shaped color into a design tool and a sign of recognition.

[Read also “A color journey”].

But what are the color trends in today’s interior design? We asked Laura Perryman, trend & color consultant, founder of the London-based studio Colours of Saying and author of “The Colour Bible: The definitive guide to colour in art and design” to explain. She spoke of “living” colors, intrinsic to surfaces, and of color literacy as a factor to promote sustainability, as well as the recent trend towards more vibrant colors in interior design.

Laura Perryman, foto Eric Oliveira, DomestikaLaura Perryman, photo by Eric Oliveira, Domestika

Q     What are the psychological effects of colors?


A     Colors create experiences, which we are left with, as impressions. These are often linked to memories. In contemporary design, color has been harnessed to create unique brand experiences and associations that stick to our mind and help us remember a certain place or brand. For example, the pink interiors of the Sketch London restaurant, or the new all-hot-pink United Colors of Benetton store in Milan, which mirrors the exact same virtual store space in the Metaverse, to build loyalty in a multichannel way.

Memory, smell, texture and pain are the cycles of the senses we use on a daily basis to make decisions and develop powerful subconscious associations. Kandinsky linked color to the emotions, but also to senses and sound: this was a significant discovery. More recently, the science of color psychology has evolved somewhat into the world of neuro-aesthetics. The most exciting thing about neuro-aesthetics and color is the presence of solid scientific data: researchers are mapping brainwaves, physiological responses and emotions to specific shades and tactile qualities. Proof that aesthetics really do change how we feel and even behave.

[Watch also “Colors: a voyage through art and design”]

AB Rogers, Maggie’s Center at Royal Marsden © Ab Rogers DesignAB Rogers, Maggie’s Center at Royal Marsden © Ab Rogers Design

Q     How is color correlated to space?

A     Choosing the right colors and putting them in the right places can help to define spaces for different activities, from working effectively to sleeping well. For instance, pink – a color tested and proven to lower the heart rate – is being applied today in activewear: the Volleback pink jacket calms athletes under pressure. In interior design, this approach can be observed in the Maggie's Centre healthcare facility at Royal Marsden Hospital, designed by the architect Ab Rogers. Here the walls are clad in terracotta and glazed in graduating shades of red, from deep carmine to translucent coral for the interiors.

Arper, moodboard per Kata, foto Salva LopezArper, moodboard for Kata, photo by Salva Lopez

Q     More specifically, what effect does color have in the design of a workspace?


A     As the lines blur between work and home, leading to the spread of domestic offices, the traditional color for corporate workspaces needs a fresh stance, perhaps. Interiors have to be more versatile, with furnishings and non-structural partitions, also in customized colors. Watery blues, aqua tones, pale yellows and muted greens help us to feel closer to natural environments, even when we are sitting in front of a computer, and support tasks that require concentration. Bringing green and blue indoors boosts wellbeing, and this has an effect on productivity.

Natsai Audrey Chieza (Faber Futures)Natsai Audrey Chieza (Faber Futures)

Q     Color is also research and chemistry. What are the new frontiers?


A      There is a whole world of biological dyes produced by bacteria, connected with a more regenerative mindset, driven by the fashion industry. We are living in a world that is very used to a fixed, controlled, application-based approach to color. But what if color could transform, changing with the seasons or becoming an active part of a living surface? Along with engineered biological dyes, there could be inks that produce a range or even a multi-tonal palette, with no waste in their production processes and a significant reduction of chemical substances. For example, we can look at the projects of Living Color Collective – the designers Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar explore the possibilities of natural textile dyes with pigment producing bacteria – and their first application on an industrial scale [with Puma, ed].

There are designers who look at the very structure of a natural material to create a chromatic nano-level experience [of the colored surface]. Peacock features and beetle wings are capable of interacting with light through a phenomenon known as structural color, replicated in a lab using cellulose by designers like Elissa Brunato. In these cases, color is not a coating or a paint; it is innate to the surface, offering new, less damaging and more sustainable possibilities.

Pannelli di plastica riciclata in base al colore di Smile PlasticsPanels made with plastic recycled on the basis of color by Smile Plastics

Q     Certain colors identify types of objects. Does this correspondence still exist today?


A     The color-function relationship still exists. In commercial terms, color generates consumer appeal; pragmatically, it performs a staggering variety of functions: from reflective cooling (white) to signals of safety (green) or danger (red). Looking to the future, I hope for a universal approach to color in terms of sustainability. For example, if the parts of appliances had the same colors, they could be separated more easily for recycling by means of manual or robotic scanning. Literacy regarding the color of waste could become a way to generate awareness and to spark debate about the things we throw away. As in the case of Smile Plastics. [The English company founded by Rosalie McMillan and Adam Fairweather makes colored decorative panels from plastic recycled on the basis of color. Through specific production processes, Smile Plastics designs surfaces starting with discarded plastic and other materials traditionally classified as waste, transforming them and making them useful for furnishings, ed.].

Sketch London Restaurant, design India Madhavi, foto Ed ReeveSketch London Restaurant, design India Madhavi, photo by Ed Reeve

Q     What are the most innovative colors in interior design today?


A     In general, I think color is back: its bold use shapes our perception of space and experience. We are already seeing stronger, more saturated shades emerge, especially in the world of fashion and design, such as fuchsia pink, primary red and Lapis blue. I use a lot of yellows myself: I’ve found they are very powerful for creativity, supporting life and energy. Yellow is a visceral, uplifting tone, a beacon for optimism and play, inclusivity, calm and wellbeing.

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