Healthcare’s Weak Interior Color Schemes

Posted on May 9, 2011

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The majority of hospital interior color schemes are a lost opportunity, to put it kindly.

I think so many hospitals gravitate toward really washed out and soulless colors like mauves, sea foams and beiges because they think muted equals calming and light colors equal larger spaces. On some level, maybe that can be supported, but in general well-coordinated, strong combinations are more helpful.

Believe it or not, color plays a big role in conveying information in a hospital. Here are some functional uses for color:

  • Symbolism (Safety).  Universal colors like yellow and red—caution and danger, respectively—help identify important rooms and areas.
  • Facilitate travel.  Contrast, specifically between wall and floor, help distinguish surfaces and guide movement, especially when used with signage and finish patterns.
  • Transitions.  In conjunction with material changes, color can signal thresholds:  public / private (treatment); visitor / patient; sterile / circulation.
  • Coding / Cueing.  Color is used to group departments, identify important interior landmarks, differentiate between spaces, communicate a brand.
  • Visual interest.  Without color, depth is hard to sense, and everything runs together visually—furniture, doorways, walls are hard to discriminate. Things on walls like art, signage, plaques and displays are easier to see with color variation.

Often forgotten is how the eye changes over time. Interior space and light is interpreted differently by the elderly, who are the majority of hospital patients, and a large portion of visitors and volunteers. As we age, our eyes lose the ability to focus at close range, less light enters the retina so things appear darker, and colors appear washed out with less contrast.  In addition, visual conditions like cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration are more common in the elderly. All of these above conditions can benefit from more light and greater color saturation and contrast.

For better or for worse, interior colors are subjective.  I know an administrator who refused to allow reds or purples in her hospital simply because she did not like them. And many people are afraid and intimidated by color, something that was very evident in my color theory class in college. Overcoming this does not mean pairing reds and greens or yellows and purples, but simply considering the full spectrum of color— light or dark, intense or pale—and what it can do for your institution. A sophisticated use of color can add life, comfort and style to your hospital interiors. This will assist in wayfinding and creating a welcoming environment that people will enjoy occupying and come back to.

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Posted in: Interior Design