December 28, 2015

The Science of Choosing Colors

The use of color is central to all work in interior design. Whether the designer is a trained professional or a home DIY’er, decisions surrounding color are some of the most important and can be a major factor in the success of any project. That’s why it’s perplexing to realize that when it comes to color there are no fixed rules, no right or wrong answers and no magic formula to ensure ultimate success—it is subjective. And while it’s true that color is there for visual appeal, the science of color tells us that it has the ability to be so much more. Color can inspire a certain mood, it can play on current associations, and it can most certainly help with wayfinding as a person travels throughout a building or space. It is up to each designer to decide for him/herself how color can be used most effectively.

It’s All in How You See It

Color is created when our brain tries to make sense from light signals it receives from the outside world. Scientists estimate humans are able to see approximately 10 million different colors. In other words, it’s all in your head! “Red-orange” and “teal” are great when you’re talking about a favorite shirt or sweater, but having names for millions of colors is virtually impossible and hardly practical. People see color with significant variations—the red you see may not be the same red I see. Research shows nearly 1 in 10 Caucasian men suffer from color blindness or color vision deficiency. In Japan, there are reportedly more than 5 million people who see color differently from the rest of the population.

Making facilities, programs, and activities safe and accessible for participants who are blind or visually impaired does not necessarily require a great deal of time, energy, or money. It is a matter of knowing the basics and planning for easy access during the initial design of a facility. The use of lighting, color contrast, and the reduction of glare are important factors architects and interior designers must be aware of when creating effective environmental designs.

What is Color Universal Design?

Color Universal Design is a relatively new industry term revolving around a user-oriented design system. Color Universal Design implies a system that allows information to be accurately conveyed to as many individuals as possible and takes people with various types of color vision into consideration. Objectives of Color Universal Design include:

  • Simple color schemes which can be easily identified by people with all types of color vision, as well as by the very young and the elderly
  • A combination of different shapes, positions, line types and coloring patterns ensure that information is conveyed to those who cannot distinguish differences in color
  • Color names are clearly stated where users are expected to use them in communication

Developing the Mary Free Bed YMCA Color Scheme

colors, accessibility, ymca, universal design

The Mary Free Bed YMCA is the first building in the world to be certified through the Global Universal Design Commission. While the principles of Color Universal Design are still in development, they were an important part of the building’s overall design strategy. Color principles of the Mary Free Bed YMCA:

  • We refrained from using blue and red hues together due to a potential sensitivity to the center of the color spectrum
  • We utilized contrasting colors including blues, yellows and yellow-green hues
  • Blue was not used at critical areas where edges may be difficult to distinguish
  • Where blue is used, such as inside the pool, use of a contrasting color helped distinguish the edges and stairs
  • Brighter colors were used to help distinguish change in architecture as a mode of wayfinding and programmatic clarity
  • We avoided the use of single-color distinctions for higher color clarity
  • Color was evaluated to ensure it would work well in the space and that possible reflections wouldn’t distort a person’s understanding in application

Our understanding of color begins with four psychological primary colors—red, blue, yellow and green. They relate respectively to the body, the mind, emotions, and the essential balance between each. The following colors were identified as part of the overall color scheme for the facility. These colors were chosen based on their psychological meaning, their adherence to Universal Design standards, and their representation of the YMCA brand:

colors, accessibility, ymca, universal design
Grey “Fundamentally Neutral”

Pure grey is the only color that has no direct psychological properties. As such it was used as a neutral base in the overall color scheme providing a mental break between its more contrasting counterparts.

Blue “Intellectual”

Blue is the color of the mind, and as such, is essentially soothing. It affects us mentally, as opposed to the physical reaction we have to red (increased heart rate). Strong blues stimulate clear thought while lighter, soft blues calm the mind and aid in concentration. Time and again research has shown that blue is the world’s favorite color, and has been adopted as a universal color tone for the International Symbol of Access. At the Mary Free Bed YMCA blue is used strategically to denote areas of increased concentration, rehabilitation and connectivity to water.

Yellow “Emotional”

The yellow wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating. In this case the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is psychologically the strongest color. The right yellow lifts our spirits and our self-esteem. It is the color of confidence and optimism. The most critical and monumental elements of the Mary Free Bed YMCA, such as ramp and track railings, are adorned in blends of yellow-green hues to stimulate hope and reassure a sense of optimism.

Green “Balance”

Green strikes the eye in such a way that it requires no adjustment and is therefore restful. Being in the center of the spectrum, it is the color of balance—a more important concept than many people realize. When the world about us contains plenty of green, this indicates the presence of water, nourishment and life. We are reassured by green on a primitive level which made it ideal for program areas connected to health, healthy eating, and childcare.

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