Color Psychology in Architecture

Photo: Steni.Vision and Steni Color facades

The Perception of Color in Architecture

Biological reactions to color are solely physical in nature. Instead of the obvious optical reaction to color, it is in fact a reaction to the energy of the light waves.
Tests show that even if a person is blindfolded his or her pulse will noticeably increase when exposed to the color red and decrease when exposed to blue or green.


Foto: Steni (Ad). Did you know 85% of all facades in Norway are black, white or grey?

Without doubt, the assumption that color is no more than decoration and color specifications can be satisfied or solved by personal interpretations or the following of color trends and design idioms in current fashion is absolutely false and counterproductive.

Color is an integral element of our world, not just in the natural environment but also in the man-made architectural environment.

The environment and its colors are perceived, and the brain processes and judges what it perceives on an objective and subjective basis.

Psychological influence, communication, information, and effects on the psyche are aspects of our perceptual judgment processes. Hence, the goals of color design in an architectural space are not relegated to decoration alone. TDM Studio article

Especially in the last eleven decades, empirical observations and scientific studies have proven that human-environment-reaction in the architectural environment is to a large percentage based on the sensory perception of color.

These studies include the disciplines of psychology, architectural psychology, color psychology, neuropsychology, visual ergonomics, psychosomatics, and so forth.

In short, it confirms that human response to color is total — it influences us psychologically and physiologically.

This self-evident logic has been proven by scientific investigation. Because the body and mind are one entity, neuropsychological aspects, psychosomatic effects, visual ergonomics, and color’s psychological effects are the components of color ergonomics.

The color specifier/designer has the task of knowing how the reception of visual stimulation, its processing and evoked responses in conjunction with the hormonal system, produces the best possibilities for the welfare of human beings.

The architect must consider the color effect of every element of a building’s construction, from the earthy colors of primary construction materials like wood, stone, brick, and marble, to the expansive variety of colors available for paint, doors, windows, siding, and trim.

Red firestation with Steni Facade


Effect: exciting, stimulating
Association: Positive: passionate, fervid, active, strong, warm
Negative: intense, aggressive, raging, fierce, bloody
Character: Red is the most dominant and dynamic color. The eye actually has to adjust focus, since the natural focal point of red lies behind the retina. Consequently red appears closer than it is.
Ceiling: intruding, disturbing, heavy
Walls: aggressive, advancing
Floor: conscious, alert


Effect: exciting, stimulating, cheering
Positive: jovial, lively, energetic, extroverted
Negative: intrusive, blustering
Character: Orange is less masculine than red. It has very few negative associations. However, it may appear cheap or without vigor if low in saturation.
Ceiling: stimulating, attention-seeking
Walls: warm, luminous
Floor: activating, motion-oriented

Steni yellow and orange facade with children


Effect: cheering
Positive: sunny, cheerful, radiant, vital
Negative: egocentric, glaring
Character: When pure, yellow is the happiest of all colors. In radiates warmth, cheerfulness, and inspiration and signifies enlightenment, and communication.
Ceiling: light (towards lemon), luminous, stimulating
Walls: warm (towards orange), exciting to irritating (highly saturated)
Floor: elevating, diverting

Green Steni facade with a gorilla illustration in black


Effect: retiring, relaxing
Positive: tranquil, refreshing, quiet, natural
Negative: common, tiresome, guilty
Character: Contrary to red, when looking at green the eye focuses exactly on the retina, which makes green the most restful color to the eye. Green can symbolize nature but also mold and sickness.
Ceiling: protective, reflection on the skin can be unattractive
Walls: cool, secure, calm, reliable, passive, irritating if glaring (electric green)
Floor: natural (if not too saturated), soft, relaxing, cold (if towards blue)

Steni.Blue facade with white patterns


Effect: retiring, relaxing
Positive: calm, sober, secure, comfortable, noble
Negative: frightening, depressing, melancholy, cold
Character: Blue appears to be transparent, wet, cool, and relaxing. Opposite to red, blue will decrease a person’s blood pressure and pulse rate.
Ceiling: celestial, cool, receding (if light), heavy and oppressive (if dark)
Walls: cool and distant (if light), encouraging and space deepening (if dark)
Floor: inspiring feeling of effortless movement (if light), substantial (if dark)


Effect: subduing
Positive: dignified, exclusive
Negative: lonely, mournful, pompous, conceited
Character: Purple is a mixture of red and blue (the two colors that are psychologically most opposed). Purple can appear delicate and rich, or unsettling and degenerate.
Ceiling: disconcerting, subduing
Walls: heavy, overpowering
Floor: fleeting, magical


Effect: lively (bubble-gum pink), calming (light pink)
Positive: lively, calming, intimate
Negative: too sweet, weak
Character: Pink must be handled carefully. It is generally considered feminine, but depends much on the nuance used (bubble-gum pink, or old rose)
Ceiling: delicate, comforting
Walls: aggression-inhibiting, intimate, too sweet if not grayed down
Floor: too delicate, not used very often


Effect: subduing
Positive: warm, secure, stable
Negative: oppressive, heavy
Character: There is a great difference between wood and brown paint. In certain institutions brown should be avoided since it evokes fecal associations. Wood and stone on the other hand appear very comfortable, and warm.
Ceiling: oppressive and heavy (if dark)
Walls: secure and assuring if wood, much less so if paint
Floor: steady, stable

Steni.White facade with patterns on Villa in Norway


Effect: disconcerning
Positive: clean, crisp, bright
Negative: empty, sterile
Character: There are a lot of psychological and physiological justifications for not using white as a dominant color.
Ceiling: empty, no design objections-helps diffuse light sources and reduce shadows
Walls: neutral to empty, sterile, without energy
Floor: touch-inhibiting (not to be walked upon)


Effect: neutral to calming
Positive: neutral
Negative: boring
Character: Gray fails to have much psychotherapeutic application. Thus, the current fashion of using it with various accent walls defies all logic.
Ceiling: shadowy
Walls: neutral to boring
Floor: neutral

Steni.Grey and black facade with pattern of a man playing tuba.


Effect: ominous
Positive: deep, abstract
Negative: dungeonlike, night, grief, death
Character: Black is associated with oppressive power, darkness, and the unknown. In architecture it is often used to make something appear as receding, such as the HVAC in a ceiling.
Ceiling: hollow to oppressive
Walls: ominous, dungeonlike
Floor: odd, abstract

Of course the effect of these colors also depends on their position and context, since colors are almost never seen in isolation. Our perception of and reaction to a hue will change if it is on the interior or exterior of a building, whether it is located on a ceiling, a wall, or the floor, and what the current light condition is.

The attributes of the different hues should not be handled as end results to the designer, but used more as a starting point.

Neuropsychological Aspects

A part of neuropsychological investigation is to discover how the brain processes and reacts to sensory information coming from the external world and how this affects humans.

Stress research has shown that states of sensory monotony or overstimulation can trigger dysfunction in the organism.

Snohetta and psycologist have interesting findings in city design and mental health studies

Visual Ergonomics and Color

Probably one of the least known factors of appropriate color specification is its role in safeguarding visual efficiency and comfort.

The eye’s adaptation process involves the immediate reaction of the eye to changes in the degree of illumination.Lower light reflectance causes the pupil to dilate, and the reverse is true for higher reflectance.

The eye sees luminous density and not the intensity of illuminance. Luminous density is what the eyes receive when light is reflected from a surface (floors, walls, furniture). If the differences between the luminous densities within view are too great, the iris muscle is strained due to constant adjustment, thus causing eye fatigue.

Studies have shown that appropriate differences in luminous density can prevent eye fatigue and raise visual acuity, and thus also productivity.

The colors of surfaces absorb and reflect a certain amount of light. These measurements are referred to as light reflection values. Practically all paint companies show them on their color fan decks under LR or LRV.

The international norms are the 3–1 light reflection ratio within a space. This suggests that floors should reflect about 20%, furniture 25–40%, walls 40–60%. The 3–1 designation means the lightest color (60%) divided by the darkest (20%) is a ratio of 3–1. However, visual ergonomists are not color designers. A yellow wall at 60% is not a yellow anymore but a tan. The only solution is if the walls are raised to 75% light reflection for example, so must then be the percentage of floor and furnishings also be raised to insure that there still exists control of extreme contrasts in dark and light. Interesting fact is that if these rules were known by the design community, white walls would not exist — only ceilings are where 80–90% is accepted.

Color and Perception

Thanks to Sir Isaac Newton, we know today that color is a function of light. By refracting array of sunlight through a prism, Newton was able to prove that light contains the full spectrum of the rainbow. He identified the basic colors as the “Visible 7”: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (ROYGBIV).

Steni Manglerud skole

Photo: Steni

Each hue corresponds to a certain range of wavelength of radiant energy, with red having the longest wavelength, and violet having the shortest of the range of electromagnetic waves that we can see.

Although red and violet are very different in terms of wavelengths they can be combined to produce purples that cannot be seen in the spectrum itself.

Newton also proved that mixing lights of all colors produces white. This phenomena is described as additive since the more you mix colored light with other colors, the lighter it becomes.

In contrast to additive color, subtractive color mixing combines pigments rather than light. When mixing pigments the more colors that are added the closer the result comes to black.

With our present scientific knowledge there is still debate about the exact process of color perception as color registers in the eyes, the inputs are classified, and transferred to the brain.

In very simplified terms the eye works similarly to a camera. Light enters the human eye through the cornea, the outer covering of the eye, the muscles of the iris control how much light is entering the eye through the pupil.Steni4.dame.nikkila-n-syda-n-steni-vision-12

Photo: Steni

The light is then focused on the back surface of the eye: the retina.

The retina is made of the photoreceptor cells called rods and cones. Rods allow us to see forms in dim light, but are limited to black and white, while cones work better in brighter lighting and allow us to perceive hues.

Humane design places the human being in the center of its concern and purpose. Therefore, it should show interest in human welfare and dignity. Read the full article by TDM Studio.

Steni facades provide colorful fasades with long lifetime warranty and minimal impact – of course!

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Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 21 Union Street, 3rd Floor, Troy, New York, NY 12180, USA. March 2010. “The Effects of Red and Blue Lights on Circadian Variations in Cortisol, Alpha Amylase, and Melatonin

Oxford Academic, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. March 2004. “High Sensitivity of Human Melatonin, Alertness, Thermoregulation, and Heart Rate to Short Wavelength Light

The Cut “The Psychologial cost of boring buildings