INTERIOR : Coloring Behavior : The Effects of Different Hues on Our Bodies and Minds Can Be Dramatic, Designers Say

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

You’ve had your pre-game warm-ups and you’re feeling loose, confident and aggressive as you lumber off the football field, down the tunnel and into the visitors’ locker room. As you stare at the walls, you begin to relax and reflect, anticipating a win over the University of New Mexico. You’re favored. You smile. It starts to feel like a good day.

Then you go out and get hammered. Absolutely shredded. Why?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that a former athletic director at the University of New Mexico knew which crayon in the box was the one that made you think of peace and good will toward your fellow man and which was the one that made you want to beat your fellow man to marmalade. He made sure that the visitors’ locker room was painted a calming blue and the home locker room a jangling red.

While you were feeling blissed out, the home players were stalking around in their crimson cage like gorillas on a caffeine binge, getting meaner and nastier by the minute.


That’s how dramatic the effects of color on our bodies and minds can be, said Barbara Colby, an interior designer and author who specializes in the use of color.

Colors, she said, can affect us profoundly, both psychologically and physically, depressing or elating us, distressing or healing, calming or agitating, leading us to different thoughts, behavior, moods and states of well-being.

“Most people don’t realize how light and color relate to shaping our lives,” said Colby, who operates the Glendale design and color marketing firm of Chromanetics.

“It’s used,” she said, “to sell products, to move people in and out of restaurants quickly, to avoid accidents. Doctors diagnose by the color of your skin, your eyes, your tongue, your throat. You can use it to energize people, to sedate people. You can create almost any emotion or mood with color. I can’t even imagine life without it.”


Our response to the stimuli of colors is complex, Colby said, and begins in infancy.

A newborn does not perceive color, only contrasts of black and white, but after a few weeks, she said, color perception begins and, “depending on your socioeconomic background, those perceptions take shape in different ways.”

The more educated, sophisticated and wealthy a person is, she said, the more the person is likely to prefer more complex mixtures and more sophisticated colors. Those lower on the socioeconomic scale tend to prefer starker, more basic colors.

Emotional responses to colors, she said, “are bound to time, place, geographic location, cultural development, age and gender.” Cultural conditioning, in other words, determines how we think about colors.


Conditioning, however, does not figure in what Colby said is an automatic bodily response to certain colors.

Your favorite color may be red, but “if I sat you in front of a red wall for as little as 15 minutes,” Colby said, “your muscle activity would increase, and your breathing and blood pressure would increase also.”

Red--or any color of the visible spectrum--produces waves of certain lengths, which are perceived by the eyes, Colby said, and have a direct effect on the adrenal glands next to the kidneys, called the adrenal medulla.

The wavelength of red, for instance, causes the glands to secrete adrenalin. Conversely, “you can keep (adrenalin) from being shot off by putting a person in a blue room, which would render the adrenal medulla sedated,” she said.


“Your glands don’t know what color red or blue or yellow is,” Colby said, “but by virtue of the fact that you have certain built-in responses, your body will react automatically.”

Each color has a particular effect on people, both emotional and physical, said Dana Eggerts, a designer with the Costa Mesa interior design firm of Creative Design Consultants.

These effects, she said, can be heightened or muted, depending on the shade and tone of the color used.

Perhaps the strongest response, she said, is produced by red, which tends to “increase hormonal or sexual activity, raise your blood pressure and your pulse rate and actually activate your adrenalin. It increases restlessness and nervous tension. It also induces creativity, but people tend to lose track of time.”


It also tends to increase the appetite, Eggerts said. It is no accident that so many fast-food outlets are awash in reds, oranges and yellows--all stimulating colors that encourage people to eat a lot, and eat quickly.

Yellow, Eggerts said, “is the most highly visible color your eye sees. It’s the most vibrant. It stimulates a bright and cheerful mood.”

However, she added, the unrestrained or unmitigated use of yellow “causes people to lose their tempers more often. They don’t use that color in homes for the elderly, and babies cry more often if they’re in yellow rooms. If you’re in a yellow room too long, you get too stimulated. It can aggravate people.”

Blue affects people in almost the opposite way, she said: “It decreases hormonal activity, lowers blood pressure and creates restful and sedate states of mind. It also usually causes people to underestimate time.”


It is not a good color for offices, Eggerts said, because of its tendency to produce more pensive attitudes.

Green, she said, is similar to blue in that it “represents a withdrawal from stimulus. It provides an ideal environment for concentration and meditation, and it pacifies or reduces muscular tension.”

The best color for a creative environment, she said, is gray, because “it stimulates productivity. It’s such a soothing and natural color.”

Black--and, to a lesser extent, brown--"creates an air of authority, such as in executive offices and board rooms,” she said.


The judicious use of these colors, often in combinations, can have a particularly dramatic effect in a hospital, where they can be used to speed healing. Colby said there is even a color on the market known as cardiac blue that is “used in cardiac units to calm patients.”

“Our palette is generally warm and soothing,” said Dubby Evans, an architect and the vice-president of facilities, design and construction at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. “We want to lower the anxiety level of the patient and not make it a noisy environment.

“People come here so often for rest, so we’ve got to provide quiet healing, without stress. So we go with the universal soft tones, whether it’s a soft blue or a light green. We save the brighter colors for accents in upholstery or artwork.”

Yellow, and “the earth tones of the ‘70s,” are now taboo at Hoag, Evans said. The hospital now is in grays, mauves and corals, “the mellow colors we’ve noticed, say, in the malls. For instance, we use pale pinks and corals in our maternity wards. People really seem to enjoy that.”


What about hospital green? It is a traditional color in the operating room not only because of its restful nature, but, Evans said, because it is on the opposite end of the color spectrum from the color a surgeon most often is staring at: red.

“The surgeon can look up (from the surgical site) and see green and his eyes will be refreshed,” she said. “He won’t see red spots all the time.”

In the home, however, colors are less practical and more a matter of instinct, said Charle Sikorski, an interior designer with the Garden Grove firm of College Park Interiors.

“I find that people are naturally drawn to the colors that they need in their lives,” Sikorski said. “You can see it in their eyes when they look at color samples. They’re drawn to particular colors.”


There are, however, certain do’s and don’ts in planning colors for the home.

For the same reasons that blues don’t work in offices and restaurants (restaurants “never succeed if they’re done in blue,” Sikorski said), they are also “not a great color for the bedroom. People get too relaxed and the romance leaves.”

Elsewhere in the home, however, it’s fine, she said.

Stark yellows can be unsettling in the kitchen, she said: “After (World War II), every kitchen was yellow, and we had the most depressed generation of women in history.”


When the color is too dominant, she said, “it does almost the exact opposite of what we think it’s going to do.”

Children in particular are susceptible to the effects of color. “It used to be,” Sikorski said, “that whenever you looked at a children’s wallpaper book, you saw bright, primary colors. That’s a horrible thing to do to a child. It makes them hyperactive.”

A better choice, she said, are softer shades, such as pink.

Sikorski put the principles of color to work for herself when she decorated her own home. The downstairs living and dining area is predominantly blue and white because “I needed a place to come home to after giving out all my energies all day where I could recoup those energies,” she said.


Upstairs in the bedroom and den, she began to use red neutralized with green. “In that part of the house,” she said, “I needed to feel I was live, that I existed and that I mattered. I wanted to feel a closeness around me. It allowed me to say that this was mine and that I felt good.”

Sikorski said the colors were probably “stronger than what most people would feel comfortable with in their homes,” but she added that they were blunted somewhat by the use of neutralizing colors and the use of a cream color “to calm them down.”

Most people, she said, know this instinctively, which makes color planning in home design a kind of happy revelation for many clients.

“When you talk to people about these color theories,” Sikorski said, “it’s like a little light bulb goes on in their heads.


“They remember a definite physical feeling about color. They remember walking into someone’s home or place of business and feeling deflated or inflated. It’s the color. It’s working on them.”