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Unlocking the potential of colour

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Colour can have a big impact on the ways in which we feel when we are in a space. This makes the use of colour in healthcare environments, such as hospitals or care facilities, especially important. Jo McMullen, Colour Activation Manager at AkzoNobel, offers advice on unlocking the potential of colour to create functional healthcare environments that positively impact well-being.


A wealth of research has been conducted into the psychology of colour and whether it can have a tangible effect on people. While these claims are not set in stone, and evidence sometimes conflicts, academic studies can help provide ideas when designing an environment that is conducive to recovery.

The vast colour spectrum that’s available for specifiers can make choosing shades for any environment difficult. However, if you consider that shades on walls, floors, in furniture or artwork, are able to positively or negatively impact wellbeing, each colour selection has more than a purely aesthetic value. For example, it has been suggested that orange stimulates mental activity, which could be beneficial in healthcare environments where patients might be spending a long period of time and require inspiration.

On the other hand, using orange shades in mental health units that treat people with severe psychological conditions might be considered too emotionally stimulating, having a negative impact on patients.

When it comes to finding the right shades for healthcare environments, it is essential to remember that it is the combination of colours that has the most impact on how an area is viewed. Soft tones and white shades, such as magnolia, are used predominantly because of their neutrality and association with cleanliness, which can have a calming effect. However in reality, blanketed neutral colours can make a space seem too conservative and absent of personality.

Defining spaces

The public spaces in hospitals have different requirements which are influenced by the people who occupy them. Patients and visitors spend a considerable amount of time in waiting areas, so it’s important that these spaces are both calming and uplifting. To achieve this, any broad neutral colours used on walls can be dispersed with flourishes of bolder colour to add interest. Accented colours can also function as an extension to artwork, for example, by taking a green shade from a painting that depicts a placid natural environment and using it on the walls. Research has shown that we have an inherent affinity to nature and creating spaces that mimic natural environments, for example through the use of colours, can help to alleviate stress.

Colour is also a great tool for marking out spaces. Different shades can be used as visual aids for patients and visitors, as a wayfinding tool or to identify departments. People from all walks of life will visit a hospital, many of whom will be unfamiliar with their surroundings, so navigating around the different areas should be made as easy as possible. Well-placed colours can be used to create pathways, accentuate doorways, or highlight areas not suitable for the public. Using colour blocking can help reception desks stand out and corridors can be divided with strong accent colours to reduce confusion.

When designing areas to be used by elderly patients, choosing specific colours can again be beneficial. Patients with advanced dementia may struggle to differentiate between blues and greens. Using orange or red based shades on doors and to point out hazardous areas like stairs can help these patients struggling with blues and greens to find their way around safely. Pastels can also be used in elderly patients’ rooms to create a relaxing atmosphere and aid wellbeing.

Similarly, paediatric units that will be used by children should be visually interesting. A bold, vibrant palette can be fun and capture a child’s sense of imagination, helping to reduce anxiety.

While in intensive care units, which need to be restful and calming, soft, neutral colours are recommended. This doesn’t mean that the area need be devoid of colour – muted, soothing accents can stop the space from looking too clinical, and provide warmth and comfort.

Brightening Bristol Infirmary

It’s not just internal spaces that can benefit from the use of colour. Exterior coatings from AkzoNobel’s leading paint manufacturer, Dulux Trade, were recently used to create a bright, inspiring mural for an innovative sensory garden at Bristol Royal Infirmary.

Dulux Trade Weathershield Smooth Masonry paint was used to create the mural, which aims to help engage and stimulate patients who have experienced head trauma at the hospital’s Paediatrics Neuroscience Department.

Celebrated artist, Sinta Tantra, was asked by the hospital to help design the garden, due to her experience of creating high-impact art installations. In addition, Sinta selected plants for the garden with distinctive scents, a chalkboard, a wheelchair-friendly gardening table and a swivelling mirrored kaleidoscope installation, creating an interactive space for patients.

The mural was brought to life using a bright colour palette to create an attractive and restful space for people with severe neurological traumas to recuperate in.

The right specification

Using colour in simple and creative ways can have a huge impact, not only on the patients in a healthcare environment, but on staff and visitors too.

A good paint manufacturer will be able to provide colour advice and support, help take the trouble out of choosing and combining colours, and advise on resources that can help to inform best practice. In addition, there are a number of print, online and digital resources available, ranging from tailored colour cards that include example colour schemes appropriate for locations such as hospitals, to downloadable and interactive guides, which allow specifiers to explore a variety of colour options for healthcare environments.

Finding the right balance between standard neutrals and more colourful shades, which can have different effects on people, is vital in a healthcare environment. With some creative thought it is possible to design spaces for all kinds of building occupants to ensure buildings are aesthetically pleasing and function effectively.

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