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How to effectively use color in treatment facilities

August 2, 2017
by Alicia Hoisington
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While experts say that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in using color in treatment center design, there are some general tips for a do-no-harm approach.

“Most people focus just on palette choice, but saturation is the first thing to consider because colors may reflect from walls and change the perception of skin tone, for example” says Eve Edelstein, director of the Human Experience Lab at Perkins+Will. “The impact of color may also depend on what type of condition is being treated.”

For example, she says some patients might become visually stimulated around high-contrast patterns and become fixated on them.

“We want to do no harm and see what kind of good we can do to make their experience better, and we need to consider their health, their experience and their preferences,” Edelstein says.

Photo courtesy of Mark Herboth Photography
Wood flooring should reflect the overall color palette

Kevin Turner, practice leader and principal at Perkins+Will, says that when it comes to designing spaces in behavioral health, all things should be done in moderation.

“What we want to do is provide a warm, therapeutic environment that is never overwhelming,” he says. “When in doubt about a pattern or extra color, the advice is probably don’t use it. Everything needs to be intentional.”

William N. Bernstein, president of the Behavioral Healthcare Architecture Group, says the environment should be harmonious without being jarring, avoiding colors that could excite or upset patients.

“The color shouldn’t really jump out,” he says. “It should create a feeling of light, happiness and beauty in the space. No individual colors should be too strong.”

Accent colors that Bernstein considers optimal for treatment centers include: pastel hues of blue and green; warm purple or violet; warm yellow and orange; and taupe.

“Pastel colors are some of the most beautiful colors for the environment as they have a richness of color yet conveyed in a way that is soft and comforting,” Bernstein says. “Using a pastel color that is rich and not too light or dark could create an accent wall that has the right degree of presence and subtle differentiation from adjoining off-white, non-accent walls.”

Photo courtesy of Behavioral Health Architecture Group
Floor transition color helps patients navigate

Lilliana Alvarado, design principal at UPHEALING, agrees that there is no single rule to choosing colors as it largely depends on each facility, but generally it’s best to stick with hues and colors that have a calming effect. Although, that doesn’t mean pops of color are off limits entirely, as long as they are mindfully placed. Small accent pieces can add some color variation.

And there are some colors that are off limits, she says. For example, dark grey and black are colors that could trigger sadness. Reds should be avoided in large areas because of the potential to trigger trauma response. Red is visually associated with police lights, blood or fires, for example, and can be disturbing.

“It’s a powerful color that in some cases may trigger thoughts or traumas a patient may have had in the past, and it could represent something more violent,” Alvarado says.

Bernstein says that while warm yellow and orange are great to work with, bright yellow and orange as well as institutional green should be avoided.

“Bright yellow and especially bright orange became popular colors to use in the 1960s. Characteristic of that period, these were in-your-face colors used to shock and make a bold statement. They are ill-suited for behavioral healthcare environments where the goal is comfort versus discomfort,” he says.

Meanwhile, institutional green offers a different problem, he says. “To some extent it is an ‘anti-color color,’ used to connote intuitionalism versus a color used to create an appealing and welcoming environment.”

Photo by Joseph St. Pierre
Pops of color brighten up gathering spaces

Sometimes colors can be difficult to choose if lighting isn’t taken into account, too, Bernstein adds.

“Color reacts to the type of light and the relative warmth or coolness of that light,” he says. “You need to simulate the lighting in the space when you choose color.”

Equally important is considering the scale, Bernstein adds. Wall colors are often selected by looking at a paint chip or small sample. While good as a starting point, the challenge is envisioning the color on a large surface. He suggests previewing a mock up for each color on a large wall, with the specified light in the space, to get a feel for how the finished product will actually look.

The color palette also needs to make sense and flow, Turner says.

“If you have a pastel in one room and walk through the doorway to the next room with a primary color, it may be beautiful, but the transition is jarring,” he says. “That could be a big deal for a patient.”

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