There’s a startling volume of information out there regarding chromology, or the alleged link between colors, patterns, moods and psychologies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of it lands firmly at the rather woollier end of the scientific spectrum.
However, a decent amount of credible research has gone into more general study regarding the putative influence of environments on behavior, and even the more academic studies into the validity of color theory do suggest it can exert a subtle influence in certain applications.
Along with home décor and marketing techniques, one of the most closely examined fields is that of the business environment.
It is, of course, highly spurious to claim that repainting an office space in canary yellow with purple pinstripes might have an instant and discernible impact on clearly defined targets like team morale, profit margins or customer service levels. (If anything, that specific scheme might have an instant and discernible impact on absentee rates.) Nevertheless, a growing evidence base does indicate tåhat a reasonable case might be made for at least one or two broader causal links.
Feeling blue at work?
Accepted wisdom, if such a tag applies in the relatively niche field of performance-related color theory, holds that blue is key when it comes to unlocking productivity. This owes chiefly to the fact that, of the four primaries, the impact of blue tones is reckoned to be the most immediately cerebral.
Reds, by contrast, are said evoke a comparatively physical reaction (possibly related to the hard-wired ways in which human instinct demands an action response to indicators of fire, blood, and other signs of threat or risk), while greens and yellows are believed to exert more pull on the emotional landscape.
Leading color psychologist Angela Wright – whose consultancy CV includes such big-name clients as Shell, Unilever and Motorola – sees this as essentially accurate, but also as an oversimplification on two important counts: first, it depends what you mean by ‘productivity’, and second, it omits intensity from the equation.
Since blue is widely seen as the most mentally stimulating of the primary color groups, says Wright, it’s therefore likely to prove a solid choice for environments in which to perform wholly intellectual tasks. However, few professional roles fall entirely within that narrow category; most jobs also require a dash of creativity, physicality or emotional intelligence in order to be performed at an optimal level.
When deciding on an office, studio or factory color scheme, it’s crucial to bear in mind that productivity for an accountant and productivity for an art director are two very different qualities requiring very different stimuli. It therefore follows that the majority of workplaces will benefit from including a range of hues and tones that could appeal to a wider suite of responses and behaviors.
While blue might offer an effective base note for encouraging more studious intellectual tasks, and yellows could help kick up a few more creative sparks now and then, chromologists insist that there are additional key distinctions to be made. Picking suitable colors to supporting certain roles is only half the challenge, as Wright and her colleagues (not to mention Google’s office design team) agree: the intensity or saturation level of a design scheme can be as influential as the colors themselves in determining impact.
Vivid blues, for example, are reckoned to help clear the mind and aid narrower focus, while softer or lighter shades are thought to stimulate certain brain zones that can produce a (very) subtle tranquilizing effect, potentially helping to combat stress and reduce the risk of error under pressure.
To complicate matters yet further, a host of secondary effects could be worthy of consideration in specific applications and environments. Blues in general are considered to be mildly appetite supressing, and so arguably wouldn’t be a great choice for a restaurant business (unless, of course, there’s an all-you-can-eat promotion going on). The more metabolic reaction provoked by reds and oranges has the opposite effect, which is why home designers seldom recommend sleeping areas be festooned in blazing vermillion but often cite autumnal tones as particularly appropriate for kitchens and dining rooms.
Color in everything
While all of the above is primarily concerned with the actual workplace environment, many business owners – if they hold any stock in these notions at all – will understandably be far more concerned with how they impact on customers, sales and other external interactions.
Indeed, the marketing applications of chromology forms an entirely distinct (and remarkably vast) area of study in and of itself, but it surely goes almost without saying that outward-facing platforms from company websites to uniforms, livery, business cards and billboards are increasingly being designed with the psychological impact of color theory in mind.
Skeptics will of course argue that ascribing the ability to make staff feel more intellectually capable – or less peckish – to colours and shades is stretching credibility a bit far. However, today’s business marketplace does appear fairly saturated with anecdotal evidence to support the chromologists’ claims. One commonly cited exhibit (and a useful test of confirmation bias, if nothing else) is to list all the well-known fast food brands that rely heavily on bold red signatures, versus how many opt for bright blue – and then to repeat the exercise for tech companies, where the polar opposite trend emerges.
For those that remain unconvinced, there’s one last angle to look at all this from, regardless of any alleged influence of on the subtleties of human emotional balance: color has repeatedly been proven to alter physical perceptions of an environment, including size, availability of ambient light, and temperature. In other words, not only does color have the potential to make an employee feel less depressed about a poky and dingy office – it could even cut down on the heating bill.