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The Culture Of Color And Your Office Space


Attitude, perception, and emotion have an invisible impact on performance and productivity – yet that impact is tangible. Office design is a huge part of a worker’s experience. While color is only one factor in that, it is a significant one – and one which can be easily controlled.

The research looking at the impact of color on office productivity is minimal, but there are some tangential studies looking at color and consumer behavior. Over 75% of purchases are impulse purchases (even huge purchases, like buying a car), yet the average consumer spends 3 seconds looking at a package before deciding whether to buy it. That choice is driven more by the emotional reaction to the package colors than anything else.

colorsColors are evocative and are strongly tied to memory and emotional connections. Sattler, an international fabrics company, has even created a “talking colors” kit to help designers select fabrics based on the emotional memories associated with different color combinations.  A UK-based color consultant says that changing color schemes within an office can reduce absenteeism and boost performance.

Office appearance is one of the top factors (along with lighting, temperature, and comfortable office furniture) most associated with employee satisfaction in their work environment. A Texas A&M study found that creative workers came up with 15% more idea simply by including plants in a room, while corporate studies on daylighting show at least 15% productivity increases. A Gensler study estimated that employee productivity would increase by 21% by improving the work environment, and 90% of workers believe the quality of the office affects performance.

A lot has been made of Google’s luxurious employee amenities – dozens of gourmet cafes, games, gyms, outdoor beach volleyball, onsite dry cleaners and banks. But there is a reason for this extravagance: It gets employees to stay at work several hours a day longer. That’s all. Your office does not need to have foosball tables and catered lunches. Making the overall work environment more pleasant will help keep your employees at work for an extra hour a day (according to Gensler). And that’s an achievable goal.

Prep work: Define your brand

Whatever colors you choose should echo your brand, particularly your logo. If you have a design team, there is probably a palette of colors already being used in your marketing materials, the primary colors of your logo and then complementary supporting colors. That full palette of colors can be used throughout the interior design at different areas.

There’s a purpose for this, particularly in a reception area and customer areas like meeting rooms. Echoing your company brand through color selections (and artwork of previous projects or based on the logo) emphasize your identity. Deloitte created a training center where the lobby is devoted to large media displays showing training topics and employee photos, with company information and large displays. It is a shock-and-awe approach to foster a sense of identity. In real areas, the approach should be more low-key, but the intent is the same, to foster a sense of your unique identity. This is particularly critical in reception areas, where it makes an impression on customers, vendors, or investors as well as employees.

(If you need to develop a color palette, Smashing Magazine has a fabulous series of articles on color theory, including one dedicated to different types of color combinations and available tools to create a color palette.)

Identity your style

Color signals certain things about an environment, and this can be closely allied with your design style. For example, midcentury and industrial styles tend to have very stripped-down, neutral interiors in white, beiges, and grays with natural elements like wood and small bursts of bold color. A quirky design studio or boutique may layer on multiple bright, contrasting colors. More serious industries such as law, accounting, or finance may want to emphasize a sense of solidity and trustworthiness using a traditional style, which emphasizes darker colors like maroon, navy, or forest green. The design influences drive the color choices, so identify the design style to select congruent colors.

Identify your purpose

Different spaces have different uses, and the colors used in that space should support that action. So, first, identity your different spaces and the emotional response that people should have in them. For example, for a typical office:

  • Reception areas – high energy, positive, emphasizing the company brand
  • Meeting rooms and collaborative areas – energetic, creative spaces where people can linger          
  • Task areas and workspaces – areas for concentration and focus

Group the different areas of the office space according to the purpose, activity, or audience, and build the colors from there. Also identify where in those spaces you may want to incorporate color  – it doesn’t have to be through paint. Artwork, accessories, or smaller furniture pieces like brightly-colored task chairs[link] can be just as effective – and using furniture elements may be beneficial since one Science Journal study listed furniture as the first consideration for employee comfort. This can be a good tactic in a space with predominantly neutral tones.

Use neutrals to advantage

neutral tonesThe neutral tones will be one of the most consistent colors used in your office space, providing the base for the statement colors. For high-tech or trendy spaces, pure white or black are increasingly popular because of the drama and contrast. Using harsh colors like that, though, requires special attention to lighting so that glare and eyestrain are minimized.

Neutrals can also be light colors, such as pale gray, pastel yellow, or pale green. These are ideal for task areas, which need to promote focus and comfort; light greens, for example, are especially good for reducing eye strain related to computer use.

Match the color to the spaces

orange yellow greenForm always follows function. Smashing Magazine’s series on color theory includes an article just on the emotional associations of different color groups, like red creating a feeling of boldness but also possibly aggression, while orange seems energetic, and blue promotes peace and trust. From a high-level, warm colors (red, orange, yellow) create emotions that are active (happiness, energy) and can boost creativity. Cool colors (green, blue, purple) create feelings of tranquility which can improve concentration.

Staying within a palette doesn’t mean doing the same thing everywhere:

  • The reception areas can be the boldest areas. Brighter colors immediately grab attention and can create a feeling of energy and engagement. Since people don’t generally linger, it is okay to be a little overwhelming.
  • Collaborative spaces use bright hues (like orange, yellow, or green) to increase creativity and give a sense of energy and growth.
  • Task areas should be more neutral, to increase concentration and reduce strain. Bright colors may even inhibit concentration. (Accessories or furniture may be a better way to bring in brighter, energetic colors in a measured way.)
  • It is okay to use neutrals to be accent colors in some areas to soften a bold color.
  • Balance how you use color. Best Design Projects has some dramatic photos of pure white rooms with a single splash of color or brightly monochromatic  rooms that use five or six different shades of the same color.

David Johnson is passionate about office productivity and writes regularly about office culture, design, etiquette, ergonomics, and furnishing. With 40+ years of corporate and small business experience, David brings a wealth of information, knowledge and insight. Follow David’s office productivity links on Twitter (@bizoutfitter) and Google+.


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