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How to effectively use color in treatment facilities

August 02, 2017

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.”

That’s why it’s important for the colors in the palette to all belong to the same family, Turner says. If a patient walks from a yellow room to a blue room but those colors are in the same family, the transition will appear seamless.

“We think holistically first,” he says. “We want to use colors but with a palette that evokes comfort and is pleasing.”

Beyond the walls

Wall color isn’t the only aspect to consider when designing spaces. Furniture, fixtures, equipment and artwork require the same attention to detail, experts say.

Photo courtesy of Mark Herboth Photography
Wood flooring prevents a space from appearing institutional

The biggest challenge with furniture is finding pieces that are suitable for the environment but don’t look like the typical institutional furnishings that are meant to be almost indestructible, Turner says.

“We want them to be indestructible, but we don’t want them to look like it,” he says. “We use color, fabric and other material. We want to select fabrics or materials that give furniture a look that’s comfortable and inviting but wrapped around a strong frame that is heavy and difficult to move.”

For example, he says wood over metal has a warm feel. Furniture should offer a variety of colors, shapes and configurations to create less of an institutional appearance.

“Nothing says institutional like using the same exact chair in every space,” Turner says. “Similar to architectural finishes, moderation is key in furniture coverings.”

Photo courtesy of Behavioral Healthcare Architecture Group
An accent wall offers added color

Varying colors within a space in a way that suggests a palette rather than a uniform color choice can make for an interesting space without overstimulating, he says. Patterning also can be used in furniture, but it should be simple geometric patterning without cultural connotations.

Artwork is another design aspect that can deinstitutionalize a space, however, it must be approached with care and consideration of color.

“Color is very important in artwork.  While I recommend moderation in color in the architectural finishes, artwork can be bolder and should be vibrant and colorful,” Turner says. “In general, I would avoid black and white images. While they are often beautiful, the lack of color may not be appropriate for patients dealing with severe depression or related symptoms.”

Turner cites studies that have shown a strong preference for landscape artwork due to its calming effect.

Photo courtesy of Mark Herboth Photography
Nature art can help bring in color variety

“Our brains are well-tuned to nature and landscape, so sometimes that works best,” he says.

What is advantageous about artwork, however, is that it can be easily changed to reflect a new color scheme in the design overall. Turner also encourages designers to consider the color of flooring materials in contrast to the colors that appear on the walls to help patients navigate their space visually.

“The color of the base where the wall meets the floor should always be a contrasting color,” he says. “For patients on the under-processing end of the spectrum, they can have difficulty knowing where the floor ends and begins if it’s the same color.”

Finally, Edelstein says psychiatrists and psychologists note that as people transition through different states of severity, their mental condition might become the primary variable that outweighs the impact of color or art.

Photo courtesy of Behavioral Healthcare Architecture Group
Color notes floor transitions

“We must first attend to health itself and then add how the brain perceives, and the mind prefers different design elements,” she says.


4 easy ways to update a space

It’s inevitable that spaces will need updates as trends change. Here are four cost-effective ways to update a space, according to experts.

1. Re-paint: Paint is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to update a space with color.

2. Add a chair rail: This allows a break in the space where a high and low color can be added to make the space feel more dynamic.

Photo by Joseph St. Pierre
Pops of blue warm up bed areas

3. Put in an accent wall: This technique can be useful to draw focus and add a small amount of color that is not overwhelming, especially in smaller spaces.

4. Swap out furniture: Larger pieces, such as dining tables, might be worth keeping, while smaller pieces can be changed out to update a color scheme instantly.

Alicia Hoisington is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

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