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Colour Psychology
27 February 2016

Colour Psychology from Frem: how we see and interact with colour

With the ability to influence mood, prompt action and cause physiological response, colour is a powerful tool of communication. It affects both our emotions and perceptions and, used correctly, can enhance productivity and promote happiness. These subconscious reactions extend deep into our daily lives and colour can even influence the taste of food as can all of the shades and tints found in our peripheral vision as we eat. In 2000, Glasgow introduced blue street lights in some areas which prompted a reduction in crime rates. When designing rooms for whatever purpose it is essential to be aware of the impact and effects of different colour schemes; your choices should reflect both the function of the room and its users.

Understanding Colour

Our understanding of colour has changed massively over time. Before Sir Isaac Newton’s revolutionary experiments in 1666 it was widely believed that colour was simply a mixture of light and darkness with different proportions producing different hues. Newton refracted light through a prism to display the full spectrum of coloured rays. Another major change in the way we think about colour came via German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the 18th Century. Goethe comments in his book, Theory of Colours:

‘When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another [colour]...’

As well as identifying the relationship between colours, Goethe also connected colour to human psychology. The temperamentenrose, or ‘rose of temperaments’, was a 1798 study by Goethe and Schiller which matched twelve colours to human occupations or traits: tyrants, heroes, adventurers, hedonists, lovers, poets, public speakers, historians, teachers, philosophers, pedants, rulers.

How Colours Interact

There are a range of factors which alter our perception of colours. Blue and black or white and gold? At the start of 2015 you might remember the whole internet arguing over a particular dress. But was it blue with black lace or white with gold lace? The answer is both. Our observation of colour is affected by the colour of ambient light and our wider field of vision also affects our interpretation. The dress offered an important lesson in how colours interact and serves to stress the importance of creating colour schemes that complement rather than confuse each other.

Colour can dramatically affect the look and feel of a room or learning space, so it is essential to make the right choice, particularly when a number of separate areas need to work with each other. Take this cube of coloured squares on the right. The middle square on both the top and front faces are exactly the same shade despite one looking brown and the other yellow. Colour should be used to subtly influence mood and enhance learning in each of the key areas appropriately.

White and Magnolia

The use of white and magnolia in interiors has developed negative associations for their blandness and lack of personality. While they can be used to highlight and accent bolder colours, the lack of attached risk sees them used in abundance in place of thoughtful design or inspired colour choice. Without any guidelines on colour principles amateur designers are often influenced by fashionable or personal tastes rather than applying research on the effects of different schemes. Creating a tonally harmonious space requires careful planning but the rewards are plentiful. Below is a quick guide to how different colours should be used, in what spaces and with what schemes.

Colour Guide


‘The World’s favourite colour’, hailed for being calm and contemplative, blue is ideal for focused study areas and libraries.     It has associations with trust, tranquillity and relaxation but is also known for being one of the least appetising colours and some weight loss companies have been known to recommend eating your food from a blue plate.

Due to its cool tone, blue is complemented by similar neutral colours like grey and purple. If you’re after a bolder, more dynamic look go for warm accent colours like orange or red.


The use of red has to be careful and considered as its effects and implications are diverse. Red is a colour that is universally accepted to represent danger and is used sparingly in schools as a result of its negative connotations.

There are also many positive links however such as quickness, energy and passion and in China red is a symbol of prosperity and happiness. It should be used in areas that require interactive participation such as English, drama and music rooms.


Linked to harmony and balance, green is ideal for collaboration and can be utilised in class bases and learning commons. Due to its abundant presence in nature, green is typified as a fresh, vibrant colour. Pure, bright white hues can give an impressive contrast while purple offers a direct complement.


Yellow is known for its cheerfulness and optimism. It should be used in practical tasks such as science labs or transit areas as it improves mood and encourages communication. You can offset with purples like violet and grape while for lighter yellows more harmonious matches are offered by light blues and deep greens


The warm, exuberant tones of orange make it ideal for socialising. Use it in dining areas and receptions to make people feel welcome. Aqua and turquoise work well with orange to give a modern, fresh feel. Pairing with yellows creates a lively, summery look, while the dramatic contrast offered by black is a perennially popular choice.


Staff rooms and offices can benefit from bold purple schemes as they encourage contemplation. Purple is said to stimulate our imagination and spirituality but it should be used carefully to stop it dominating the room. Paler shades of purple can be combined for a more feminine feel while pairing it with orange creates a more energetic room.

Creating a Balanced Scheme

The colour wheel shows the colours that combine well, whether they are tonal, contrasting or harmonious colours. Below is a traditional version of the colour wheel and also pastel version which illustrates colour combinations using lighter hues.

Tonal colour schemes are created using different tones of the same colour.

Contrasting colours sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Harmonious colour schemes can be created using colours adjacent to each other on the colour wheel.