The (mis)use of colour


The (mis)use of colour


Gert van Dam from 3equals1's design team explores the use of colour as a design tool...


Interest in colour

Colour is one of the most interesting elements to manipulate in the work of design. In residential design colour is for the most part controlled by personal taste which makes perfect sense. Your house is your private environment where you want to feel homely and safe. In public spaces, colour can be more of a tool to create spatial experiences and to direct people unconsciously through a space. My interest in colour intensified when I worked on my graduation project in the Netherlands. I discovered the friction that exists between colour being very beneficial but also at times distracting. In public spaces in particular colour can be used to make spaces more practical for the users instead of counterproductive. Colour in spaces where different people come together requires well-considered choices instead of being driven by trends or personal taste.

   Monochrome Exhibition in Brooklyn by C.J. Henry’’ – photo from Dezeen

Monochrome Exhibition in Brooklyn by C.J. Henry’’ – photo from Dezeen


How to approach the subject of colour

The origin of colour is worth a blog on its own. For now we are more interested in how to improve interior design schemes in general and to give our mantra of 'making work live' more meaning.

We must consider that we are talking about colour from a spatial point of view and not in the way it is used in other visual exploits like artwork and branding. For example the colour red in Leonardo Da Vinci’s fresco of the ‘Last Supper’ represents the symbolic meaning of the human part of Jesus Christ but red is also used for the branding of McDonalds to make us hungry and want to buy more food.

Last supper Art with colour Red.jpg

Remember as well that the meaning of colours and the psychological effects of colours are highly affected by the culture of the environment in which they are seen. Whereas in Western culture white is the most used colour for weddings, in other parts of the world it is related to death. And even though white and black are theoretically not colours, this example shows the cultural differences in colour usage around the world. 

Colour experience


Although the way we observe colours is often affected by personal experiences, preferences, and trends, there are some general facts about colour and the way we all experience them. Research shows there are factors that are proven to be influential to all people. This needs consideration when working on projects for offices, hospitals, universities etc.


‘’Well used colours in an Elderly Residential Homes by Atelier Zundel Cristea in France’’

*Art Factory colour wheel

*Art Factory colour wheel

Warm and Cold

The circle of colours can be cut in 2. On the left hand side we are talking about the ‘warm’ colours. On the right hand side we’re talking about the ‘cold’ colours. You could say the right side is representing the ‘Calm and Rest’ whereas the left side represents the ‘Power, Passion and Energy’.

The centre of the colour circle starts with the three primary colours: Red, Yellow and Blue. When two of the primary colours merge there is a secondary colour. For example Yellow and Blue together becomes the secondary colour Green. One step further shows the circle of tertiary colours. Although this may be basic information and quite obvious, it helps to understand the way colours can complement each other. 

When we look at the following colour pallets various sources say that these colours generally have the following impact on our mood:

Blue: Is connected to water and air and therefor associated with a clear mind, and a meditating environment

Yellow: Is bright and sparkling. Yellow could stimulate the productivity and brains.

Red: Red is all about passion, boldness, and intimacy.

Green: Green represents nature and can stimulate relaxing, calm and balanced.

Orange: Should stimulate the creativity

Grey: is natural and timeless.

Colour and design classics

To me, the impact of colours is as strong as the impact of design classics. The original design of a well-known furniture piece has a lot of impact. However, the more copies of the original that are made, the lower the quality will be. For me, the colours in the colour circle work in the same way. The 3 Primary colours have the most impact. The further you go away from the original colours the less impactful it will be. There are exceptions to this rule but broadly speaking this is the case. 

Our design work


For one of our clients I have been working on a listed building where we wanted to use colour to enhance the design. In the sketch visual we have used colours in the different rooms to improve the purpose of the space. For example, in the offices we have used the colour yellow as it’s a place where people work individually. The colour yellow will affect their mind and work-speed in a positive way.

In the meeting room we have used the colour blue. In this space a lot of meetings and classes take place so there will be lots of conversations and discussions. The addition of yellow would be too much as the people in the space won’t need this vibrant colour addition. Instead the colour should be more calming to balance the vibrancy of the discussions and classes. That’s why we have used the colour blue as a feature in this room.

‘’Yellow will affect their mind and work-speed in a positive way’’ – Sketch Visual 3Equals1 Design    

‘’Yellow will affect their mind and work-speed in a positive way’’ – Sketch Visual 3Equals1 Design

‘’The colour should be more calming to balance with the vibrancy of the discussions and classes. That’s why we have used the colour Blue’’ - Sketch Visual 3Equals1 Design

‘’The colour should be more calming to balance with the vibrancy of the discussions and classes. That’s why we have used the colour Blue’’ - Sketch Visual 3Equals1 Design


There is a lot to talk and write about colour and the potential psychological effects of it. It is a subject that is difficult to put in the format of a short blog piece. My main aim with this blog was to point out the importance of colour and the ways in which it can be used. I know not everyone will agree on this colour-vision but I think colour is very often misunderstood. Even though I think [interior] architects and designers have the responsibility to use colour with the well-being of the future users in mind, we obviously see that many choices are based on personal preferences or even worse, on cheap interior trends which are highly influenced by money and commercial benefits. Personally, from an [interior] architecture point of view I feel the need to create spaces that work for the future users longer than only one season. It’s about giving depth to your design work and caring about the well-being of your clients. This means colour should be considered in every single project rather than seen as a decorative part of design. These well considered design choices will increase the impact and save the design from becoming outdated.


‘’MVRD’s office in Rotterdam, the Netherlands’’ – photo

‘’MVRD’s office in Rotterdam, the Netherlands’’ – photo



1. Color and Light in Nature
David K. Lynch en William Livingston - Cambridge University Press -  Amsterdam, 2001
2. Kleur (Colour)
Theo Schildkamp - Van Holkema & Warendorf – Houten, the Netherlands, 2001
3. Color decoder
Dorothye Parker - Quarto Publishing plc – London, United Kingdom, 2002
4. Kunst en Kleur (Art and Colour)
Johannes Itten - Cantecleer – Baarn, the Netherlands, 2000 (3e druk)
5. The Influence of colour on our wellbeing
Joyce van der Woning, Thesis for University of Twente, the Netherlands

à /het psychologische effect van kleuren [the psychological effects of colour]
à /invloed van kleur op menselijk gedrag [the influence of colour on human behaviour]
à /de beste kleuren voor ouderen [the best colours of elder people]

To get in touch with Gert  click here .

To get in touch with Gert click here.

Philip Hodgkinson