One of the most referenced publications on colour and hospital design is a study conducted by NHS Estates. Called “Lighting and Colour for Hospital Design,” the report notes that the relationship between colour and wellbeing is amplified in a hospital setting. Research into the psychological power of colour within other facilities – such as airports and railway stations – has proven that colour and design is able to influence people who are anxious, disoriented and emotional.

All of these emotions are certainly present within a hospital, along with many others – excitement over the birth of a baby, grief over the loss of a loved one. Truly, hospitals are a place where the whole spectrum of human emotions exist under one roof. How can architects and designers use this information to create thoughtful, stimulating, comforting spaces?

More than an Institution

Too often, cost, maintenance and failure to realize the importance of colour in patient wellbeing leads to a single or perhaps two-toned scheme. Often this leaves healthcare facilities with an “institutional” atmosphere, which can add to feelings of anxiety and depression within patients. Colour design is about more than the paint on the walls. Everything from the furniture to the flooring to the artwork all comes together to create a colour story. In a hospital, this story should ideally be a balanced mix of comfort and professionalism. And while there is no set guideline in selecting a hospital’s colour scheme, there is a general thought process that can prove helpful while making these important decisions.

Contrast and Colour Harmony

While it’s important to use a variety of colour, too many competing colours can lead to an environment that is over-stimulating and unsettling. According to the NHS report, trying to achieve “colour harmony” is the most effective way of creating a welcoming space. Several colour harmony theories already exist – such as using tonal variations of the same colour to create depth (i.e.: medium blue, light blue, white with blue undertones), or pairing contrasting colours to add interest (i.e.: blue and pale yellow). Using tonal contrast not only adds interest to a space, it also enhances visibility for users who are elderly or visually impaired. For example, light coloured stair railings affixed to a darker coloured staircase helps the railing to stand out, which adds to the user’s experience as well as the hospital’s safety.  

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Colours to Avoid

Actual colours chosen will always be swayed by the personal preferences of the individuals involved in the selection process. As long as each hue thoughtfully plays into the overall colour scheme, the hospital interior should feel like a welcoming place. However, there are a few colours the NHS study recommends avoiding. Very dark blues have been associated with feelings of coldness, while strong greens and yellows are often associated with nausea. Purple and bright red are both colours that evoke strong reactions and should also be avoided.

Lighting and Colour

As the NHS report suggests in its title, lighting plays a large role in the visual environment of a healthcare facility. The placement of windows, amount of natural light and types of artificial light used all drastically impact the colour scheme of a hospital and thus should also be considered throughout the colour design process.