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Has the Time Come for a Colour Revolution in Healthcare Design?

Jain Malkin, the Grande Dame of Healthcare Interiors, once asked a provocative question: “Are healthcare architects phobic about colour?” She argues, “The brain perceives the environment consciously and subconsciously, causing it to increase or decrease the concentration of physiologically active hormones that have the capacity to negatively impact the healing response. Even when a person is not consciously thinking about the interior design and comfort level of the setting, the brain is responding to it subconsciously.”

Yet, today, colour is rarely used to any specific effect by designers, which begs the question—when it comes to healthcare design, where’s the colour?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that, while we may intuitively understand that colour can influence mood and our sense of well-being, studies are still inconclusive about how exactly colour works to affect humans, either psychologically or physically. Furthermore, it’s likely that reactions to colour are cultural and age-related, and can even have varying effects in different geographic locations.

There is also a practical element at play. Since healthcare facilities see constant use and abuse, they need to keep an “attic supply” of materials and paint colours to ensure constant upkeep of spaces that are likely to show wear and tear. Colour choice and upkeep also influence our perception of how clean a space is, so maintenance is an important design consideration in any healthcare facility. With all of these variables taken into account, it makes sense that so many facilities feature monotone, neutral colour palettes.

While it may not be possible to formulate universal guidelines for colour use, designers can still incorporate colour into healthcare design to great effect. By building on the fundamentals of colour theory and the inferences, we can draw from the studies available; pioneering, open-minded architects and designers could start a revolution in healthcare colour usage.

To start, healthcare designers need to understand the physiological effects and psychological perception of colour. Things like simultaneous contrast, successive contrast and afterimage, metameric colour pairs, reflectance, Purkinje effect, colour constancy, advancing and receding colours, and figure-ground reversal all play a role in our phenomenological experience of colour. Designers should also recognize the needs of each specific patient population that will use a particular space when selecting colours. While bright colours may work in pediatric healthcare spaces, as people age, lenses harden and perception of colour is altered, so different uses of colour need to be considered.

Strategic use of colour, tone and saturation can also serve as wayfinding guides to facilitate navigation for various users, especially for those who have visual impairments. Thoughtful use of contrast can also ensure that all facility users are able to read and comprehend signage with ease.

Parkin healthcare designers strive to challenge traditional, staid institutional colour palettes by employing Evidence-Based design and working with our clients to incorporate colour in meaningful and pleasing ways that work for patients, staff and visitors alike.

A Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital, completed in 2015, our designers used the nearby Sixteen Mile Creek and surrounding valley for inspiration. The hospital features double-height spaces, integrating natural wood and stone elements, and features blue tones to help users navigate the 1,500,000 sq.ft. facility.

At Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care, research indicated that the use of vibrant colours contributed to the healing environment while reducing the stigma commonly associated with mental health. Meanwhile, at the Providence Care Hospital, our designers incorporated calming blues and greens that emulate the natural environment to integrate the space with its natural setting. Judicious use of red signage creates an eye-catching contrast that draws the eye for wayfinding purposes.

In pediatric care projects, Parkin’s designs continue to push the boundaries of colour use. Our award-winning design for Marnie’s Studio at SickKids was created through extensive consultations that included patients and families. The multi-sensory space is adjacent to an art studio and features bright colours that help stimulate creativity and concentration, while helping to reduce stress and anxiety.

Clinical spaces can be understandably stressful for patients, families and visitors, but our design approach can be anything but clinical. The time for old-fashioned and overly conservative methods is coming to an end. With open minds and a collaborative and creative process, healthcare designers can be generous and brave in their use of colour to create inviting spaces for all of a facility’s users.


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