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Rules for How to Develop Colour Palettes for Hospitals

Lynne Wilson Orr, Principal, Parkin Architects Limited

1. There are no universal colour rules.
2. Everyone thinks they are a colour expert.
3. Someone will love mauve and be hurt when we don’t use their favourite colour.

 These are my three starting points for every project we start. While these comments are a bit tongue-in-cheek, developing colour palettes for healthcare projects is very challenging. They can’t be so trendy that you can immediately put a date on when they were installed. They have to take the physiology of colour into account (green is the after image of red so use lots of green in rooms with lots of blood but not where it can reflect on a patient’s face, yellow reflects a sickly colour onto skin so probably not appropriate in a dialysis unit, etc.). They have to work with the architectural design. There is no point in choosing dramatic floral wallcoverings if the architect has designed minimalist spaces that scream out for pale, simple neutrals. They need to age well, e.g., custom flooring colours (that would otherwise require an order of thousands of square feet, just to get material to make repairs), tend to look tacky when walls or millwork is removed and the floor is patched with the manufacturer’s standard material.

So how do we do it? First, we analyze the healthcare organization, its vision and mission statements, its location (urban, suburban, and rural), the patient population (paediatrics, mental health, elderly, etc.), the culture of the location (ethnically diverse or not), and any specifics about the facility and its site that are unique. What we select for a downtown, tertiary-care teaching hospital will be very different from what we select for a small, northern community. We also use evidence-based design research to determine if there are any specific physiological issues that we have to deal with, e.g., is there a nephrology clinic or NICU where we should avoid yellow-based colours?

We look at many factors to create a ‘theme’ that is unique to the specific organization, and only that organization. For example, for a large urban ambulatory care centre with a strong focus on women’s health, we developed a theme we called “What Women Bring to the Table”. Based on the concept that women move among the kitchen table in their home, the boardroom table at their work, the surgical table in a hospital as either medical practitioner or patient, and that they collaborate with others around a table. Our theme used a variety of sizes and types of tables as the unifying elements throughout the facility. The main lobby centred on a long table with a variety of heights for standing, high stools, benches, etc., where patients could interact face-to-face, in small groups or sit singly, while waiting.  Waiting rooms had central tables with places built in for patient information. Examination rooms were re-oriented to focus on a table where staff could share information with patients face-to-face and accent colours were chosen to reflect healthy colours on patients’ and doctors’ faces. And, we certainly didn’t colour code the women’s washrooms in pink and the men’s in blue which is unfortunately still found in many institutional, architectural designs.

Other projects have had themes developed that are representations of the essential elements of the landscape. The new Providence Care Hospital in Kingston is located on a beautiful site adjacent to Lake Ontario, Lake Ontario Park and a grouping of lovely, historic 18th century limestone buildings. The ‘water’s edge’ theme expresses the interplay of water, trees and stone that intermingle at the edge of the lake; that reflect the location adjacent to the historic buildings, park and lake; and that reflect the different patient populations that are cared for at the hospital. Colour palettes were developed that use colours from nature with the Lakeview Wing coloured primarily in watery blues and greens, whereas the Parkside Wing has colours based on greenery and warm wood tones, and the Heritage Wing uses lots of soft grays, taupe and mauves—the colours found in the limestone of the historic buildings. A neutral base palette incorporates some of the colours from each of the wings in order to provide consistency across the facility while providing unique identities for each individual unit.

For the Men’s Correctional Healing Facility in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the colour palette selected includes highly-saturated intense colours that are used as very strong accent elements in the public spaces. These were selected to add visual interest to compensate for the long, dark, winter days, when there is very little daylight, and to compensate for the very intense daylight of the summer, when softer colours would be washed out. There is also a balance between warm and cool colours to compensate for the different directions to which individual spaces are oriented, to ‘warm up’ north-facing rooms and cool down south- and west-facing rooms.

Colour is very personal. We each respond to specific colours in our own, unique ways, based on our past experiences with colour in nature, our homes, schools and businesses. But, when it comes to colours in healthcare, it must never be a case of choosing colours based on our particular preferences. Designers must be very careful to select colours customized to the specific healthcare facility, the patients and purposes it serves, the staff who operate it, its architecture and location. Every hospital gets its own colour palette, as there is no one-size-fits-all in this situation.

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