How To Color Hack Your Workspace For Productivity

Autonomous Autonomous | Jul 29, 2019

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Make your office work for you. A little splash of color goes a long way in office design. Thoughtfully designed ergonomic spaces enhance our productivity, lift our moods and house the best versions of ourselves. The best ergonomic spaces are built for the individual.

This article is a part of the full guideline office design series:

Color psychology is a tricky business. When designing an office or workspace to increase productivity you can’t just paint a wall your favorite color, or a color you think is fun or fresh, and expect it to magically make people happy and more productive. A quick search on the internet might suggest that blue is the best color for productivity, yet, if your company is full of artists then yellow might be the better choice to inspire freedom of thought and creativity. The only real color design rule that’s set in stone these days, no pun intended, is that if everything in your office looks grey, it’s probably not a good sign.

How we view colors and how we respond to them depends on many factors. It’s situational, locational and it varies not only by personality type but also by the current mood of said personality type. This relationship we have with color goes all the way back to when we were kids. Declaring our favorite color might just be one of the first decisions we make with our young, curious minds as we’re soaking up the world around us. And it turns out, even in grade school, there is a correlation between color and productivity.

In 1983, psychologists Ian Cockerill and Brian Miller conducted a cognitive study of a group of children aged six to 11 and found that productivity, speed, and accuracy increased when participants wore goggles tinted with their favorite color. While this may not be a viable option for many office spaces (or for the fashion-conscious), taking a more nuanced approach to color psychology allows us to intelligently tailor our surroundings to suit our specific contexts and sensitivities. There is a color design strategy and a positive result to be had if you understand which colors evoke which emotions and apply that knowledge to the right areas of your office.

Which color for which task

Researchers at the University of Texas studied individual environmental sensitivity to color, comparing predominantly white, red and blue workspaces, suggesting that color affects performance differently depending on the difficulty of the task:

“Participants in a blue environment performed better when performing high demand tasks rather than low demand tasks. In contrast, participants in a red environment performed better when they were assigned low demand tasks than high demand tasks.”

To make things even more complex, the research also found that most participants liked working in the white office the best; they also made the most mistakes in the white office. Therefore, the most comfortable color setting isn’t necessarily the most productive, depending on the given task.

Another often-cited study, conducted by Jacob Nakshian, provides further insight. Where forty-eight participants performed tasks consisting of fine motor skills and psychophysical judgments in three painted, partitioned color surrounds, he found significant group differences for two motor tasks: hand tremor and motor inhibition. On both tasks, participants performed better in the green condition than in the red. No red walls for operating rooms, then. Got it.

Use the KISS method: Keep it simple silly

Going down the color rabbit hole can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a ton of money or time to spend on your office design, but the simple answer to your color woes is moderation and mindfulness. Scientists design experiments, not offices, and nobody knows your company and employees better than you do. So keep that in mind as you plan your layout.

Red and orange are energizing colors, but too much of a fiery color can evoke aggression and stress. Green, a color most commonly found in nature, is widely associated with balance but it may also frustrate a segment of the population. So think about hanging some plants rather than a fully-emerald meeting room. Blue, like the sea or sky, can be both motivating and calming. It can reduce anxiety, but in excess, can throw us off balance. And perhaps most important of all, not all reds, greens or blues are created equal. The intensity of your color choice matters.

“If you’re an accountant, blue probably would make you more productive. But not everybody is an accountant,” says Angela Wright, color psychologist and creator of The Color Affects System. “What defines whether a color is stimulating or soothing is not the color, it’s the intensity. A strong bright color will stimulate, and a color with low saturation will soothe.”


Color hacking tips for 5 different workspaces

Consider what you want to achieve in each room and create different color palettes based on the skills needed and the tasks at hand. Will the design team benefit from the same color scheme as tech support? Probably not. With so many personal variations to color preference, let’s break it down by the type of work environment you’re designing and what your likely goals are for that space.

1. Meeting rooms

This could be the classic setting for a nice medium-intensity blue. As the color that most people associate with the sky and water, you’ll have a room that promotes clear, focused thought and alertness, while not pushing too far as to cause a disruptive emotional reaction. Add in some orange highlights, the color of fruit and sunshine, and you’ll have a space that’s balanced and tailored for productive, efficient dialogue amongst employees and clients.

2. Collaborative, creative spaces

Start with yellow as a foundational piece here, a color that promotes optimism and stimulates the creative parts of our mind. From there, accents are your friend. Light fixtures in red or orange-ish hues can provide a little spark of emotion and energy into the room, while a little green, possibly in the form of plants as mentioned above, could add some balance to the vibe of the room.

Also keep in mind that natural light can play a role in brightening whichever colors you choose and making them more intense, especially in larger communal workspaces.

3. Individual workstations

As the saying goes, you can’t please everybody all the time. You can, however, provide options for people. For example, something as simple as colored seating can greatly impact interoffice dynamics. Gail likes green and Randy likes red? They can each have ergonomic office chairs in their color of choice. The trick here is to introduce color in ways that are flexible and customizable, so you can easily switch up color schemes between rooms, departments and even employees. Chairs, stools and privacy panels are all opportunities to add color options to your design.

4. Lunch and leisure spaces

Enter the green room, kick back and relax. The color of grass and trees; of balance, growth, and rejuvenation; the color that tells you it’s time to shut your mind off and recharge. Whether it’s where your employees go to grab a coffee and a snack, or to play foosball, green will help set the mood.

5. Home office

If, like a growing proportion of the population, your office is also your home, then using color is a great way to visually draw a line between rest and work areas. Something as low maintenance as a well-placed rug paired with a complementary colored standing desk can help you maintain a more defined work-life balance without the need for separate rooms.

Bonus tip

Have white walls? Treat them as a blank canvas on which to paint your ideas, and bring them to life by providing pockets of inspiration that are energetic and bold enough to stand out, but not spatially dominant enough to overwhelm. Create engagement but also remember to establish points for the eye to rest on and for the mind to center itself.

Being sensitive to our surroundings and being aware of how we respond to them opens up a world of possibilities. Thoughtfully designed office spaces can enhance our productivity, lift our moods and inspire the best versions of ourselves to come forward. And a little splash of the right colors can go a long way.

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