In this post, Tara Rae Hill, founder of LittleFISH Think Tank, talks about using color in healthcare facilities. Hill is a full scope state registered interior designer, color theorist, product designer, brand developer and international lecturer. Her studio is a multi-disciplined collaborative that leverages design and creative solutions for the A+D industry.  

 You hear a lot of buzz these days about using color in healthcare facilities as a positive distraction and as an item of visual interest. Why are these two achievements important in healthcare settings?

There is a plethora of evidence-based research and design that supports the claim that when spaces are visually stimulating – with an interesting use of color, and not “overly neutral” – that the speed of healing dramatically increases, and in many cases the need for pain-relieving medication decreases. Color is a very powerful design tool that many fail to recognize and/or understand. Many will insist on seeing empirical data to support the claim that color plays a role in our physiological health. In my opinion, very few things in medicine truly have empirical data. But I continue to be insistent that color can have a positive influence and unless you are terribly irresponsible with your color palettes, color can only help versus hurt in a medicinal setting. For example, consider your own body. The majority of us experience our worlds – and many of our dreams as well – in full spectrum color. Therefore, I’m very confident that your physiological response in a 100 percent, monochromatic grey patient room within a 100 percent grey world would be a diminished one.

So when you speak of color, are you talking about the color on the walls or is it much more than that?

It’s a great deal more. Space is a “system” of elements coming together and working (or not working) in tandem. Every item within it either supports or deters from the overall ambiance and feel of an interior space. Humans respond accordingly, both biologically and physically. The interior volume either gains the confidence and comfort of the human within it, or by contrast it just as easily demotes this within the human. So, color plays a role on all surfaces and elements: floors, walls, ceilings, furniture, cabinetry, privacy panels and on and on. This does not mean that every element must be an expressive hue, which actually should not be the case. It does mean, however, that all items should be given conscious thought and consideration regarding their design and color.

Can the use of color actually have a negative effect on the healing process?

This is a continued debate – the debate being whether color really does have the ability to affect the physiological aspects of humans. I’m a firm believer that color does have this ability and can just as equally harm an individual’s wellness as it can help to improve it. Those who do not understand color think color in a nut shell means “aesthetic hues or colorwashing.” Color actually is light. Plain and simple.  Varying light rays, each with different energies, reflected back to one’s retinas, interpreted then by our brains, and thus generating a physiological response.  I believe it’s very similar to how we respond to varying cords of music.  Color is also more than a hue, it also encompasses levels of intensity and saturation, and because we rarely see hues independently, color also means the contrast between two or more colors together within a space. I’m confident that the human within a healing space – patient, family and staff – would respond negatively if I painted a hospital’s emergency room corridors – floor to ceiling – in a vibrant lime green versus a more soft shade.

So when picking colors, designers need to consider what kind of facility it is, as well as demographics such as age and gender?

Yes, 100 percent. A common confusion is that healthcare is “one design fits all.” This could not be less true. In addition, each one of us is incredibly unique. Our bodies, our minds, our preferences, our responses to our environment. Some of these human conditions are imprinted by our communities and culture. Some are the life phase we are currently in while others are believed to be visceral universal responses that we each have to our environments.  So, when considering color within healing spaces, healthcare designers shoot for palettes that we believe will appeal positively to the majority of the users within that specific healing space – the user being patients, family and staff. A woman’s clinic in Peoria, IL should not share the same palette as a pediatric hospital in Miami. I also begin my designs with the primary user – the patient – and then search for a palette that is also digestible for the extended family and healthcare practitioner. For example, a pediatric hospital should have palettes designed for children that adults can also appreciate and work within.

In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about color and how it should or shouldn’t be used in healthcare and/or healing environments?

Well, those who are familiar with my work know I do not feel that all healthcare palettes should be soothing. I have been pushing on this since the day I crossed from blue chip corporate design into healthcare design. Some spaces might want a soothing palette while others quantitatively want more expressive, lively palettes. If not handled with care, soothing quickly falls into boring, mundane and depressive. So, soothing often backfires at the hands of the designer. I also do not believe that colors throughout a healthcare facility should represent our homes. Our homes are volumetrically and materialistically quite different. Typically, our homes are small intimate places furnished with softer, more luxurious materials than healthcare facilities will allow. You are not going to convince the patient that they are home when they are not. I believe healing spaces should be celebrated for what they are – a space of great care – and designed with the sophistication that brings forth feelings of confidence, safety and comfort. I believe expressive color plays a large role with this.

The new Norix High Brights Color Palette has been described as “poppy” and “bursting.” What kind of facilities could benefit from these kinds of colors?

Here at LittleFISH we are always in the flux of color research projects, and we are seeing healthcare color trends leaning toward vibrant pops being used in more than just pediatric spaces. So, we wanted the Norix High Brights to be very palatable tertiary hues that are really applicable for all ages. They have play and intensity of color without the garish quality that primary and secondary high brights can bring forth. The palette also can hand shake well with other colors within a space. It’s a bit of a myth that expressive, lively color is just for youth. These High Brights can be used in any type of a healthcare space as well as educational, corporate and hospitality facilities that allow for a more expressive design. A pediatric facility may opt to go full spectrum with heavy pops of colors and utilize all four of the Norix High Brights, while an adult facility might elect to go towards an analogous arrangement and place the Mango and Orchid on an eggplant floor. These colors are meant to be fun, playful, and also sophisticated and metropolitan. And provide a welcome visual distraction that can help in the healing process.

If you liked “Using Color in Healthcare Facilities,” you may want to read – White Paper by Tara Hill: Planning & Design of Behavioral Healthcare Facilities