Decorating for Mood: Understanding Color Psychology
My original profession of choice was interior designer. After some soul searching, I decided my talents in psychology would be a greater help to people. A friend of mine made the comment that I could combine the two—the psychology of color.
As it turns out, color does affect people's moods. So far I have not opened a “psych design studio,” but who knows. What I have done is study the effects of color on emotion and behavior. This article will delve into the colors that get you going, eating, and inspired.
You can read this article one of two ways: 1) straight through, or 2) you can go to the color you want information about and read that section.
How to Choose Colors
Mixing colors is an art form. In design, we use the 60/30/10 rule, which means your room should be 60% one color, 30% another color, and 10% an accent color. (This formula also works for events and table setting.)
Rookie Mistakes to Avoid
The biggest rookie room mistake is one color. Many people choose two colors, which makes the room look like a child decorated it. Remember to inject that last color to create a healthy contrast.
Another rookie mistake is going with two many neutral tones. Neutrals are easy on the eyes and tend to get overused in rooms. The best example is the tan rooms of the 2000s. Here you had tan rooms, with a few black picture frames, and then tan furniture. It was a boring era for design.
Current Trends in Color Design
One of today's trends is industrial farmhouse, which mixes black, white, and gray with wood tones. Many people employing this neutral pallet accent it with a color like navy blue or orange. The great thing about today's neutral is that it can change with the seasons, allowing holiday decorating to be the accent color.
Bright colors can project a feeling of happiness and playfulness. Muted colors and neutrals create a more serene feeling. Style also plays into the overall effect of the room. Sometimes you have to play with a room to discover its potential. During that process, you should always stand back to see if the room makes you feel a certain way. One trick is to take a picture of the room and see how it looks. Do you need to add color or get rid of a color?
Think About How Certain Colors Make You Feel
As you choose colors for your home think about how those colors make you feel. Don’t pick colors because they are a trend. Your home is about you, how you live, and what you like. If you prefer slate blue, then use it. If you like burnt orange, then go with that. Whatever you decide, your home should evoke feelings of happiness and relaxation.
The color yellow promotes happiness. If you are depressed and looking for a room color, consider yellow. Yellow is also a great choice for kitchens where you spend your mornings.
People who have yellow houses are actually helping themselves lead a happier life. A 2015 study completed at Curtin University in Australia found that brightly colored rooms such as yellow and red are beneficial for studying and learning (AL‐Ayash, A. Green-Armytage, P. Kane, & R. Smith, D. 2015).
As an accent color, yellow can liven up a monochromatic room. Today, you are most likely to see yellow used in gray or white rooms where a pop of color is needed.
Tips: Yellow's contrasting colors include purple, blue, and red. While most people think of yellow in its traditionally bright iterations, many people use pale forms of yellow to create a more serene room that still has that perky side to it.
I have a love-hate relationship with the color blue. Teal/turquoise is actually my favorite color, followed by indigo blue, which is very dramatic.
From a design standpoint, blue should be used carefully as an accent or in rooms in which you do not spend a lot of time. Certain tones of blue spark creativity (University of British Columbia, 2009). Blue is also associated with feelings of calm and relaxation (AL‐Ayash, etal. 2015).
Have you ever heard the someone say “I’m just a little blue today"? Well, certain shades of blue can actually have a negative effect on your mood. For this reason, I never recommend painting any child's room blue. Teenagers need all the joy they can get. Blue is probably not a good color to choose, unless it is in a more electric shade of blue. In an adult bedroom, blue can have a calming effect and promote serenity when mixed with other natural colors. Unless you spend a lot of time in your bedroom, you can paint it any color, because most of us only use our rooms to sleep.
I can always tell when a designer has not studied the effects of color, because they paint dining room walls blue. Studies have actually shown that blue is an appetite suppressant. The link between blue and loss of appetite is so conclusive that you will find the color blue used sparingly in food packaging. If you want to lose weight, buy blue plates or put a blue light in your refrigerator. Unless you are on a diet, do not paint your dining room or kitchen walls blue.
Tips: Blue's contrasting colors are yellow, orange, and red. In design today, pale forms of blue are used in industrial farmhouse decor. The more electric blues like the teal and indigo are often used in accents in modern and bohemian design.
Is red is the color of romance? Some studies do indeed say so. In a bedroom, red can be exciting and romantic. However, red does not promote restful sleep. (Though this can be overcome by turning out all the lights, and then you obviously cannot see the red.) Though it is a great color for studying or learning (AL‐Ayash, A. etal. 2015).
Red also encourages a healthy appetite, making it a great option for kitchens and dining rooms. Have you ever noticed that a majority of restaurant signs are red? Although opinions are mixed on why red is a promoter of healthy appetite, it continues to be a staple in everything from advertising to steak house decor. Using red in kitchens has been common for a long time. Remember the 1950s diners with the red seats? Interestingly enough, it appears to be a trending color for kitchen islands.
Tips: Red's contrasting colors are blue, green, and purple. In design today, red is usually in a room with white and black.
The history of pink is somewhat convoluted. Neither pink nor blue was a gender prescribed color until before World War I. And at that time, pink was designated for boys (Maglaty, J. 2011). That seems a little odd to us today with all the pink and blue baby gender distinction. In the 1880s, it was common for both boys and girls to wear white gowns until the age of six. It wasn't until the 1940s that pink was branded as a "girl" color (Maglaty, J. 2011). Today, it is rare to see men wearing pink in anything other than the occasional neck tie or polo shirt. As a society, we have commandeered the color pink as girly.
Research has shown that the color "Baker-Miller pink" reduces aggression (Genschow,O. Noll,T. Wänke, M. & Gersbach, R., 2014). At one time, pink was used in mental institutions to calm the patients. Prison systems have adopted the practice of painting the walls pink for its calming affect (Genschow. O. etal. 2014). The soothing feelings of pink are not completely understood by science.
It would seem that using pink in a child's room would be a good way to keep things mellow. After all, if they use Baker-Miller pink in a drunk tank, shouldn't it also calm your kids? In theory, yes. Brighter, vibrant pinks are not soothing and should be used sparingly—sorry Barbie.
Tips: Pink's contrasting colors are green, yellow, and blue. Today, pink is often paired with neutrals such as white, black, and brown.
Confession time: although I've always liked orange accessories, I never considered it a primary wall color. Our current home (in the southwest) has an orange fresco kitchen/dining room, however, and I love it. At first, it was a lot of orange. But after a while, I found that the orange was a cheery color to have in this common area of my home. This new love of orange has led to a succulent collection I have in terra cotta pots in the kitchen windows.
Orange is lively and can bring a vital jolt of color into any room. One of the few colors that immediately grabs the brain's attention is orange. That's why it's used for caution signs and in prison uniforms (it makes it easier to see the inmates). I think every room should have an unexpected accent. Orange brings that perfect shock without being too over the top. Like yellow, orange promotes warm feelings.
Tips: Orange's contrasting colors are blue, purple, and green. In design, orange is seen primarily in modern, southwest, and bohemian decor.
Purple was one of several colors that was originally only worn by royalty. Purple's rich history came about due to the expense in dying fabrics the color purple (Melina, R. 2011). Today, we are lucky enough to have access to purple without having a royal title.
The wide range of purples goes from serene lavenders to warm, red-infused purples. The lighter forms of purple are tranquil and calm. The brighter and warmer forms of purple promote healing.
In a room, purple adds drama. Being so close to the color red, purple is also a romantic color. Darker purples are perfect for bedrooms.
Tips: Purple's contrasting colors are yellow, green, and orange. Most of the time, purple is combined with the neutrals white, black, or gray.
According to Teresa M. Kutchma's 2003 study on the effects of color, green is a calming color. It can give a feeling of nature and serenity.
Most greens contribute to tranquility in a space, especially live plants. Having live plants can considerably change the atmosphere of a home and improve air quality. In 2018, Pantera brought back dark dramatic greens as a wall color pick, making green an "on trend" color for this year.
Tips: Green's contrasting colors are pink, purple, and red. It's usually used as an accent color, rather than a primary color. Most often, green is used with natural brown tones and white.
Brown and tan have become decorating staples in the last few years, with people creating earthy spaces with texture.
Brown does contribute the natural feel room. If a person is not careful though, it can be bland. Brown should always have a complementary color to keep it from feeling like a box of Mini-Wheats.
The other downside to brown is that people tend to associate it with loneliness (Cherry, K. 2017). Its upside is that it can go with just about anything, hence the reason wood furniture is stained in brown tones.
Tips: Break up the brown with other colors to avoid design faux pas. As a neutral, brown can be used with any color.
It will confound some people that black is technically not considered a color, but instead the absence of color. Take a picture of any room where a black television is within eye sight. Now look at that picture, doesn't the television look like a black hole in the room? It's something to consider when designing your rooms. Black creates drama and contrast to almost any color.
While black has a sleek feel, too much of it can make a person feel weighted in a room. Black tends to be a fall back color when people are unsure about what furniture to buy.
A few black pieces in a room are good, but all black is way too much. The dark color is not healthy for a person’s spirit. For this reason, I would not recommend painting more than one wall in any room black. In reality, too much black can end up feeling like you live in the bat cave. This is a feeling that will affect moods (sometimes without a person knowing).
Tips: Black can be used with any color, although some people prefer to avoid using it with brown. Black is most commonly associated with modern decor.
Every photographer is familiar with gray scale. All pictures have variations of gray as a primary color; interestingly enough, however, most people do not see the grey.
Gray is supposed to promote creativity. Used properly, it can complement a room or be a great background color for an entire room. Gray cuts down the visual noise in a room, since our eyes are trained to ignore it.
In the last few years, gray has become a staple color in the design world. While there is nothing wrong with using the color gray, if you use it too much, your house will look like a black and white movie. Don't believe me? Search "gray room" on the internet, and you will see what I'm talking about.
Make sure you include natural elements and a little bit of color. Offset the sterile freeing of gray with one wood piece of furniture and some plants, and accessorize with a bold color. No one is boring enough to live in the gray scale.
Tips: Mix gray with several other colors to promote serenity without a bland look. Gray can go with almost any color.
White is the ultimate neutral. Like black, it can be used with any color without conflict. That is why walls in most homes are white.
The perfect color wall for displaying art is white—it doesn't detract while still allowing the light to bounce. White creates a feeling of cleanliness, neutrality, and calm. White bedrooms can be restful. White kitchens promote cleanliness. White bathrooms automatically have a spa feel.
White takes a bad wrap. It shows dirt, is sterile, and can often seem boring. Just like any other color, you want to be careful not to make your room all one color. Most rooms have a little white in them though.
Tips: When mixed with dark colors, white provides a dramatic contrast. When mixed with light colors, white is calm and restful.
- AL‐Ayash, A. Green-Armytage, P. Kane, & R. Smith, D. (2015). The influence of color on student emotion, heart rate, and performance in learning environments.
- Cherry, K. (2017). The Color Psychology of Brown. How Colors Impact Moods, Feelings, and Behaviors.
- Genschow,O. Noll,T. Wänke, M. & Gersbach, R. (2014) Does Baker-Miller pink reduce aggression in prison detention cells? A critical empirical examination.
- Kutchma, Teresa M. (2003) "The Effects of Room Color on Stress Perception: Red versus Green Environments," Journal of Undergraduate Research at Minnesota State University, Mankato: Vol. 3, Article 3.
- Maglaty, J. (2011). When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? Smithsonian.
- Melina, R. (2011). Why Is the Color Purple Associated With Royalty? Lifescience.
- University of British Columbia. "Effect Of Colors: Blue Boosts Creativity, While Red Enhances Attention To Detail." ScienceDaily, 6 February 2009.
© 2011 MD Jackson MSIOP