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Interior Design: Understanding the Psychology of Color in Spaces

When you enter a space, what do you feel? Are you overcome with a sense of calm that washes through you? Do you feel energized and ready to take on your day? Or do you notice tension creeping through your body, and all you want to do is escape your surroundings? Interior design sets the mood for a room, and one of the integral components that helps set the tone is color. This is called room color psychology.

What is Color Theory in Interior Design?

Often when we think of color in relation to interior design, we consider how the hues look. Obviously, you don’t want a design scheme where the colors conflict with each other. But you also need to take into account how the colors you use in a room will make you feel.

In interior design, color psychology is the school of thought that focuses on color as a means of creating a specific atmosphere and mood. Hues are carefully chosen in order to invoke a certain emotional response in people and set a particular mood. Research into color theory has ascribed defined emotions to each hue, and it also takes into account various factors such as tint, saturation, and tone.

Color psychology has been studied for hundreds of years. Color is the manifestation of how our brain and vision perceive different wavelengths of light. This spectrum runs from shorter wavelengths (blue or purple colors) to longer wavelengths (reds). In other words, it’s what is commonly known as a rainbow of color. The science of color made great strides forward thanks to experiments by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, which resulted in the first color wheel, and later by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who published the groundbreaking “Theory of Colors” in 1810. His work was the first to deeply examine the psychological effects of colors and their impact on human emotions.

Color theory isn’t limited to interior design, of course. It applies to fine arts such as painting and photography, advertising and branding, fashion, beauty, industrial design, and many other fields. It even plays a role in wide-ranging cultural trends—think of how the dull olives, grays, and neutrals of World War II fashion and design gave way to poppy pastels in the prosperous 1950s, which then evolved into vivid neons in the psychedelic ‘60s. In those cases, the popular hues of the time were dictated by the mood of the nation. But it’s important to understand color meaning in interior design because we spend so much time in our homes, and the ambiance we create there has a huge influence on our everyday mood and lifestyle. It also impacts people who come into our home—it can be a place of welcome or a place that is cold or chaotic. What does your home say about you? A lot of it has to do with color.

Room Colors and Moods: What Do They Mean?

When discussing room color psychology, it can be helpful to start at a point where you probably first learned about colors in school: the primary colors. These three colors—red, yellow, and blue—are the foundational points of the color wheel.

  • Red This is a fiery, warm color that is definitely for those who favor bold design schemes. Red can denote power, sensuality, and vigor. The right shade of red (which we’ll get to in a moment) can raise your energy levels so that you feel stimulated and invigorated. Because red has such depth, it is often used as an accent color in textiles or furniture, as it may seem overpowering in smaller rooms to have entire walls drenched in red.
  • Yellow Want to brighten a small, dark, enclosed space? Paint it a sunny yellow, which is often linked to feelings of happiness and optimism; it’s like a sunshine substitute in spaces that don’t get a lot of natural light. Walk into a kitchen or bathroom that has this kind of yellow, and you may get an extra spring in your step from a burst of cheerfulness. It has to be the right yellow; however, too bright, and it can spark feelings of agitation, and a too-dull yellow may make you feel jealous or ill.
  • Blue In one interior design color psychology study, university students were asked to rate their color preference among six buildings that were all the same except for the hue of their interiors. Blue was the top color choice, and it was also considered the best for studying. The only primary color that is considered part of the “cool” family, blue is reminiscent of nature and is thought to promote intelligence, serenity, and loyalty. It can make you feel calm and soothed, which is ideal when creating a peaceful home environment.

Next, let's look at secondary colors. Those are the hues that result from mixing two primary colors together.

  • Green Like blue, which is one of its base colors along with yellow, green hearkens back to nature and is popular in home design. This color can feel rejuvenating, imparting a sense of freshness, growth, and vitality. Many people like green because it helps them feel safe and secure.
  • Purple With the right touch, purple can spark passion and intensity. It elevates a room with rich drama and, like green, is a hybrid of cool and warm colors, which can be played up or down depending on the shade you choose. Purple can also make a room feel lively, which can have you feeling lighthearted and playful.
  • Orange According to room color psychology, orange breeds creativity. Its warmth may energize you, especially if the shade is vibrant like the fruit. As with yellow, it promotes a sense of cheerfulness and can be welcoming to visitors, and it works well in bathrooms, kitchens, and other places where yellow would be suitable, too.

Finally, any discussion of room colors and moods needs to include what some may consider “non-colors”: black and white.

  • Black Black may be stark, but it can connote elegance, sophistication, and power. However, too much black can easily tip over into a ghoulish ambiance that is a reminder of Halloween or an even darker death-like vibe. When combined with the right color, such as white, your design will feel classic. But if you lean too heavily on it, you may feel down or sad.
  • White Feel refreshed and cleansed with a splash of white on your walls, furniture, or floors; it’s also the most popular choice for ceiling color. White symbolizes goodness and purity and is an excellent partner with most other colors—think of how eye-catching a vividly colored wall looks framed by crisp white trim and molding. White is also excellent at opening up small rooms and making them feel larger, which can help relax you and put you at ease.

However, room color psychology is more complex than just what a color signifies. That’s because there are several color properties that also can be manipulated to evoke specific moods and feelings. For instance, take the example of yellow mentioned earlier. Depending on the particular color you select, this hue can leave you feeling joyous, or jealous. Why do paint chips come in dozens of variations of one color? Because color has many characteristics that can drastically change the mood it creates. Here are some of the most common color, or hue, attributes that should be considered in creating an interior design palette.

  • Tint Take a basic hue and add some white to it, and you get a tint. For example, a rich, sensual purple turns into a placid, serene lavender when white is mixed in. Generally, pastel colors can have a vintage or childlike feel, and are often used in nurseries or children’s bedrooms; they also work well in homes with older, classic architectural styles. They also may make a room feel more expansive, and pairing them with white accents creates a timeless look.
  • Shade Conversely, shade is what you get by adding black to a color. Light gray takes on an earthier feel when it is darkened, while a bit of black can turn an aqua blue into a deep ocean-like color. Shades are often teamed up with neutrals or lighter colors that create balance, and they prevent the darker hue from overpowering a room.
  • Tone This is almost a middle ground between shade and tint, as gray is added to a hue to create tone. This is especially helpful when trying to decrease the vibrancy of a too-bright color such as purple or orange and create a softer hue.
  • Value This property refers to how much light a color has. In short, the lighter the color, the higher the value. On this spectrum, black is on the low end and white is on the high end, with colors arrayed in between the two. Value is important in interior design color psychology because you want to select colors with different values for a harmonious contrast.
  • Saturation How rich is a color? That depends in large part on its saturation levels. Deeply saturated colors stand out and look bolder compared to colors that are lighter in saturation and may appear paler in bright light.
  • Chroma When you say something is a “true red,” you’re actually referring to its chroma. When a color is in its purest state, without any tint, tone, or shade added, it has a high chroma level.

Knowing these essentials of color theory, interior design that is cohesive and aesthetically pleasing is easy to attain. There are some key rules to keep in mind that will ensure you end up with a perfect palette.

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Designing with Color

The first thing to do is think about what kind of atmosphere you want to create in the room you are designing. Is it a bedroom where you want to feel tranquil and well rested, or a dining room that will be the site of lively family meals and dinner parties? You will also want to take into account the amount of space you have to work with, any furnishings you plan to use in the room, and what kind of light sources there are, as these can all help determine the room colors and moods you will end up with.

With those things in mind, you can take a look at the color wheel. Interior designers usually rely on a 12-part color wheel, made up of the three primary colors, the three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors, which are combinations of primary and secondary colors such as red-purple and blue-green. If you have a specific color in mind, you can approach it in a few different ways. Let’s say you’ve settled on blue for a living room. One option is to use a monochromatic design, where you take a blue and use its tint, tone, and shade hues (by mixing it with white, gray, and black, respectively) to create a cohesive look. Use a neutral (such as beige), black, or white for accent color.

Another way to use blue is to pair it with its complementary color. To find that, just look at the color opposite from blue on the color wheel: orange. Sky blue walls with a bright orange sofa make a gorgeous combination that is naturally pleasing to the eye or try the beachy coupling between coral and turquoise. (Other complementary colors include red and green, and purple and yellow.) Keep in mind that neutrals are a necessary third element in complementary color pairings as a visual resting place for the eye. Otherwise, too much color can be overwhelming. A related color scheme is split-complementary, in which you use a main hue, then, instead of adding the color directly across from it, pick the colors on either side of the opposing hue. In our example, the colors would be blue, yellow-orange, and red-orange.

If you want to really play with color, an analogous color scheme may work best for you. This involves using anywhere from two to six colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. If you are creating a warm space, use yellow with yellow-green and yellow-orange. Or you can incorporate a triad color design, in which three colors are used that are evenly spaced apart from each other and line up in a triangle on the color wheel. Experienced interior designers can help you come up with a custom color scheme, which doesn’t follow any of the rules above but still works together to create a unified look. For complex color schemes such as these, this is when it’s helpful to understand color meaning in interior designs.

When considering different colors and combinations, keep in mind that their attributes are also important. Ideally, you want to match identical chroma and saturation levels to avoid visual dissonance that looks jarring. For striking looks, use colors with a mix of high and low values, such as gold and dark purple.

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Once you have your color scheme selected, now comes the exciting part—figuring out how to bring it to life in your room. Paint, wallpaper, textiles, furniture, flooring, and home decor pieces can all bring color to glorious life in your interior design scheme. Don’t forget to consider your window coverings, which can play a crucial role in a room’s aesthetics. Flowing, elegant drapes are a beautiful way to add a complementary or triad accent color to a room, while contemporary roller blinds or wood or faux-wood shades can be another way to tie in a neutral hue to bring a room together. The right window treatment can create a marvelous visual statement that can be a focal point for any room.

To create that perfect window treatment, call on the experienced team at Stoneside Blinds & Shades. Our designers are well versed in room color psychology and other important tenets of interior design, and they know how to incorporate window coverings into a room’s overall aesthetic. You have many options when it comes to window treatments, and our designers can help guide you through all these choices during a free in-home consultation when you can look at showroom samples. Collaborating with our designer, you can choose the blinds, drapes, or shades that work best for you, as well as the fabrics, finishes, patterns, textiles, and other decorative touches that will make these window coverings customized just for you. We handle all the measurements and installation, and our products are guaranteed to be the highest quality because they are all manufactured in America to your project specifications.

Interior design color psychology is essential for a beautifully balanced home. Learn more about how your window coverings can play a “colorful” role in your home by contacting the Stoneside office near you to schedule a consultation.

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