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Choosing Color for Commercial Interiors: Retail, Office and Health Care

There are so many functional and aesthetic factors to consider when designing color for non-residential interiors. Your color choices must support a range of branding, comfort, productivity,

and/or way finding goals, to name a few. Tens, hundreds or thousands of people may be users of this space and the color decision makers can be a plurality of people. Done well you can soothe an anxious patient, inspire a creative maker or focus a leader. The list goes on... All achieved by the thoughtful and educated application of good color.

Ep 20: Choosing Color for Commercial Interiors: Retail, Office and Health Care

Woolf: Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color & Design.

Krane: And I'm Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We’re both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color. We met while training, and years later, the conversation is still going strong.

Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.

Krane: In each episode, we'll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.

Krane: Welcome back. Today's topic is color for commercial spaces and though we've talked about that before, vis-a-vis multi-family housing, today we're going to talk about color for other kinds of commercial spaces, spaces where commercial and other kinds of businesses and activities take place. Places like retail establishments, office, healthcare spaces, things like that. One thing that's interesting, of course, is that you're not catering to the whims, views and tastes of an individual who owns the property here. We’re trying to develop a color palette that serves a purpose, a function, right Amy?

Woolf: I mean, not just a function, but also a multitude of people. You know, what you said is true, not catering to the whims of the owner of said business, but really trying to get into the minds of the multitudes of people who will be using the space as a client or a customer. I find it's often helpful to develop a persona. So sometimes it's me. I think one of the very first commercial projects I did was a doctor's office and I was a patient. And I actually spoke to one of the practitioners and said “you know that waiting room could really use an update.”

And so in some ways it was my response to the surroundings. Obviously, I wasn't going to design that waiting room to satisfy me, but I certainly did respond to what I felt needed an update, as an individual, as as a patient.

Krane: It’s interesting because updating, staying current, new, possibly modern, is an important aspect of how you want to color public spaces. But certainly for a healthcare facility, a doctor's office, a hospital, a clinic, whatever, there's so much important work, as it were, that has to happen in that waiting room. And what I mean by that is you basically have nervous or anxious — or if they're waiting too long, bored too — patients sitting there.

And so it's important for waiting room color to function in a certain way. I think it's to calm, but also to interest in a way. It's one of the places where I'm loathe to even call it an accent wall, Amy, because that's just a term and an idea we think of for a residential space. But what I mean is really color blocking in a space like that and having different portions of the room be different colors, even if it's just an accent wall behind reception. Because just the variety that's created by having more than one color in a space, in the most subtle way, I think, keeps a brain sort of occupied as they're viewing it.

And then of course, you know, I would think we don't want to have really vibrant, warm, hot, exciting colors there — nothing that's going to stress someone's nervous system, you know?

Woolf: Yeah, I definitely hear what you're saying. And I think artwork plays a huge role in this, you know selecting art that has enough complexity in it that somebody can kind of get lost in it if they want to. I think that's a huge piece of the waiting room puzzle.

The message that I got from that first medical practice job that I sort of bullied my way into was that the furniture and the colors in the waiting room were dated. They felt like they were a holdover from the eighties. I did this job maybe 13-14 years ago, so the colors were sort of that colonial blue and rose, you know? And what I said to the practitioner, which just absolutely hit home was “your colors look like they're from the eighties. And the message that you need to convey is that you all are up to date technologically and medically speaking.” And when somebody walks into a space, I don't think they're necessarily aware of it, but on some deep level, they're seeing dated colors. And somehow that registers an impression on what's going on.

It's kind of like front of the house, back of the house in a restaurant, you know? And you want the back of the house at your medical office to not be stuck in the eighties.

Krane: It also shows a level of care or lack of care - no acknowledgement of the fact that your patient experience is starting in the waiting room.

Woolf: Absolutely. That's such a great point. That care element, that's huge.

Krane: But outside of medical or dental, certainly one's interior or exterior decor can tie into one's branding if you choose to, and it's often a really good idea. But there are many different ways of doing that. There can be a very literal, direct line from what colors are in a logo to what colors one wants to be surrounded by in the interior of this business.

But beyond that, you can branch out and not replicate the logo colors, per se, if it's not relevant or a good idea. And just think about the kind of image and vibe you want to portray about your company, and choose the kind of colors that will create that because they're so good at doing that. Many mistakes can be made by just choosing logo colors, because again, just like when a client says to me, "look at this great room I saw on Instagram or in a magazine, let's put it in my living room.” What you see on a screen or a piece of paper is not always relevant to what you wanna surround yourself with on four walls.

So if your logo, for instance, is black and white, maybe there's a lot of reasons why your space should not be black and white. So it goes beyond logo color and onto the overall image you want to portray and the vibe you want to create in your space.

Woolf: There’s a local bank here in my town, I will not name names of course. If anybody's listening, they'll know. But their logo colors are a fairly vibrant blue and a very vibrant yellow. I mean, we know yellow is just inherently more vibrant than the other colors on the color wheel, and they painted… So my town, you know, dates back to probably late 1800’s, when that architecture first started getting built. And it’s been built through the decades. But I would say the architecture's definitely vintage. And what they did for this bank — it's on a very prominent corner in the middle of town — they painted their exact yellow logo color on the exterior trim of the building.

Krane: Wow.

Woolf: Just an accent, you know? But every time I'm stuck at a light there, I have to face down this yellow. And it just makes me want to weep. I mean, I just, I cannot stand it. There is a way to speak to branding colors by sticking with the hue but dialing it down. You can still create your brand statement, but have it be relevant to an exterior surface or an interior wall.

Another one of my commercial clients, somebody I did an art gallery for, called me one day and she said, “I just had to leave my gym. My gym just repainted.” Their logo colors are bright red, and now the walls inside the gym are bright red. She said, “I can't even be in there.”

Krane: Sure.

Woolf: This is a national chain of gyms. And they painted the walls this vibrant, warm red. And I mean, I can't imagine…maybe black would be worse, but I don't know. Can you imagine anything worse for a workout space than red?

Krane: No, that's awful. But, I think about Planet Fitness whose color is purple with tiny bits of white, black, and yellow accents. And if you go in a Planet Fitness, some of the walls are purple. It's very livable. And they were able to take their logo color and bring it in. But not red. No way.

Woolf: I mean maybe like a stripe around the wall. Mm-hmm. Or like shapes or I don't know… But large swaths of red, when you're sweating, you're sweating to death. No thanks!

Krane: Yeah, I mean paint the base of your reception desk. Right?

Woolf: Right!

Krane: I just remembered, I did a local gym here. It was a small space in a country town here. It was in the bottom of an 1800’s building with a window in the front and just one long rectangular space with bathrooms in the back. And I did a whole geometric color blocking thing with them, and used a combination of mostly cool colors — aquas and greens and some blues.

But the shapes were energetic. They were sort of permutations of arrows and bars. And some of them were muted and a few of them were more saturated or chromatic, which also speaks to a conversation you and I, Amy, have had before. I mean, there's many different views about what kind of colors to put in a gym. Do you put energizing warm colors in, or do you put soothing, cooler colors in? But that simplistic question disregards other aspects of color, which we've been talking about recently. Value—lightness, darkness, and chroma or saturation, also influence how the color affects you. So blues might be calming and sedate, but when you've got a bold aqua or cobalt blue, you can no longer call it soothing and sedate. So every aspect of a color influences its effect on you biologically and psychologically.

Woolf: For me, a soft turquoise or an aqua is always my starting point with a gym…for a home gym. I don't know whether I would do that for a commercial gym, but certainly for a home gym. There's something about aqua or soft turquoise - everybody sees turquoise differently, it’s one of those weird things. I think a lot of people think of turquoise as being greener. When I hear the word turquoise, I think bluer. So anyway, there's a lot of personal variation, but I think that turquoise or aqua somehow straddles the energetic continuum, but is still cooling.

Krane: In my mind, while aqua and turquoise are both in the blue-green, green-blue family, for me, turquoise leans blue like the ocean and aqua leans green. But this is very personal. It's kind of what you come up with yourself. You know, there's no standard.

An important part of assigning color for every kind of business and even other kinds of spaces, is for way-finding. Right? Funny word — it’s a term that I first learned in our training. Way-finding…it really just means how to find your way. Color helps you understand: walk this way, don't walk this way, enter through here, don't enter through there. It’s incredibly important.

Woolf: Well, we know physiologically what the human eye is drawn to. The human eye is drawn to brighter colors.

Krane: Warmer colors.…

Woolf: The human eye is drawn to lighter colors and so we can use that to our advantage to direct traffic. I did a restaurant at one point and the bathrooms were down a long corridor with doors off of either side. We did not want people going through those doors, because they were back of the house doors.

Krane: Paint them the wall colors!

Woolf: We painted them really dark. And at the end of this corridor where the bathrooms were located, we painted it a bright orange. So there was no doubt about it. So it was, it served two purposes. One purpose is the way-finding of the individual, such that when they start to wander around their eye is going to be immediately drawn to this orange wall. Also, it was lit so it has this sort of glow-y nature. But also when giving directions, color helps. This is where way-finding in public institutions really matters.

If you've been to a hospital where every corridor, every department, every floor is the same color, good luck! You know, how are you going to find your way? But I've been in, I think the hospital that I first noticed this in was in Sarasota, where certain chunks of the hospital were painted out in different colors. So the people giving the directions in the restaurant could say, go down the hall and look for the orange wall. Simple, simple, simple.

Krane: Mm-hmm.

Woolf: It was easy to give directions by saying, you know, “turn left when you get down there and then look for the green corridor, or the yellow or the blue.” You know? So it functions both ways. People are able to remember where they are and position themselves in space and find their way better. But it's also easier for those giving directions to have things color coded.

I've also seen, I think either hospitals or classrooms where there's a long corridor of doors.You know, imagine a long corridor of patient rooms and you're going to the cafeteria, and then you've got to find your way back to your family members' hospital room. And if those doors are painted different colors, you're going to remember the blue door versus the green door versus the apricot door (because I don't think I'd paint an orange door). You're going to remember that probably sooner than you're gonna remember what room number they're in.

Krane: That’s true, although I don't think I can think of any hospital corridor where the doors were different colors. I don't remember ever seeing that.

Woolf: I haven't been in them, but I've seen it and I'm not positive it's a hospital or whether it's a school.

Krane: Got it.

Woolf: But I've seen it, I believe probably in Europe. I do really think that European institutional design is more progressive than what we're doing here. And you know I follow a couple of architectural colorists, and of course Frank. I mean, Frank Manke, our teacher with IACC was, you know, that was his specialty, nursing homes and hospitals and institutional environments.

Krane: Yeah. I mean, that's when architectural — really informed, educated architectural color —can shine, can really make a difference. I mean, it's so much less about decoration and so much more about function.

Woolf: But it can be both and it should be both.

Krane: Yes. Yeah.

Woolf: I mean, that to me is the most important piece, is that we need to be thinking about function and aesthetics at the same time.

Krane: Yeah. Absolutely. Certainly when you're in office settings — and we've talked about this a little bit previously — you want your employees to be comfortable, to be supported is the best word. Because in some places creative thinking is going on, in other places, physical things are being made. In other places it's heavy duty, mental contemplation. There's so many different kinds of work and you really want to have the aesthetic component there, but to develop a color plan that supports the work that people are doing is best. And with lots of people in one space, you’re never going to make everyone happy.

I just had a meeting with three women on the director board of a local theater. I'm doing a pro bono redesign of the exterior color of a theater here. Three women, three retirees, who lived three previous lives. You sit down and start talking about color, and as soon as an idea comes out of your mouth there are 3 different opinions. It’s hard, it's hard when decisions need to be made. Either when decisions are made by a group or the effects of your work are being felt by, endured by and lived with, by a large group of people who are all so different.

Woolf: I call it color by committee. It's not a good thing!

Krane: Oh, yeah. Ugh.

But, you know, things like reducing eye strain, workflow, wayfinding… think about that. All of that comes into play with the color(s) you put into an interior commercial space.,…if it's an office kind of setting anyway. Right? And then there's retail. You've done retail….

Woolf: Yes. I've done retail.


So what was that about?

Woolf: The place that comes to mind first that I did… this was a small, almost like a kiosk kind of a situation.

Krane: Mm-hmm.

Woolf: I had done a lot of work for this client, for his other retail establishments, and they were creating a little tiny — like a pocket store, you know — and it was going to focus on cosmetics. He had a health food store, and they were going to pull out all the cosmetics and put them into this separate little space. It was like walking into a large walk-in closet. It was very cute.

Krane: Or a mini, mini mini Sephora.

Woolf: Yeah, exactly. And the person who was in charge of that department in the store wanted everything to be bright white, kind of like that Clinique look, you know?

Krane: Okay, I understand.

Woolf: And so what I said was, “yeah, okay, but who looks good in bright white?” You know, I guess there's two ways to think about this. If somebody's walking into a little cosmetic store, but this was also, this wasn't makeup so much as skincare.

Krane: Okay.

Woolf: And they're looking at themselves in the mirror. I mean, ugh, how many times have we sat at the makeup counter at Nordstrom or something, under those bright lights and looked in the mirror and thought, oh holy hell, this is not good.

I want an environment that's going to make people look good so that they're happy with the experience on a deep level.

Krane: Mm-hmm.

Woolf: What I was going to say was maybe the opposite is true. Maybe you want an environment in which people go in and it's unflattering and they look like yuck, and then they buy all the skincare. I don't know. But at that time, again this is probably at least a decade ago, my approach was that I wanted colors in that space that would be flattering to people where they would go in and be happy to be looking at themselves in the mirror. They would be happy to go in.

Krane: Was it a pink peach moment?

Woolf: It was!

Krane: It really does look great on skin tone. It does.

Woolf: So what we did was we combined the natural birch slat walls, which have that warm golden glow. And we did throw in a little bit of peach… coral. I don't remember the exact color, but flattering, really flattering, because I want people to sit in the chair longer. That's my goal. And I think that's every retailer's goal. The longer somebody is in the retail space, the more likely it is that they're going to buy something.

And so when the retail space is beautiful, appealing, and certainly when it comes to skincare, you know, that's flattering — you're not looking in the mirror wanting to run away. You are looking in the mirror and feeling okay, and so you're willing to stay put. Yeah. And to me, the longer somebody's in the retail space, the more you build your sales and that's the bottom line.

Krane: Makes sense, totally. When you think about, for instance, a clothing store and all, that has racks and racks of clothing everywhere — in and of itself, that's not such an appealing setup. How clothing and goods are displayed, there's such a wide range in how artfully they can be displayed. And, I really think that a clothing store needs to have a really, really uplifting and /or fun, elegant…aspirational vibe. It's really about the experience. You know, it's not just you need the dress, it's that you want to enjoy the experience of being in that store. And that, as you said, good color will keep people in there longer and hopefully lead to sales. So super important.

Woolf: My very, very favorite store in Northampton — sadly the owner decided to retire during the pandemic, and I can't say that I blame her. You know, she'd been in business for a long time. She was really a fixture, but I think one of the most remarkable things, she had great color in the store, really great color. But one of the most remarkable things about the experience of shopping at Artisan Gallery was the dressing rooms.

They were just tiny little cabins, you know, nothing special. Solid closing doors, pretty colors. Really pretty colors. But the mirrors were lit from the sides. So you had full length mirrors with full length strips of very soft, very flattering lighting on either side of the mirror. And so you were well lit. Your face wasn't shadowy. You know, when you have lighting from overhead,

Krane: top light!

Woolf: light shining down on you in a dressing room, or light shining down in a bathroom, and you get this kind of ghoulish look because the shadows come out and all that stuff? So this light was just beautiful. Maybe the clothes fit, maybe they didn't, but you always looked good in Patty's dressing rooms.

So Artisan Gallery, what they did there was they color blocked. And so you'd walk in and the front of the store was housewares: decorative, beautiful things for the home. The middle of the store was jewelry, accessories, and then you'd go around the corner and the back was the clothing. And Patty had worked with another local colorist, a brilliant guy, really an artist — long before I ever came to town — and had color blocked chunks of the store, which I think actually gave the store a feeling of being larger. It’s sort of counterintuitive because I think often we think about color blocking as sort of chopping up a space. But it was interesting the way you would sort of move through this space and move through these different color zones. And in a way, it made the space…you felt like you were moving from one area to another, which kind of created this kinetic experience.

Krane: That’s really interesting. It makes great sense too, because maybe in that scenario where the color was tied so tightly to the different items being sold, to the different items, the color created a bunch of mini-stores. So it felt like multitudes, that you were going from this store to that store, to that store. And though they might be just small sections of one space, it created variety. It reinforced the variety that she was selling. Very interesting. Smart. Very smart.

Woolf: I think Patty was a brilliant, is a brilliant, retailer.

Krane: Oh, cool. Do you find, working in the world of color now, that you just can't drive around looking at buildings or go into stores or any kind of interior without thinking about its color? It’s so predominant in my mind. I changed dentists a bunch of years ago, and I remember going into their office for the first time, and it was all neutrals. But they were really soft, well done. It’ rare. A lot of times when you go into a dentist or a doctor's office everything clashes. The cabinetry in your patient care room is never beautiful wood. It can't be, that makes no sense, they’re laminates. And often, they try to mix these fake wood tones with a wall color and floor color that clashes with it. One might be a warm neutral, but the laminate cabinetry is a cool neutral, and it's just clashing beiges everywhere. Or those pink beiges put with the yellow beiges. It drives me crazy.

Woolf: I have a photograph of that exact situation. I did an office for an audiologist, a hearing aid specialist. And I did exactly in that office what you suggested that your dentist did, which was soft neutrals. We used a very soft, but warm pale — I don't even want to say it — but like a grayish color. I don't want to say gray, but it was. It was one of the Benjamin Moore, I think it was Tyler Gray. But all the furniture was sort of apple green and turquoise. And the artwork was beautiful, and the reception area was painted sort of a zingy green color, not too energetic, but lively enough to be welcoming and to keep the staff awake, zipped up and happy, you know?

Krane: Yeah.

Woolf: This has been a fun conversation. I've really enjoyed it. There's a chance to have a big impact out there. So when you're thinking about commercial color, consider it carefully. We can change the world with color. Right?

Krane: Thanks for spending some time with us. We hope you've learned a little bit more about color for the built world. Come on back next time and hear more of us speaking about how to apply color in our modern life.

Woolf: See you next time. Bye everybody.


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