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Office Colors That Work

Whether you're headed back to the office or staying in work-from-home mode, learn how to use color to create a supportive and productive environment.

Krane: Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and 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, inside and out.

Today we're going to talk about color for an office, be it a home office or a building that you go to. I would say that office color has one job and one job alone, and that's to support the function of the employees in the room. It can be a home office or a larger space in an office building. But color is incredibly important and is tied to how well you work in a space, the feeling that you get and the inspiration that you feel from the color around you. It can aid in the work that you're doing, or it can really hamper the work that you're trying to do.

You know what's really funny is, Amy, you and I met years ago, training, and it wasn't until a while longer that we actually got into each other’s homes. And I was so tickled to learn that you and I have the same color in our offices. It's not the same nuance of color, but the same color... My office is a really active yellow green. Its pale hound from Farrow & Ball. There are two colors that it is said are good for a working environment. They're beneficial for focus and concentration. And those two colors are blue and green.

Certainly, like every other color we've talked about, your own personal proclivities, your color likes and dislikes will always surpass generalities here. So if blue makes you feel melancholy or green just disgusts you, then those would not be colors for your office. But otherwise, generalizing, those are the two colors that are best for an office. Blue greens are more serene and a yellow green like mine is, as I said, more active. But that's something that I need doing my work. I want a color around me that's inspiring, and although I deal with colors all the time, I'm not a fine artist who needs to mix colors. I'm looking at pre-made colors on color chips, so the green doesn't really interfere with what I'm doing. And very often I take my color chips outdoors when I'm getting down to my final selection of colors, just to double check. I like to see how they look in natural light. Also, if you're lucky enough to have a view of nature out your window & I've got pure nature outside my window, you have a great advantage. But even if you live in a city and there's just the old oak tree out your window, if you're able to peer out and have your mind and your eyes rest in between tasks, it's really a great thing. Looking at green leafy scenes really helps us de-stress and restock our mental energy, which gets depleted when we're working on knowledge-based tasks. So there's a lot to be said for the regenerative power of green. It's what we're talking about when we talk about forest bathing, which I know sounds really woo-woo. But studies have been made about how restored and refreshed people feel walking through a setting of green... So I'm all for it. It stocks you up in the life force! But Amy, your office is green too...

Woolf: It is green, and it's actually also a Farrow and Ball green. It is Cooking Apple Green. And when I first opened my business years ago, I talked to one of my cousins, who's a fine artist, and we talked about wall collar, and he said, “Oh, you must have white, you know, because you're doing color work and need to have that neutral background.” He felt that was an important thing for my workspace. But I personally find white to be uninspiring, I think it's absolutely important to think about not having a color in your space that creates visual conflict with whatever it is you're doing. For me, I think the emotional and psychological component of my wall colors in my office really takes precedence. Like you, Amy, I'm working with smaller color chips. I have a gray background and I will often put larger projects up on a magnetic white board. The fact that it's physiologically easier on the eye is also a great argument for the use of green in all kinds of spaces, but especially work spaces. And I also agree with you, Amy, being able to pivot your chair and look outside a window or just take a breather is important.

I also have art work in my office that brings a punch of color. I think it's easy to go overboard with color in an office space. I think it makes sense to think about physiology and function, and if you're craving a bright color, you get yourself a little yellow desk lamp. My art work has a bold stroke of magenta in it, my clock is pink, so I think that's a great place to bring some punch of color, a pop of color. Can we please stop saying pop of color? ! Also, one of the things that we've learned in our training was about the fact that green is the easiest color for the human eye to see, something about where the green lands on the back of your eyeball, the retina.

Krane: Yeah, it has to do with the wave length of the green, where it falls in between the red and blue wave lengths in the spectrum. It falls somewhere in the middle.

I think many company owners, if it's a smaller company, or branding managers, if it's a larger company, try to tie their branding and image into the physical space. So in other words, if your branding colors were X, Y and Z, then they make sure to have X, Y and Z on the office walls. And I think one really has to be careful to separate your branding goals and the idea of creating an image for your company with the space you're supplying to your workers. Because you might have a really bright kaleidoscopic logo. And that kind of environment isn't good for people to be working in. Visual ergonomics can't be subservient to image branding. Ultimately, you need your employees to be comfortable and beyond that, highly functional and effective in their space. They have to be able to focus and work continuously throughout an 8-10-12 hour day. You need colors to be supportive. You know, there's a practicing environmental design psychologist, (that's a mouthful). Her name is Sally Augustin, and she has extensive experience integrating science-based insights to design spaces that are supportive for cognitive, emotional and physical work experiences. So she talks about colors for the work environment and how to optimize spaces that we live and work in. Her number one color, and this is based on science, for focus and creativity is not exactly your and my green, Amy, it's sage green. It's muted, a very muted green, a grey green, and that's interesting. Red has been tied to degraded analytical performance, so it's supposed to stay out of an office. I giggle because although my walls are this yellow green, I have tiny bits of red accent in my office, in my rug. But it's on the floor and it's not really in my visual frame as I'm doing my work. But you know, color affects mood and creativity as we've said so many times before. When we talk about creativity, we're not talking about being a fine artist and being a painter, although that might be your job. We're talking about creative problem-solving. And we're talking about colors that help you enhance that. She also says, and this is really interesting, (a lot of men out there will like this) but her studies have found that unpainted wood, where the grain is visible, calms the human brain, the same way that nature does. So there's a vote for all the guys out there who wanna keep the wood stain going in the house. That's a constant push and pull in color consultations between women and men. When I go to people's houses and it's a couple... the women whispers to me “can we paint the wood trim?" And I say, “Sure, we can paint it." And then they pull me inside and say, "My husband won't let me!" I don't know what that male,/female dichotomy is all about. She wants to paint it and he wants to keep it. Anecdotally, I believe this is so.

Woolf: It's definitely a thing. It's interesting what you say about the wood grain. During this last year and a half with so much working from home, one of my projects was to design an office space for some long-time clients. They were setting up a room in their basement for both of them to work from home. And what I chose to do in that space, because it was a basement room - no windows, no natural light. I was looking for ways to bring in a sense of nature, and I used a really beautiful, almost tie dye-looking, Shibori-patterned wallpaper from Thibaut that had a white background and soft, watery blues and greens in it. I would say that that Shibori pattern, which is a Japanese design based on dying folded fabric or paper... You can look that up if you're curious. But the Shibori pattern, in a way, does have a similar movement to wood grain. And that was exactly why I chose that wallpaper. I wanted something that gave my clients a place to turn away from their screens, look at something restorative and restful, but had a repeating pattern that in a way had an almost meditative quality to it. And what's also interesting is that the walls and the ceiling- the ceiling had a lot of activity going on, there was ductwork and a lot of movement in the ceiling. So we just wrapped a single color on the rest of the walls and the ceiling and it was... Drum roll, please, sage green. So I guess there's something to that. It is very, very restful.

Krane: One thing that's been new-ish this past year, with everything we've all gone through is that so many folks are working from home and the whole zoom thing. I am so grateful that I don't have to zoom for my work. When I talk to clients. I communicate just on the phone, so I can be looking at visual materials at the same time. But we've all had so much more experience now with conversing with people through Zoom or some kind of video chat and it's interesting to see the kind of backgrounds that people put up besides what's behind their heads. Some backgrounds are artificial, you can just pick the background... I have a friend who's got a fishing scene behind him and it just makes us all giggle because he's an angler. And then, of course, there are the folks who just use their house as back ground. Amy, you have had a fair amount of consulting necessitating a lot of Zoom meetings, or video chats. What do you think about when you think about the background that they see when they're talking to you?

Woolf: As a visual person, I find whatever is going on in the background to be somewhat distracting for me personally. And so I think that if I want people really paying attention, I think the less busy and the less interesting, our background is, the better. I have a regular consulting contract with a large manufacturer of building materials and we've been working together since the winter. I started out with a white background with a little bit of book case showing and it just... I don't know, I'm just happier at my desk, so I've done my best to clear everything off from behind my desk. But I spend so much time pivoting back and forth with materials, so I think... There we go with that whole functional/ aesthetic continuum. Are you just a talking head on screen if so, let's get it controlled. If you need to be able to access your materials and tools then you need to find that happy medium. I personally find the backgrounds that people are able to impose to be distracting because…. I don't even know how to describe this, but the way your head sort of sits on the background and comes and goes. It cuts in and cuts out. I don't know, it makes me crazy, but I guess that's because I'm visual and I find that stuff distracting. I did have somebody at some point ask me about good colors for backgrounds. Like if they were going to paint a wall and have a whole solid background of color, what would they use...? My advice was to choose a color that you look good in and that's not too strong, but still flattering. You know, kind of like picking a nice bathroom color that you look good in and you can start the day feeling happy. But I don't know, what do you think? What would you advise people to do for one solid background color Amy?

Krane: I would not go with a totally colorless, neutral, like a gray or white... I'm in agreement with you. I think something that sort of settles back, sits back, doesn't impose itself on you, but is constant and soothing. So not too saturated. Muted, light or maybe dark would be good. You know, I'm an avid PBS news hour watcher, and this past year, all of the reporters have been remote from home, And I have to say... (And I've heard other people write about this and comment online and in newspapers) my eye immediately goes to the cat that's roaming back and forth on the sofa, or the large color photo of a woman diving into the air, or they're talking and my eyes are scouring their book shelves. And I'm thinking, “Oh, there's a picture of Gwen Ifill, is it a little bit to the left since the other day?” And “is there something new on your bookshelf ?” And I gotta tell you, it totally distracts from the verbal message. My mind is going other places, and then I have to get back to what they're saying. So I think there's a lot to be said for it not be too busy, too interesting or moving back there behind people's heads.

Woolf: Right, so I want to return back to the question of color and personalization and decorating and the functional/aesthetic continuum, and talk about that gold. That bright gold we heard about somebody putting in an office recently. And I just want to get specific about talking about colors that are visually hard to be with in a space. Colors that are strong and that are buzzy. We've talked a little bit about the way we love greens and why we love about greens and why Sally Augustin loves greens. But let's talk about some other colors that probably should be no-goes. One of them, I think really is yellow. I had a dear friend years ago, when we first met, she had a color story, which was, my office is yellow and I'm a highly energetic person, but I just can't settle down to get my work done in my office. She was a jewelry designer, so she was also doing creative visual work. She loved bright yellow. It really suited her personality but physiologically it wasn't a supportive color for her. So we were engaged in that conversation about a bright gold office, and you and I both were kind of, “Oh, I don't know about that. It's a little too strong.” So I think navy blue would be a great color for an office, it's got some gravitas. It's not over-stimulating, it's calming depending on the light. Navy is a great way to go but... no gray, please. Can we just be done with gray?

Krane: Yeah, I think all kinds of blues are good except an electric blue. Not a Cobalt blue. I don't think red or orange would work in an office too well either. Again, you have to decrease the saturation to make a color livable by graying it down. Or use black or white to make it darker or lighter so it isn't the saturated, full chroma version of the color.

I just have to interject this, and this really isn't an office-related comment, but I get so many emails every day from different websites and online publishing venues. I can't even keep up with them. I read about a tenth of them. But I got one today from a Home Decor online magazine from the UK, and it said the number one color in the UK in sales for interiors right now is Farrow & Ball's, Purbeck Stone. That's gray folks! And sales of Purbeck Stone are up 1292% this year. So gray ain't dead yet. We may want it to be, but it's not.

Woolf: You know, I did a pale pink office for a client a number of years ago in Virginia and she's still quite in love with that. Having just painted my living room a really, really warm pink, I could definitely see putting that color everywhere, even in an office. I was a tomboy as a kid, and I felt a little pushed into pink as a little girl. I kind of pushed back a fair bit. So pink really wasn't part of my personal repertoire for a long time. But I'm happy that it's back in my life. It really is a humane color and a nice color to live with. And I think to that end, a soft peach, I know people have issues with peach, but a really soft peach and a soft turquoise both have a really humane quality to them. That was another part of our training with IACC.

Krane: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I did that also. I worked on a home in Woodstock a few years ago. And it did have wood trim by the way, which they wanted to keep... And that was fine. There were rustic elements to the house. And there was a small office facing the front of the house. It was small and had a lovely view of greenery and all, and it was the wife's. And she said, “Pick me a pink.” There was no discussion. She knew what she wanted. I chose her a warm pink also... Yeah, that's just a hugely supportive color. If we can all get away from the pink is for girls and blue is for boys thing, then... yeah, pink is for everyone. I'm a fan. And in training they spoke about it for healthcare settings which we're not really talking about today. But if you want to expand the concept of an office beyond just the room that you're working in and talk about any kind of office then you start thinking about how color can further the function of different office spaces. Like a waiting room. It is true that cool colors make time seem like it's going faster and warm colors the opposite. So for a waiting room, a blue or green, a cool color, will make it a little less painful for people who are sitting there forever. Also using color strategically for way-finding to send people down halls and into different rooms. Then there's color blocking and accent walls to really further the success of the whole facility by helping to keep people in some places and move to other places. Sally Augustin also said that if you put cool colors on hallway walls and a warm color on the end wall, people will move towards the warm color and will move more quickly through cool colors. So I'm not saying you necessarily want blue walls with a red end wall. But in general, using these facts to employ color to help move people through a space towards one thing and away from another.

Before I did this, I worked as a freelance TV producer and there was one company I will never forget working in. It was in New York City. It was a large open loft space. In film production there are lots of meetings, lots of people on phone calls and it's a lot of noisy interaction. The office had multiple windows next to one another. It got tons of light. And the floors were painted white, high gloss. The walls were cool white... The ceilings were white. The light was so harsh. It was so, so difficult to work 12-hour days in this space. The company did a lot of fashion work, and I know the choice of white was all about image.

I'm kind of moving us into the pet peeve thing here, but the choice of white was all about image. This cool and groovy image. While we, the workers who were there for hours and hours every day suffered in this high glare situation. Oh, the desks were white too. Everything was white. You have to really protect your eyes from glare. Think about how many different jobs have us looking at computer screens all day, which is really tiring on the eyes. And then when you take your eyes away from your computer screen and you've got bright white and glaring light everywhere bouncing all around. It was really horrendous. So that's my pet peeve. Don't put your image or you're decorating goals above the needs of the workers in a space, it's so important.

Woolf: Okay, I'm going to one up you here, Amy. Ready? I have nothing to do with this project, and I'm not gonna name the architectural firm who designed it, but there is a teaching space at one of the dental schools, and the entire space…. imagine a big huge open warehouse-like space that has different stations for doing work on their dental patients. Same situation as your production company, all bright white. Except each dental station had an accent wall of fluorescent yellow. I saw this and I thought, Oh my god, just the ergonomics of that is so ..... It just makes me sad. It's so painful. Yes, to a yellow desk lamp. That's okay. But no, to a fluorescent yellow accent wall in a dental teaching facility where visual acuity really matters. Things can really go wrong.

When you talk about pet peeves, I think one of my big pet peeves when it comes to work spaces is picking color by committee. I know I've been brought into projects in the past where they're getting ready to paint and they've pulled together 10 people from the office, and those 10 people are charged with trying to find something that works. I find what usually happens is, nobody ends up being happy with the final choice.

Krane: Well, I think that might wrap it up. Thanks for tuning in this time. We hope you've learned just a little bit more about choosing color for the built world.

Woolf: If there's something you'd like to hear us talk about, you can find us at... Let's Talk Paint Color dot com. There's a form on the bottom of our homepage and you can send us a little note and give us your thoughts about what you would like us to talk about in a future episode. So thanks for tuning in. And we'll see you next time.


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