Light: Unlocking the Code of Colour

A Design Assembly South Wales Presentation

On Friday, November 10th, we were proud to co-host Design Assembly South Wales with Edge Design.

Combining RIBA-certified CPD presentations from renowned professionals with the chance to mix and mingle with experts in the world of commercial interiors and office design, it proved to be a successful, insightful and entertaining morning.

If you missed it, you can download the programme, but we thought we’d give anyone who couldn’t make it on the day an opportunity to see what they missed.

The second of our guest speakers was Martin Kessell from Atrium Lighting.

Cracking the code of light and colour

Martin presented a fascinating insight into the way we perceive colour.

Essentially, it’s the result of a complex relationship between different light sources and the way that they combine with different colours.

When you get this code right it will work to the advantage of the built environment. But if you get the code wrong it will work to the detriment of the space and the people in it.

Colour and emotion

Over 100 years ago, Victorian-era poet, artist, critic, and social revolutionary, John Ruskin, was convinced, that colour and how the subject perceived that colour could not only have an emotive effect on the observer but also have a profound physiological effect on the body.

He famously said, "The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most”.

In the 19th Century, Ruskin lacked the technology to test his theory. Today, we can and have done just that

We also have the ability to do things with new lighting technologies that weren’t previously possible.

Now designers can use light to improve the experience people have within a space.

How does colour work?

First, we need to look at how the human eye works.

We have rods and cones in our eyes. Rods detect brightness and contrast and cones detect short, medium and long wavelength light (colour).

When colour is received into the eye, it depresses its corresponding cone.

This sends a signal to the visual cortex in the brain that says it is receiving that colour. Over-exposure to one colour can cause temporary colour blindness.

Interestingly, this effect is something that artists like Carlos Cruz-Diez and James Turrell have used in their work to alter the viewer’s perception.

Chromasuturation; Carlos Cruz-Diez (photo © Arturo Sanchez)

Roden Crater; James Turrell

Reflecting on why we see colour

At this point, Martin explained something that we probably all take for granted. Why are objects the colour that we perceive them to be?

As you can probably remember from science classes in school, white light is made up of all the colours in the spectrum.

When white light hits an object, all colours are absorbed except the colour of the object.

The colour of the object is reflected and that’s the colour that we perceive.

Why is colour important?

Colour can be used to enhance an environment at every stage of the design process.

It’s also been shown to have an emotional and even physical effect on individuals.

Alexander Schauss did extensive research into the effects of colour on emotions at the Naval Correctional Facility in Seattle.

He found that a tone of pink seemed to reduce hostile, violent or aggressive behaviour. Even going so far as to reduce muscle strength!

He called it Baker-Miller pink after the two directors of the institute but the colour is also known as Drunk-Tank pink.

The effect of wavelengths

The spectrum of light can be broken down into wavelengths.

Research has shown that different wavelengths can have different results on people.

Short wavelength light

This releases norepinephrine and dopamine; ‘activating’ and ‘rewarding’ neurotransmitters.  It also encourages the release of cortisol; the body’s ‘fight or flight’ hormone.

Short-term exposure to short wavelength light makes us feel energised and activated.

Overexposure could lead to aggressive and negative behaviour.

Long wavelength light

This suppresses cortisol and releases more melatonin and serotonin.

This allows the body to go into a relaxed, rebuilding state.

Circadian Rhythm

As humans, we’re programmed to react to the greatest light source of all; the sun.

As it moves across the sky, we’re all attuned to its changing colours throughout the day.

This is called a circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions.

Dawn brings short wavelength light to activate and invigorate us, peaking at midday.

Dusk introduces longer wavelength light to relax us ready for sleep.

Unfortunately, this cycle is being broken through the use of artificial light.

Using light

In terms of its commercial use, and in relation to office design, light can be broken down into its constituent parts to help create a specific mood for a space, increasing productivity and encouraging focus.

White light can be manipulated to increase or decrease its colour levels, creating the spectrum for an intended application.

The last thing Martin asked everyone to take away from his presentation was a recognition of how important it was to understand the effect that the quality of light can have on a space.

It’s not just about how the lighting looks but also how that lighting makes things look.

If you’d like to find out how we can help to create effective working environments using colour and light, get in touch with the design team at Paramount today.

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Categories: Design Assembly South WalesOffice DesignOffice Fit Out

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