Color Planning for Interiors: An Integrated Approach to Color in Designed Spaces

Color Planning for Interiors: An Integrated Approach to Color in Designed Spaces

by Margaret Portillo

ISBN: 9780470135426

Publisher Wiley

Published in Calendars/Architecture

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Color Planning Pathways

Think of color as three-dimensional from the start. Color should provide clues as to what you are going to encounter in that environment. Color is the first thing you notice and the last thing you leave with. -Agnes Bourne, Interior Designer

Color elevates the human experience and transforms space; yet, the process of designing with color can be quite complex and challenging. When challenges to color planning are recast as opportunities for development, designing with color can be optimized and creativity unlocked. This book contains twenty narratives of design projects that reveal the ways designers use color to define form and create meaning while addressing human needs.

For experienced designers, color represents more than a name: red, yellow, or blue. Hue, or the family name of the color, simply represents its position on the visible spectrum, while the second dimension of color, value, indicates the relative lightness or darkness of the hue. Value defines the position of the hue in relation to black or white and the amount of light the color reflects. By gradually increasing the black in the color, less light is reflected, thus reducing its value. The opposite is true with white. Value can be gauged both achromatically and chromatically. Chroma is the third dimension of color. Also known as intensity, chroma defines the relative brightness or dullness of a hue; it represents the saturation level. Consciously considering dimensions of hue, value, and chroma gives designers more liberty to explore the potential of color.

Color planning does not stop with individual colors but necessarily extends to color groupings. Noted color theorist Josef Albers declared that color is the most relative element in art and astutely observed how some colors appear to shift in appearance when placed next to others. Color dimensions are relative to one another rather than absolute. A color that appears dark in one palette, for instance, may be judged lighter in another context, while a hue that appears bright in one palette may appear less saturated among other colors. In addition, color appearance is influenced by factors, such as lighting conditions and texture, that have implications for designing interiors. Color planning is much more than correctly anticipating how a swatch of color will translate an interior space.

The study of color is complex and can be understood in both subjective and objective terms. The subjective response to color is intuitive and varies from individual to individual. The objective response to color is rational and consistent, factual and standardized. Color research and knowledge, however, recognize both objective as well as subjective aspects of this design element. For example, the subjective naming of hues in a rainbow varies by culture, but its light wavelengths can be objectively measured in nanometers. The understanding of objective and subjective dimensions of color has been advanced in the following fields with particular relevance to the design of interiors:

Art: Color interaction and contrast

Anthropology: Cultural and historical color symbolism

Design: Color planning narratives

Marketing: Color and arousal, branding, and product differentiation

Physics: Color and light properties and measurement

Psychology: Color sensation, perception, and response

Challenges of Color Planning

Designers face five challenges to color planning that, while potentially limiting, can be overcome through knowledge and experience (see Figure 1-1):

Subjectivity: Color likes and dislikes

Objectivity: Prescriptive color solutions

Conventionality: Traditional schemes and harmonies

Materiality: Natural coloration of materials

Dimensionality: Visualization and application


Perhaps the most fundamental barrier to color planning is too heavy a reliance on personal preferences when designing. Research shows that humans prefer certain colors and tend to avoid others. As beginning designers reach beyond their subjective views of color, their confidence in working with myriad colors and materials grows as they align design intent with project context. Awareness of personal preferences and subjective beliefs about color may not even be conscious. This makes it important to reflect on the following questions: What colors appear again and again in my own work and in the field? How can innovative and imaginative color palettes be introduced across market sectors?


If dangers arise from overemphasizing subjective beliefs, other barriers emerge from an overreliance on expert rules. For example, it was reported that a saturated pink, called Baker-Miller pink, subdued aggressive behavior in people being admitted into correctional facilities. Yet what was discovered over time was that prolonged exposure to this intense pink actually increased agitation. When a prescribed color formula is followed blindly, the result may not only lack imagination but also, however unintentionally, negatively affect human behavior.

The problem with one-size-fits-all recommendations is that they fail to account for context. Contextual considerations include the relationship between color and lighting, the influence of color on the amount of time to be spent in an interior, and individual differences in how color is perceived. Like inquiry on any topic, color research varies in quality and usefulness. To determine whether particular research findings should be applied to a design, begin by asking these questions: Have the researchers carefully reported their methods, procedures, and participants? Have the color testing materials, lighting, and color vision of the participants been carefully controlled? In what types of settings can the findings be applied?


Another barrier to color planning is an overreliance on conventional color schemes. Traditional color harmonies surface in interior architecture with deadening regularity. While monochromatic, analogous, and complementary schemes, for instance, offer acceptable ways to organize color relationships, an unhealthy dependence on organizational rules blocks creativity. Traditional color schemes often focus on hue. However, all dimensions of color, including value and intensity, should be considered in relation to space and form. From a color planning perspective, conventional harmonies and schemes offer a beginning point rather than a solution. When developing color directions, consider the following questions to circumvent conventionality: What is original and unique about the color palette? How is this coloration most appropriate for the design context?


A further challenge is to recognize that materials and finishes, whether glass, granite, or paint, contribute color to interiors. Just as the hues of nature have inspired artists through the ages, introducing natural materials into designed spaces creates a coloration that is often nuanced and complex. Some designers and schools of thought embrace a truth-to-materials stance that celebrates materiality in design. This perspective elevates natural materials over applied color finishes, such as paint. Regardless of the design stance on authenticity, color planning should be approached with intention and purpose. This chapter presents a contemporary and historical narrative illustrating how interior color is created primarily with natural materials that unify and sculpt space as well as convey meaning. Rather than debating whether a painted wall is less authentic than a stone one or not fully considering the impact of materials selection on the overall palette, it is more critical to ask these questions: Is the natural coloring of materials considered part of the color palette? How do material and finish coloration contribute to the architectural form and interior space?


Another challenge is understanding color in three dimensions (see Figure 1-2). Developing color and materials palettes in two dimensions is not as complicated as applying these palettes to three-dimensional space. Sketch models, perspectives, elevations, and floor plans can facilitate visualization of color in the proposed design. Yet anticipating interaction of lighting and form on color placement, and viewing distance, scale, and proportion can be difficult even using the latest digital modeling techniques and physical mock-ups. One colorist I interviewed underscored the importance of careful and analytical observation: "Color expertise comes from experience. Look at color in the plane, where the color will be applied [on wall, ceiling, or floor surfaces], in the appropriate lighting at different times of the day. Consider the viewing distance when designing interior spaces." The coloration of materials can appear to change under different lighting conditions. To optimize the translation to three-dimensional color, consider these questions: Has color been considered in relation to form and space from the beginning of the design process? How can the visualization of color be developed through observation, experimentation with multiple media, sketch models, large samples, and mock-ups?

Color Planning Framework

The criteria-based framework presented in this book (see Figure 1-3) addresses five distinct functions of color and illustrates an integrated planning approach by specifically addressing:

Color as compositional element, shaping space

Color as communication, creating meaning

Color as preference, reflecting individuality or market trends

Color as response, arousing feelings and responses

Color as pragmatics, responding to resource parameters

Color as Composition

Working with color compositionally requires objective problem-solving to integrate color, lighting, and materiality. Individual colors also can be understood in compositional terms. For example, a white may be blue-based or red-based. Single colors can vary in the complexity of their composition. A neutral can be mixed from black and white (achromatic gray) or created from a pair of complements (chromatic gray). The complexity of color can be discovered by examining dimensions of hue, value, and chroma.

Further, groupings of colors can be analyzed compositionally. Establishing value relationships is particularly important for relating color to three-dimensional form. Color palettes offer a way to unify the interior with the exterior and can visually connect one interior space to another. Color also can create focal points and camouflage areas within an interior. Key concepts for color composition are complexity, balance, contrast, relationships, interaction, and integration.

Color as Communication

Humans communicate with color and interpret color meanings. Color associations develop the conceptual design and enrich the more objective compositional approach to color. Professor Harold Linton explains, "Color must first convey an expressive meaning that is appropriate to the specific project for which a color solution is sought; and color and form must be presented to the observer in a manner that achieves visual unity." Expressive color facilitates conceptual development and communicates both overt symbolism and subliminal connections that associate closely with the emotional aspect of color. Key concepts for color communication are identity, concept, ambiance, time, and place.

Color as Preference

Color preferences influence the design process. Designers and clients have subjective color likes and dislikes that shape color planning. Further, individual preferences can be influenced by market trends and cycles where product offerings encourage the selections of current colors and finishes. Key concepts for color preference are signature color, personal identity, and market color.

Color as Response

Color influences a range of human responses, from arousal to the ability to navigate complex buildings. The relationship between color and the human response is tangible but not fully understood or empirically established. Key concepts for the human color response include physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses, including spatial orientation and performance.

Color as Pragmatics

Color in design also reflects practical realities. Resource constraints sometimes necessitate less expensive materials and finishes in given color ranges. Preconditions also may influence coloration. The logical starting point for developing a color palette is an existing material. For example, a precondition in an adaptive use project might be a prominent green terrazzo floor that must be retained. Maintenance issues affect the pragmatics of color as well. Designers typically select darker flooring for high-traffic corridors to extend the longevity of the specified material. In a related way, designing sustainably necessitates specific lighting levels, materials, and paint lines that influence color. Key concepts related to the pragmatics of color planning involve resources, preconditions, maintenance, and sustainability factors.

The following cases illustrate color planning concepts in two projects, one contemporary and one historic, that speak to the close relationship of color and materiality. The projects recognize the many considerations that enter color planning processes and the different levels of client involvement in the process.

Contemporary Color: Truth-to-Materials

Larry Wilson, senior principal at Rink Design Partnership, Inc., described his process of designing with color in the Riverview condominium project (see Figures 1-4a, b). The primary source of this color palette was its materials: the expansive glass walls, quartersawn natural cherry, a 4-inch slab of natural Brecco DiVendome marble, black Galaxy granite, and Navona travertine. These materials played a defining role in creating the interior coloration of the 5,200-square-foot condominium.

The clients issued a straightforward objective: They wanted a contemporary space that was livable and conducive to entertaining, with a streamlined interior space that promoted ease of circulation while remaining secondary to the panoramic views of the waterfront. The building, located at the bend of a river, offered views in both directions; in Wilson's words, "There always was a show going on." The lighting from day to night dramatically changed the feeling of the interior space. Over the course of a day, lighting could shift from soft grays to clear blues to a light goldenrod and then culminate in a chromatic display at sunset; at night, glittering city lights illuminated the pitch-black sky.

Large glass walls fully exploited the view, and Wilson decided to treat the remaining walls in cherry. In addition to contributing to the formal shaping of the space, color also reinforced the design concept by evoking the interior of a yacht; the clients were passionate about yachting (the firm also designed the interior of a 132-foot vessel for them). The designers carefully selected cherry as a primary material because it is close in coloration to teak, the traditional material for yachts, plus it allowed them to create the refined wall veneer in a way not possible with teak. The cherry veneer wraps the walls throughout the living room and dining areas and conceals continuous storage, a wet bar, and the mechanical utilities. Selected in part for pragmatic reasons, cherry created a warm palette for the interior, and its finish yielded a subtle reflected light.

Color contributed to a powerful interior architecture and elicited associations with water; however, color selections of materials and finishes also were pragmatic. Wilson recounted, "I chose the black Galaxy granite for several reasons. One of the difficult dynamics of work with residences on the river is that everything is constantly backlit from the strong sunlight. Maintenance becomes a big issue." The texture in the granite offers a highly functional surface with visual interest. He indicates, "I also chose the black Galaxy because it has an incredible copper metallic flex running through it. At night, under downlighting, it really comes to life."


Excerpted from "Color Planning for Interiors: An Integrated Approach to Color in Designed Spaces" by Margaret Portillo. Copyright © 0 by Margaret Portillo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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