One observation I’ve made during my journey into the world of healthcare design is that there are a lot of neutral-colored care centers for adults. While children’s hospitals are bursting at the seams with rainbow-inspired lobbies, decorative floor motifs, and color-changing room lighting, the 20-and-older-set is likely to see a palette of beiges and whites on their next visit to the doctor’s office or ER.

“A number of new hospitals built in the last five years have been notably lacking in color,” says Rosalyn Cama, president and principal interior designer of design firm Cama Inc.

Cama, Eve Edelstein, founder and president of Innovative Design Science, and Sheila Bosch, director of research and innovation for Gresham, Smith and Partners, shared their thoughts on the subject during a webinar on “Application of Color in Healthcare Settings,” hosted by The Center for Health Design. The team dove into decades of research (although they pointed out that color studies specific to healthcare environments are lacking), basic color theory, and anecdotal evidence to discuss the value of color in the healthcare setting.

One reason, Cama noted, is that designers and owners have become fearful about color. So they turn to those safer hues on the color wheel. But color can do more than add a sense of warmth or serve as a decorative accent on a wall and, as such, deserves more consideration. It can help move patients to a focal point, serve as wayfinding and help create cognitive maps.

A study by Gibson, MacLean, Borrie, and Geiger (2004), examined the behavior of 19 residents in a long-term care dementia facility, where they found a majority of residents used color to help them find their rooms. Room number and name plate ranked as the second most often reported visual cue.

To help designers and industry professionals gain some color confidence, the speakers offered a few design considerations: (Check out their paper for the full list.)

1. Consider the needs of each specific patient population: Studies show that white is the least preferred color for pediatric patients, while elderly populations have a decreasing preference for blues as the lenses in their eyes yellow with age.  

2. Remember that skin color is a vital clinical cue: Therefore, the patient zone should have access to natural daylight so that clinicians can assess skin tone, while colored walls and surfaces should be arranged so that light does not reflect color from the surface onto the patient.

3. Get to know your colors: Warm colors with high illumination encourage increased alertness and outward orientation, making them good choices for physical therapy facilities. On the other hand, cool colors and low illumination are better for areas where patients need to concentrate on difficult tasks.

While the speakers recognized that it’s hard to develop universal guidelines, since what appeals to a five year old might be distracting to an elderly patient, that doesn’t mean designers should give up on color. The limitations, they concluded, are in your kit of parts.

“At the end of the day, go outside and see what kinds of colors present themselves,” Cama said. “We’re predisposed to be outside so let that begin to set the clues.”