Best paint colors for healthcare spaces

A perfectly crafted color palette can do wonders for a healthcare facility, whether it’s the product of a new-build project, renovation, or just a bit of rejuvenation.

But determining what shades of paint are best suited for a specific space should be done with plenty of consideration for not only facility type, but also the area/department being painted and the individuals who will be using it.

Jackie Jordan, director of color marketing for Sherwin-Williams, spoke with Healthcare Design Managing Editor Jennifer Kovacs Silvis about trends in color for healthcare, as well as how to determine which of those trends is best suited for individual spaces.

How to choose colors for healthcare projects

Jennifer Kovacs Silvis: Before we talk about what hospitals and healthcare facilities should be doing with color, what are some common mistakes you see made?
Jackie Jordan: One of the most common mistakes is using the wrong colors, such as bright colors in areas where you shouldn’t use bright colors; for instance, in patient rooms, an accent wall somebody is going to be facing that’s too bold or too bright.

You need to be cautious—not only about color in general, but about the kinds of colors you’re using and where you’re placing them, so they’re not distracting to people and they don’t make you agitated when you shouldn’t be.

It’s often the wrong colors in the wrong spaces, and the wrong saturation of color—colors that are too bright when they should be a little bit more muted or colors that should be brighter in spaces for children’s hospitals, for example, and other areas where you want lots of activity.

What kind of process should be taken when choosing a proper color scheme?
The process works differently for certain facilities, depending on whether it’s an existing facility and if they have to use existing materials. So that’s the first place to start.

If you have a facility and you know there are certain things that are not going to change—for instance, your flooring, your countertops, something that’s permanent—use that as your basis for starting that scheme so your colors are coordinated around that.

Starting a new facility, usually designers will be looking at floor covering. They’ll be looking at hard surface finishes or laminates. They’ll be looking at textiles.

Depending on the facility—whether it’s a hospital or perhaps a nursing home, or some kind of a specialized area—you’re going to have to determine from those what direction might be appropriate for color.

The selection a lot of times starts with materials, those textiles that have pattern and color in them, and we draw from that for inspiration in paint colors and other solid colors to coordinate with them.

Space use should determine paint color

What specifically should be measured in determining if it’s a place for soft, muted colors or a place for some bolder hues?
That’s one of the key things to look at—what is this space being used for? Are these patient rooms? Are these physical therapy rooms, operating rooms? Is this more of an assisted-living space where you want a homey atmosphere, something more residential in feel, as opposed to something that’s a little bit more commercial in feel?

Definitely you need to assess these kinds of things before you begin the color selection process.

Then, ask what each of those areas is being used for. A lot of times in large hospital situations, color is used for wayfinding, so choosing the appropriate colors that are associated with an area of the hospital to help people find their way from Point A to Point B.

Are there specific colors that are more highly recommended for different healthcare settings?
You want a nice balance of both warm and cool colors. Cool colors tend to be more calming, so things that are in the blues and the blue-greens, those types of colors really put people at ease because they do bring a sense of tranquility.

But you don’t want to get so cool that it feels cool. So you want to balance those colors with some warmth, as well, using neutrals, beautiful beiges, warm wood tones to go along with those and give you a nice sense of tranquility.

When you get into something that’s more of an assisted-living or retirement-type of facility, you can start using colors that are a little bit richer, a little more traditional, to give you that homier feel that’s more comforting.

But stay away from those highly saturated, vibrant yellows and reds, those types of colors that can certainly make you feel a little bit more anxious.

Then when you’re talking about children’s hospitals and spaces for children, you might want to consider those colors for rooms like activity rooms, places where children are going to have some fun for the day participating in crafts, for example. A lot is dependent on the activity.

Balancing color tones

Is there ever a place for bold colors in adult acute care?
It’s the placement of the color. If you’re in a facility and you’re in a hospital room, for example, you may want to take that color that’s a little bit richer or darker and place it behind the patient.

If someone is coming to visit, they’ll walk in the room and have the sense of something a little more colorful instead of neutral color walls. There will be some sense of color in there, but it’s not something the patient would be staring at all day.

So doing that color behind a bed as opposed to in front of the bed would be more appropriate.

The cubicle curtains that divide spaces and the drapery treatments that are used on windows also are a great place to add some pattern and texture to bring a little bit of color and warmth into a space.

How do you add energy through color in spaces like rehab areas, for example?
That’s done a lot of time through graphics that are used on walls; it’s done by just adding a color on accent walls in a room like that to create a sense of energy.

Again, it depends on what that rehabilitation might be—if it’s something that you really need to be focused on, if it’s an occupational therapy room where somebody is trying to learn how to do something with their hand, they might need to concentrate more and you don’t want it to be distracting.

It’s that balancing act.

In healthcare design, we often hear of the benefits of views to nature and plenty of daylighting, and you say natural colors can play a role in this as well?
Yes, again, I talked about the blues and the blue-greens, and it’s the color of water. The color of nature, and leaves, and trees—those are always wonderful colors to have in a facility—and then those natural colors of warm woods bring a sense of that in to the indoor space, as well.

(For more from Healthcare Design on trends in healthcare aesthetics, go here.)

A healthcare facility’s role in design

How involved should a facility be in talking to designers about what appropriate choices should be?
The designer really needs to know how that facility functions, whether they’re designing the entire facility or maybe just the patient rooms, to really understand. If it’s a maternity wing, you would decorate that differently than an ICU setting.

When it comes to paint in healthcare, what else should facilities be thinking of in terms of finishes, VOCs, etc.?  What should be on the checklist?
Choosing the appropriate product for the space is absolutely essential because there are so many different products out there and they’re designed specifically for certain areas of the facility. For instance, you’re going to need something different to go on the walls in an operating room than you would for just a patient care room.

You want to use different finishes in a corridor—you want things that are very durable.

The zero VOCs is something absolutely to consider, especially if you’re redecorating a wing, you don’t want to affect other parts of the hospital with paint odors. And from a maintenance standpoint, too, as you continue to touch up areas that get damaged or dirty, you want to make sure that maintenance paint doesn’t have odor that affects patients and the employees.

Speaking of maintenance, do you have any recommendations, especially for new-build facilities, for choosing colors and paints that will be appropriate for an extended period of time?
One of the things is staying with colors that are a little bit more on the neutral side in larger spaces and corridors.

That way you can easily add an accent wall at the end of the corridor, or use paint color for wayfinding. Perhaps those trends change and then you’re just repainting a stripe on a wall or a graphic on the wall. It makes it a little bit easier.

It’s a lot easier to change one wall than all four walls.

Appropriate color for patients, building users

Any final thoughts?
Look at each space individually and make sure you’re doing what’s appropriate for the person who’s going to be utilizing that space.

It could be the nurses’ station, for example, and that certainly should be different than a patient room. Look at each space and the people who occupy that space, the things that are occurring in that space, to make sure you’re looking at color in an appropriate way.