Simply using industrial quantities of soft-sheen magnolia paint in schools, sometimes complimented by a dash of maroon or navy gloss, ignores research and knowledge about the meaning of colour and the effect it has on students.
“The amateur, convinced he/she has good ‘colour sense’ and able to choose colours intuitively and do it well, ventures to offer opinions often in conflict with the professional.” So wrote Robert Samuels and Harry Stephens in their 1997 report, ‘Colour and Light in Schools’. In their research they say that without any guidelines around colour principles, decisions become based on personal, fashionable or political tastes rather than on evidence or best practice.
It’s a frustration we share. Having spent weeks working with teachers to ensure the furniture specification and layouts for their classrooms truly support teaching and learning, the head teacher often loses their nerve when it comes to making a judgement call on colour. Often they simply grab the nearest person who is ‘good with colours’ to make a choice which, through no fault of their own, will probably be guided by their personal taste rather than what would work best in a teaching and learning environment.
Why colour matters
It’s not just because I’m a designer that I think colour within learning environments is important. In The Inclusive Classroom: The Effects of Color on Learning and Behavior, by Kristi Gaines and Zane Curry from Texas Tech University, they assert that ‘a thoughtfully planned physical environment will enhance the psychological comfort of the most sensitive students by identifying and eliminating detrimental sensory impact.’ Some students may be more sensitive to colour because of heightened sensory responses and strong visual processing abilities (Freed and Parsons, 1997), particularly those with attention deficit disorders or those on the autistic spectrum. Other studies show that the colour pink reduces aggression in prisoners (Alexandra Schauss, 1979) and that red raises the blood pressure (Morton, 1998). So there is scientific proof of the effect of colour that shouldn’t be ignored.
The truth about colour in learning environments is quite complex. There is no simple answer. No ‘paint the walls blue and you’ll see results soar’. As Samuels and Stephens went on to point out, this simplistic approach would ignore “the two most fundamental determinants of colour significance – culture and colour context”.
The meaning of green: rolling hills or corruption and disgrace?
Think about the colour green: the rolling hills of our green and pleasant land; of spring buds and growth. It would be easy to link it with optimism, vision and creativity. But think now of green within the context of a Saturday afternoon in a pub in the Maryhill district of Glasgow when Celtic are playing Rangers. The same could be said during a local derby in Manchester when blue no longer has the same limitless ‘blue-sky thinking’ quality that the amateur colourist might tell you.
Of course it’s not just the simplistic symbolism of the football strip, but deeply held beliefs in some cultures where colour is significant. In the Qur’an we’re told that the inhabitants of paradise will wear green garments of fine silk, leading Sultan Abdul Hamid II to order the site of the tomb of Muhammad to be painted green in 1837, so green has a special significance for Muslims. China uses the colour to symbolise infidelity and disgrace; closer to home, in Ireland, it represents Catholics (whilst Protestants are Orange). Head down to North Africa and green signifies corruption.
Even without the impact of culture on selecting the colour green, a ground floor classroom with wide open views onto the South Downs or the Derbyshire Dales might well have quite enough green already without adding to it care of the Dulux dog.
Similarly, a primary school classroom with 30 children resplendent in scarlet sweatshirts doesn’t really need red chairs too and a red feature wall because someone watching breakfast television worked out, as did the BBC, that red is a colour to wake you up. Yellow, on the other hand, has connotations of cowardice but can also bring bright cheeriness, whilst in Egypt it remains the colour of mourning.
Colour is complex and there are no easy answers to getting it right. But by taking the time to really think it through you’ll be more likely to end up with a successful colour scheme that makes a positive contribution to your learning environments. In future posts we’ll share advice on what colours work best in which areas of a school.
For help and advice on using colour to create amazing learning spaces, call us on 01952 210197 or email email@example.com