Experiencing COLOR in the Fire Station

(Note: This is part three of exploring “Can the colors of a station house affect mental and physical well-being?”)

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What is Color

In order to understand the human response to color, the question of “what is color” must be answered. NASA describes color by explaining light waves. “Each color has a different wavelength….Our eyes have cones inside them to help us see the waves as color.” From a different point of view, an online science museum compares the perception of color to the perception of taste. “When we eat, our taste buds sense four attributes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter….Similarly, when we look at a scene, our visual nerves register color in terms of the attributes of color: the amount of green-or-red; the amount of blue-or-yellow; and the brightness.”

Color is defined and described in many different ways, but all explanations lead to one conclusion — color is a sensory perception. As explained in part one of the color series, sensory processing takes place in the brain. In 1976 Rikard Kuller, environmental psychologist, demonstrated that colors affect the entire central nervous system which in turn affects our reactions to stress and our immune system. Then in 1981 he confirmed that color was shown to effect heart rate and the emotional perception of objects. “Color and Light in Man-made Environments,” by Frank Mahnke, states that “…color affects brain waves, the autonomic nervous system and hormonal activity and stimulates various emotions. In other words, we react both physiologically and psychologically to color.”

Color Experience

The International Association of Color Consultants teaches that the process of experiencing color is influenced by many factors — both on a conscious and unconscious level. These factors are grouped into six basic categories ranging from Most Influential (number 1) to Least Influential (number 6).

  1. Biological Reaction – reactions beyond our control
  2. Collective Unconscious – there since birth
  3. Conscious Symbolism; Associations – “learned” responses to certain colors
  4. Cultural Influences – cultural differences are evident, but reactions to color are mostly similar throughout the world
  5. Influence of Trends, Fashion, Styles – part of the overall way we experience color
  6. Personal Relationship – expresses our like, indifference or dislike of certain colors

Unfortunately, colors chosen for many fire stations are typically based on the last two factors. Trends and personal preferences are not necessarily negative influences, however, consideration of the biological reaction to color is much more important when making selections.

Color and Ergonomics

When selecting colors for a fire station, or any facility, the use of the space and ideal outcome must be considered. For example, the ideal outcome while utilizing the training room is for the brain to be engaged and for learning to take place. The colors selected for a training room can aid in the learning process, or contribute to boredom and restlessness, or even distract and confuse the user.

But color is only a part of the overall design. Ergonomic design is typically associated with physical conditions such as furniture, lighting, temperature and sound quality. In addition to color, these items all influence the response of the end user. In more recent years, designing for the “human factor” has introduced the psychological impact of a space. This includes mental aspects such as perception, processing information, interaction with coworkers and stress. A 2009 article states that “although there are historical differences between ergonomics and human factors, the philosophy underpinning both is the same — that there is an interaction between physical, cognitive and organizational factors which ultimately affect our physical wellbeing and the decisions we make. Further, if one factor is manipulated, this can have an impact on other factors.” In brief, if the space is designed appropriately, but the colors are not well-chosen, the space will lose its positive impact on the end user.

Color and Light

It must be stressed that color does not exist without light. Not only is light needed to see color, but the interaction between light and color must be considered. Lighting is indeed an important factor when designing a space. When possible, consideration must be made for location of windows to allow daylight to penetrate the space. Electric light should be selected for appropriate use and desired response.

Color Interaction

The visual effects of color on the human eye have been researched and confirmed for many decades. In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explains in his book “Theory of Colours,” that when the eye detects a color, it immediately seeks to find the missing color in order to provide color harmony. Color combinations are harmonious, or orderly, not because of personal preference, but because of the position of each individual color with regard to other hues. There are many color systems that explain this, but perhaps one of the easiest to understand is the Munsell Color System which breaks down color into hue, value (lightness) and chroma (brightness). Familiarity of color and color systems is imperative when selecting colors for the architectural space.

As mentioned earlier, once the brain processes what is viewed by the eye, other events take place which affect mental and physical reactions. For instance, an overstimulating space can be harmful to the eye muscles. Like any other muscle that is overused, eye muscles can wear out. An overstimulating space will cause the eye to constantly shift around the room due to lack of balance. High light reflection values (LRV) on large surfaces will cause glare. Strong contrasts between light and dark colors will cause the pupil to continually enlarge and contract in an effort to accommodate the intake of light. All of these will quickly tire the eyes, causing headaches, tension, nausea and other issues.

Keep in mind that an under stimulating space can also be harmful to the eye. In a 1972 publication by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), color authority Faber Birren reiterates that “both uniformity and excessive contrast are bad.” According to Birren, vision can actually degenerate with prolonged exposure in a monotonous setting, and the mind itself can become fatigued. In 2015, Jain Malkin, a respected expert in evidence-based healthcare design, adds to this thought that “evidence suggests that bland, monotonous environments cause sensory deprivation and are detrimental to healing.”

Summary

Creating spaces that offer variety and unity are necessary to keep the mind stimulated. Author Frederick Crewdson describes it as this: “Balance is the securing of unity in the midst of variety. Variety is necessary to attract and arouse interest; unity is essential to create a favorable impression and to satisfy the moods and desires. Variety overdone is confusing and unpleasant; unity overdone is monotonous. The mark of good color arrangement is in knowing where to stop between these extremes.”

As mentioned in part one, there are no specific colors that can be applied universally that will affect mental and physical health. But, as addressed in part two, there are recommended guidelines for selecting colors that will aid in promoting well-being. An understanding of the human response to color is important for creating environments with a positive influence on physical and mental well-being. For all professionals, this should be a high priority in fire station design.

Karen Collins, IACC is a freelance designer in Pataskala, Ohio. She earned her BFA in Interior Design from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1992. After 18 years in the residential design and construction industry, she began working for JBA Architects as a commercial designer until 2020. After completing the required seminars developed by the International Association of Color Consultants in 2008, she was voted in as president of the board for the IACC-NA from 2013-2017. In 2020 she completed her thesis “Improve Firefighter Well-Being by Utilizing Color in the Fire Station” to become a certified color designer.
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