Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Environmental Color Design

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_235



Environmental color design involves the use of color in order to configure it as a more beautiful, usable, and informative component of the environment that allows theoretical and practical activities. Color design is a relevant aspect of environmental design, which includes such disciplines and practices as landscape design, urban planning, architecture, interior design, industrial design, engineering, graphic design, textile and fashion design, etc., all of them aimed at a transformation of the natural environment with the purpose of adapting it to human life.

The Function of Color in Space Experience

Man living in a built environment, the user of a built space, is protected from the tribulations of nature; he utilizes the services of his surroundings and enjoys comfort from these services. In addition to its actual measurable properties required for the physical and biological existence of man, built environment has other qualities too.

Built space acts upon man in several ways: by the proportions, the relationship, and shape of its elements, the order of forms, by surface  appearance and colors of the elements, by the relation between space proportions, by the expression of function, by the relation between the expressivity of function and the function proper, and by the shape and color associations expressing function. This effect materializes as an emotional experience of the actual space, and space sensation. Space sensation is an experience about a given space, an accomplishment of one’s own personality.

The Function of Color in Space Perception

Space perception is a complex process to which several sensory organs contribute. Among them, visual and auditory stimuli and those arising from motion in space are the most important. All these add up to a space stimulus eliciting the perception of space.

Space stimulus is elicited by measurable and tangible real space, composed of space elements as well as of correlations between shapes and surface  appearances, all describable by physical magnitudes. Most of the information about the objective correlations, shapes, and surface appearances of space elements is obtained by reflection, absorption, or transmission of light by the surface of the element that delivers visual stimuli to observers.

Assuming that the surface  appearance of space elements is of the same finish, texture, and color, and that the elements are illuminated from the same direction, with the same intensity and spectral distribution, then due to visual and motional parallaxes, overlapping, line and air perspective, and light-shadow effects, a space perception with a linearity directly proportional to that of the change of the real space is elicited.

Color identity as a condition means that light incident from the surfaces into the eyes has the same wavelength; that is, color sensation is the same throughout, and also, that for the same angle of incidence, the ratio of the quantity of light incident on and reflected by surfaces is the same everywhere, and in the reflected light incident on the eyes, the ratio of complementary radiations, hence saturation, is felt to be the same throughout.

To examine the function of color, let’s assume that stimuli arriving into the eyes come from the elements of such an objective space where dimensions, proportions, and relations of the elements do not permit overlapping and the interpretation of line perspective relations; further the onlooker does not move in space, missing the help from laws of motion parallax in space perception. If these conditions are met, and in addition direction, intensity, and spectral energy distribution of light within the space are constant and the former restriction of equal hues, saturations, and lightnesses of surface colors holds, the objective space can be judged only by evaluating the perceived color sensation differences.

Intensity differences of the stimuli emitted by space element surfaces and reaching the eyes permit, first of all, to decide on the spatial position of the light source, then, from hue, saturation, and lightness differences of space element surfaces, on the distance of space elements from the onlooker, hence on the space itself.

It is known by experience that the more remote an object, the more hue component of the color sensation generated by its surface is shifted to hues of shorter wavelengths, its saturation toward achromatic colors, and that its lightness component varies as a function of the two other components and of the position of the light source. This experience helps the space sensation although its significance can really be perceived only if the former condition of color identity is abandoned. In reality, this is always the case. With space elements painted different colors, it cannot be decided anymore which element is the closer and which is the farther away. Orange and red, even if in reality more distant, are felt to be nearer than blue or green. Saturated colors are felt to be nearer than are unsaturated ones. Very dark surfaces emit very little or no stimuli to the eye, so that these are not sensed, rendering space perception impossible.

The Role of Color in Expressing the Function of Space

Color contributes to space sensation also by expressing the function of space. Function of the built environment is a demand raised to social level. Structural relations in a system composed of man and the elements of his environment are defined by a complex function having three components: utility function, aesthetic function, and informative function. This section explains how color – color stimulus and color perception – contributes to the realization or expression of these functions.

Environment is the scene of human activities, serving human demands. Much of these demands refer to the utility function of environment. Built environment is required to protect from the rigors of weather, to endure dynamic forces generated by human machinery, to protect from such factors as excessive temperature fluctuations, intense noise, and other factors from working processes detrimental to health. A recent requirement is feeling of comfort in one’s milieu so as to stimulate the development of mental and physical abilities.

Color has a significant function in meeting these demands. Due to its psychophysical and psychosomatic effects, it may raise blood pressure or change the composition of blood and gastric juices. Color can make one feel healthy or ill. A person in an environment of preferred colors feels better; his/her ambition to work increases. Some colors favor concentration; others cause deconcentration [1].

Just as anything else, built space and all its elements are separable unities of content and form. Environment fulfills its aesthetic function if it expresses its utility function in conformity with the unity of content and form, where the utility function is the content, while form is expressed by shape and color of environmental elements. Since the content of objects in the environment, let alone in the built environment, is its function, the built space and objects within its content can only be grasped and fully expressed by means of their proper functioning and operation. Practical and spiritual components of the function are interdependent. Even the remark may be risked that aesthetic design of an object or built space is impossible when ignoring its functions. As a conclusion, there are no aesthetic prescriptions of general validity.

In designing color relations for a built environment as a human creation, it is also a question of what importance is attributed to practical functions of the environment for human life in general. Every work and activity is linked to emotions, thoughts, and ideas, therefore every object, tool, or built space demands its share of these mental, emotional, ideological threads, in conformity with its role, significance, and function in one’s life. Colors of the built space as elements of form in the couple content and form are made necessary by the sensation of function, giving rise to a harmonious sensation of the indissoluble unity between content and form in human consciousness. Of course, the sight of some color complex may cause aesthetic pleasure, but detached from the content of space, i.e., from its function, this pleasure lacks the effect of complete space experience.

Those who wish to express the message of built space have to know about relations between environmental structures, i.e., about the so-called compositional relationships, in order to be able to create proper relations between forms and color perceptions. These relations comprise color harmonies. Thus, the design of space sensation also exploits color harmonies in this space.

Informative functions of space are features that interpret the functions of the environment and its elements and explain how to use and operate these elements. A significant part of the informative functions of the environment are borne by chromatic information. According to their message, chromatic information may be interpreted either as logic or as aesthetic information. Both kinds of information are borne by the same elements, but every form of message has its own structure. Their characteristics are determined partly by differences in the visual system, complexity, and structure and partly as psychic differences between their communication content. Information content is transmitted by highlighting, contracting, and grouping some visual symbol elements in the informative surface or space, while omitting others. A color group draws attention when it is clear cut and its structure is easily intelligible.

Chromatic information of a logic nature, i.e., the various standardized color codes, are practical tools that appeal to a logical mind. They transmit messages and serve also to influence observers in their decisions and control their attitudes and behavior.

Aesthetic chromatic information is primarily emotional expression of inner conditions and is expected to have mental and emotional effects by commonly accepted semantics. By their operative and recording functions, visual codes are not only bearers of the meaning of the content of built space and its social concept but also expressions of the approach and culture typical of the creative subject. Chromatic in-built space information necessarily and conveniently takes the form of  color harmony relations. This is why it is of prime importance to examine color harmony relations.

The Color Dynamics of Color Theory and Practice of Environmental Planning

Nowadays color dynamics is regarded as a dual activity. One side is the disclosure of man-to-color of complex man-to-colored environment relations and the elaboration of methodologies for the design of colored environment. The other side is the utilization of these findings in environment design practice. These activities involve the collection and systematization of knowledge on relations of man, color, and built space offered by different disciplines as well as to devise and realize research to fill the gaps. This activity has taken momentum worldwide, whereby the science of color dynamics came into being.

Color dynamics as a new science is concerned with the relations between the surface  appearance of environment and environmental elements and man living in this environment. It studies the interrelations of color, man, and environment. Thus, color dynamics as a science is a complex of theoretical and practical activities directed toward the disclosure of objective relations between man and colored environment, as well as toward a conscious environment color design.

Rather than a collection of everyday experience, color dynamics is a science. Although it investigates and processes the spontaneous, intuitive transformation of the environment by individuals, it handles its information by scientific methods, applying scientific methods in environment color design. It has been proven both theoretically and practically that it is possible to conduct these activities by exact, scientific methods.

Environment design – including any architectural activity – has increasing access to results of this new science. Its practical application helps the built environment to cope better with its function, to be more beautiful and more sophisticated. It helps humans to expand mental and bodily abilities, to compensate for harmful effects of the overwhelming industrialized environment, to develop an adequate space perception, and to understand spatial relations and correlations between spatial processes. Conscious application of colors is expected to direct and orient man between multiplying and often depressive environmental hazards.

The science of color dynamics has five different but inseparable branches; the achievements of each are interdependent. Knowledge and relations amassed by other sciences are collected and purposefully systematized, and its special research problems are based on this foundation.

The fundamental problem of color dynamics is to find relations between color sensations, to develop an aesthetically uniform color space and a color system fairly approximating to it, and to introduce a new system of color coding suitable for practical color design.

The second group of problems is concerned with man to color relation independent of the environment. This involves color composition problems in connection with the processes of color vision. Such problems are, for instance, stimulus thresholds and difference thresholds, color adaptation,  color constancy,  color contrast,  color preference, color association, and the psychosomatic effects of color.

The third group of problems includes the complex relation between color, man, and built space, including problems of color and space, color and mass, color and form, color and texture, color and function, color and illumination, offsetting harmful environmental effects by color, and finally the social functions of color.

The fourth group of problems is related to  color harmony research, the establishment of color composition relationships for use in practical color design: the determination of levels and parts of the concept of color harmony, of the fundamental and accessory conditions of eliciting color harmony sensations.

The last, fifth, group of problems is the development of the most effective methods of color design, the best way of incorporating the finding of color dynamics into practice. Statements are made exploiting practical observations obtained from realized color designs.

Color environment design activities, as all other design activities, constitute a continuous battle between prevailing conditions, demands of different trends, and artistic intentions. This battle may express itself on many different ways depending on the knowledge base and personality of the designer. Color dynamics has no intent to provide design recipes; rather it shows a method to provide possibility for considering different conditions and enforcing different demands [2].

Color Expression in the Built Environment

Finding a basis for using color as a concept in design is possible through the perceptual experience of color and form. Figure/ground recognition in a visual field is based upon perception. Figure/ground also implies a hierarchical relationship.

Color and form are codependent in built form. This form can be holistic as it relates to an urban environment, or it can be an individual building. Color plays an expressive role in both. In the city, color has the power to create unity in built form by the use of a dominant color in the building materials. This visual unity can be a characteristic of a part, or district, within an urban environment, or it can be a characteristic of the whole. Unity defines a sense of place and gives identity. It also characterizes an urban fabric or background that can define the public spaces and serve as a backdrop for significant figural structures. The architecture of this background is critical to the designer’s goal of creating spatial definition and unity in the plan of a city.

Another role for color expression in the built environment is the color choice for individual buildings that become prominent visually in a physical setting. These are defined as figural colors, and they will achieve this visibility through figure/ground contrasts. The atmospheric conditions and the distance from the viewer will also be a determinant in how effective the color choices are in achieving high visibility.

A third tool for color expression in the physical environment is a strategy for defining space not with walls or edges but with a repetitive use of figural color throughout the space. This strategy uses color constellations formed by elements of similar color in the environment that create a spatial matrix when seen as a whole. Constellations can define urban space in two ways: by experiencing these elements of color as a constellation when viewed as a group and through memory when one views a single color element from a pedestrian view and constructs the whole conceptually.

Background Architecture

In urban contexts, background is that median color/form of the built environment which most conforms to the overall urban fabric and contributes to its visual unity. Background is also the structure or mass that forms and defines the spaces of importance within the city. The color of this background fabric is a component in the overall visual field. The color of building surfaces comprises a large portion of this field, and these colors can be a powerful means for defining unity and consistency. A variety of figural form and color can exist as background in a city through repetition of similar elements distributed throughout the urban fabric. In some cities, such as San Francisco, the background is relatively uniform in hue and saturation. Guanajuato, Mexico, however, has many buildings with highly saturated figural colors throughout the city and maintains its visual unity despite these foreground colors. There are two important roles for color/form in this background architecture. The first is the provision of a context for contrast to structures that are figural and highly visible in the city. The second is one of spatial definition. Background architecture becomes the edges and walls that define public spaces such as streets, avenues, civic plazas, and parks, and their organization represents the hierarchies and communal goals inherent in the plan of a city.

Figural Color

Three perceptual experiences of color have direct relationship to questions of architectural color and form. These are  color contrasts that create figure/ground juxtapositions, the spatial effect of color, and the atmospheric color effect. Of these, figure/ground is important conceptually because it represents a hierarchical structure to which expressive values can be assigned. Figural structures in an urban environment are defined by their mass and height, their form, their position or siting within the city, and their color. In an urban context there are colors that make some buildings figural in contrast to their background. Background colors in many modern cities tend toward low blackness (s = 10–30) and low chromaticness (c = 10–40). Building colors that approach maximum whiteness, blackness, or chromaticness will usually be seen as figural in an urban environment [3]. The climate and atmosphere will affect how figural these colors appear. In most weather conditions, white and saturated colors are prominent. Dark colors will tend to be less figural in overcast or humid conditions and appear lighter [4]. Figural color in cities creates visibility for buildings, and as a tectonic tool this visibility can denote status and provide meaning to a civic community (Figs. 1, 2, and 3).
Environmental Color Design, Fig. 1

Dark towers as figural color in the central business district, Seattle, Washington

Environmental Color Design, Fig. 2

Saturated yellow as figural color on Queen Anne Hill, Seattle, Washington

Environmental Color Design, Fig. 3

White as figural color, denoting status, Schiers, Switzerland

Color Constellations

In an urban context, there are examples where figural colors and background colors become joined as a means for defining space within the city. In a two-dimensional color field where many colors are visible, color constellations are groups of similar colors recognized as a pattern or cluster. In a three-dimensional color field such as an urban environment, colors that are similar in hue and saturation can also be perceived as a cluster of repetitive color elements and form color constellations [5]. The area within this array of similar colors can be designated as an urban space, defined not by edges or walls but by a repetitive matrix of similar colors. An example would be the Parc la Villette in Paris [6], where large red architectural sculptures are placed on a grid throughout the precinct of the park. From an aerial perspective, the spatial matrix formed by these red structures is apparent. From a pedestrian viewpoint, only a few of the structures are visible at any one time, although a memory of the precinct as a whole initiated by the individual red sculptures is always present.

Many city maps are organized by color sections to show important landmarks and institutions, shopping/retail districts, public open spaces, nightlife areas, etc. Many of these nodes and districts are repetitive and dispersed throughout the city. The map represents patterns of color clusters, like a constellation, and a large amount of information about the organization of the parts of the city is made visually accessible and comprehensible. Color in the physical environment has the potential for providing the same visual comprehension. Many cities have zoning in these districts that specify heights of buildings, density, signage and lighting, etc. that help in achieving the goal of comprehensibility from a pedestrian’s view of the city, but color is rarely a consideration. One example, however, is in Washington, D.C., where the important governmental and institutional buildings are white with the background architecture in darker hues. These important buildings and landmarks form a constellation of white figural structures located in the vicinity of the Mall in the center of the city. As in Parc La Villette, the view of any of the white buildings recreates an image of the group of figural buildings around the Mall, and any white building near the area becomes a conceptual part of this collection of significant structures (Fig. 4).
Environmental Color Design, Fig. 4

Color constellation at Parc La Villette, Paris, France



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Built Environments, Department of ArchitectureUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of ArchitectureBudapest University of Technology and EconomicsBudapestHungary