Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Functionality of Color

  • Antal Nemcsics
  • Malvina Arrarte-Grau
  • Galen Minah
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_237



The use, informative, and aesthetic impact of color on humans and the environment.

Color and Function

Human environment may be considered as a system, since man and environment elements are mutually determinant in any sense – an interrelation concerned with demand of man for his environment. The function of the built environment is based on social demand, necessity raised to a social level.

Within the system of man and elements of his environment, structural relations are defined and sustained by complex functions. This complex is composed of three types of functions: utility, aesthetic, and informative ones. Utility function is understood as the designation and purpose of environment elements. Aesthetic functions bring about properties of environment elements which enable one to experience utility functions. Informative functions involve properties of environment elements by which their functions, uses, and operation become understandable for man. These preliminaries underlie the present day approach to environment color design, considering the totality of utility, aesthetic, and informative functions as the system of demands.

 Environment color design has to serve the expression of the complex function of environment elements. Various functions of color-bearing environment elements are strictly interrelated and are prone to change into each other, a characteristic to be considered in the methodology of environment color design as a design process. It is necessary to develop design methods suitable for simultaneous and differentiated consideration and coordination of these components [1, 2, 3].

Color function components of environment color design as a design process can be deduced from the man to color relations. The man to color relation cannot be regarded in an abstract way. Colors are always associated to some object, phenomenon, or process, implicating into this relation their complex functions. In this respect, the theory of environment color design has been concerned with the possibility to express function by the color of the environment element. It can be stated, for instance, that more saturated colors of the color space, with longer dominant wavelengths, act dynamically, hence suit to express functions involving dynamism. The less the saturation of these colors, the lower their dynamism. The greater the  hue, saturation, or  lightness differences between members of color complexes to express a function, the more dynamic is the function expressed by them. The intensity of the expression of function is more affected by the variation of lightness differences than by saturation differences. Again, it is found that a function is expressed not so much by a single color but by a complex of several colors. Accordingly, the expression of function by the environment elements contributes to  harmony relations of colors bore by the element, and Coloroid color harmony relations may be combined with function expression indices [3, 4].

Disclosure of the rules of function expression cannot rely solely on visual information, since it is physiologically possible that stimuli perceived by one of the sensory organs should create perceptions normally transmitted by another sensory organ.

Utility Function of Colors

Environment is the space for human activities aimed at satisfying human demands. Since the beginnings of society, architecture has been expected to meet human demands. Analysis of and reckoning with functions necessarily took place in every period, even if functional demands have significantly changed and developed through the ages. The scientific analysis of functions and a conscious, integrated attention to all the requirements could not, however, develop earlier than in contemporary age, at a higher level of social development. This has led from early functionalism, the narrow interpretation of function, to an extended, wide-range functional approach, to the complex consideration of the integer system of relations inclusive of demands, requirements, and the color environment.

Of course, this functional approach itself is undergoing development, although in its germs it has been present in every stage of development throughout the history of architecture and, recently, in  environment color design. Nowadays, however, it has become more conscious, unambiguous, and scientific, and it has risen to be an important factor of the up-to-date approach. The relationship between structure and function in architecture has been recognized, and this knowledge unavoidably affected environment color design. The ideas of environment color designers have to be directed by modern scientific thinking.

Activities in various areas of the built environment have become extremely differentiated. Functions have become so manifold that categorization is not only difficult but may lead to misunderstandings. Nevertheless, functions need to be categorized; otherwise the relations between functions and colors cannot be delineated, and the role of colors in the utility function of the environment cannot be studied.

According to the activities accommodated, the environment can be divided into working spaces, community spaces, living spaces, and traffic spaces.

To demonstrate the usable function of colors in different institutions, hospitals will be dealt with in the next paragraphs. Functions of hospital buildings are very special. For some people, a hospital provides accommodation for a shorter or longer but nevertheless limited time, while for others it is a working place. Therefore, the demands of both groups have to be respected not only concerning construction and equipment but also coloration. The more so since these demands are sometimes contradictory [2, 5, 6].

In most cases, the state of mind of a patient is a priori somewhat abnormal. The lonely, worried patient, so to say forcedly dragged from his habitual environment, is in need of being addressed and protectively accommodated by his new environment. On the other side, the work of the medical staff requires a great deal of concentration, and excessive color effects may distract their attention or even disturb his work. These anomalies have led to the absurd dispute among color dynamists as to whom should priority be given in the hospital ward.

In a hospital, honoring of the utility functions can be done according to different aspects. Coloration should help orientation. Applying a certain color for doors of rooms with identical or similar functions may eliminate much uncertainty. Doors not for patients may be colored so as to convey this information. Proper color design may express connections between rooms. Any obtrusive color sensation has to be avoided in examination rooms and surgeries. In bathrooms, natural color effects of the sun, sand, and water have to be mimicked. The patient finds his picture in the mirror pale and sickly if it is being colored by near strong reflections from a green surface. A similar pale-colored impression arises when the patient observes his face neighbored by fiery orange or fiery red colors. But in rooms frequently contaminated by blood, green should be applied as complementary to red. Ward walls possibly need cheerful, warming, approaching, but not very saturated colors. Eventual chromotherapic effects have to be exploited. A febrile condition in itself yearns for a cool environment. In a condition of depression, a multicolored environment has to be preferred. In a labor ward or an intensive care unit, a positively reassuring coloration has to be applied.

Aesthetic Function of Colors

Just as any work of art, every element of the environment, and the environment itself, is an inseparable unity of content and form. Just as the human environment is a space for human functions, environment elements serve somehow the realization, accomplishment, and completion of human functions, and by all that they fulfill their own function. Thus, the human environment is up to its aesthetic function if it expresses its utility function in conformity with unity of content and form – where content is the utility function and form is the shape and color of the elements [1, 3, 5].

The essential condition of an aesthetic effect is unity between content and form, as so defined. Furthermore, the objects forming the content of the environment, or indeed the entire environment, are essentially functional. It follows that the integral expression of content can be realized by the harmonious functioning of all the components of the entire space. The practical-utility and spiritual-mental components of function are interdependent. The mental arises, and is inseparable, from practical. Now it is not realistic any longer to believe that the aesthetic form of an object or space should be possible without knowing its function. Neither is it believed that there exist universal aesthetic formulae applicable in every case nor that it is possible to force upon the environment any fine  color harmony without knowledge of its function. In environment color design, it is also necessary to consider how much importance is attributed to its practical functions from the point of view of human life as a whole. That is to say, any work and activity has its emotional, mental, and spiritual attachments. Therefore each object, tool, or space claims some of these attachments, depending on its role, importance, and function in human life.

Form becomes a necessity in the course of a “function experience,” imprinting on consciousness a harmony sensation as inseparable unity between content and form. Of course, the sight of a color complex may give aesthetic pleasure, but when separated from the content and function of the space, this pleasure is rather superficial, as it does not offer a full space sensation.

To be able to create a form expressing the message of the built environment, the designer has to be acquainted with relationships between environment structures, the so-called composition relationships, such as that of material-function-form, conditions of space effects, or the role of space-time-motion in an environment.

Informative Function of Colors

Information functions of environment serve to interpret for man the functions, the ways of utilizing, and the operation of the environment and its elements. An important part of the informative functions of the environment is expressed by color information. Depending on the message, color information may be interpreted as logic information or as artistic or aesthetic information.

Logic and aesthetic information are carried by the same elements, but a different structure belongs to every form of message. They can be characterized partly by their different visual systems, by the differentiation of their complexity and structure, and partly by the psychical differences of their messages. A message is transmitted by highlighting, contracting, and grouping some visual codes in the information-bearing surface or space, while disregarding others. A group of colors attracts attention when it excels by regularity and its structure is well recognizable. Recently, the analysis of these relations has been tackled with the methods of semiotics. Although these studies mostly concerned other than visual structures, the results can also be applied to color dynamics.

Logic information is conveyed by standard codes; they are practical and strictly mental and transmit knowledge. They prepare decisions of receivers and control their behavior and attitudes. Logic information is transmitted, e.g., by internationally agreed safety color signals. Locations of these colors in the CIE diagram are seen in Fig. 1. For instance, green means information, orange warning, red prohibition, and blue instruction. A special field of the built environment is traffic. Traffic signal colors are plotted in Fig. 2. Recently, colors indicating various technological processes have been standardized, as seen in Fig. 3. A special field of technology is the color signals of pipelines. Color signals for the fluid carried have been standardized, including different uses of the same fluid. For instance, there are different signal colors for drinking water, for utility hot water, condensing water, hot water for heating, soft water, neutralizing sewage, and other applications. In Fig. 4, pipeline colors are plotted in the given Coloroid sections [3, 4].
Functionality of Color, Fig. 1

Safety signal colors in the CIE diagram: (a) information, (b) warning, (c) prohibition, (d) fire, (e) instruction, N neutral complementary domain, Y yellow, O orange, R red, B blue, G green

Functionality of Color, Fig. 2

Traffic light colors in the CIE diagram: Y yellow, R red, B blue, G green, N neutral complementary domain

Functionality of Color, Fig. 3

Technology signal colors in the CIE diagram: Y yellows, OR orange reds, B purples and violets, BG bluish greens, N neutral complementary

Functionality of Color, Fig. 4

Signal colors (S) to distinguish pipelines in Coloroid sections. The horizontal axis shows the Coloroid saturation scale, the vertical axis, and the Coloroid lightness scale. Numbers represent Coloroid hues

Color information of aesthetic content is mostly emotional. It expresses inward conditions and the wish to exert mental and emotional effects based on a common semantic knowledge. Because of their operative and recording functions, visual codes are not only carriers of the message, and social ideas of the color-designed space as a work of art, but may also display the attitude typical of the artistic subject and culture. It follows from all these that color dynamics creates complex color conditions and puts them into a colored world; thereby it has a manifold message, that is, it both expresses and molds human consciousness and emotions. In other words,  environment color design is an artistic activity on a large scale, a piece of art existing in the built space, and as such, it has not only to cope with its specific iconic task but also to meet the special conditions of color dynamics.

Functionality of Color in Architecture

Color, as a component of a building’s image may result directly from the constructive process as is the case of vernacular buildings from the past and present applied as in the local tradition, or otherwise it may be decided at the end of the construction when a protective coating is required. Nowadays architects prepare complete designs, with finishes included, though this is not always the case with color specifications, often left for the final phase. In one way or another, the many functions of color may be used in favor of architectural façades and exposed structures.

Color can turn buildings into landmarks, spoil the panorama or contribute to the identity of a place. Architectural color design may be considered a matter for experts, but because building exteriors are part of the public realm, color is inevitably subject to acceptance or rejection from users: owners, pedestrians and drivers. Color is a primary perception and, as such, it affects human beings at physical and psychological levels. Architectural color works simultaneously from the behavioral the practical and for the specific interest of architecture.

Color Functionality from a Practical Point of View

The physical properties of color may be widely utilized in architecture. Deciding building colors goes hand in hand with technical aspects of the material, as each one has particular  appearance characteristics and comes with a  palette of color specific to the product. The outermost layer of the building should be designed to resist weather and environmental conditions, such as low and high temperatures, rain, wind, dust, and pollution.

Durability and maintenance are considerations to have in mind when thinking of exterior colors finishes, as some conceal dust better than others. As regards paints finishes in certain cases the best solution is to apply a coat of economic paint in order to have a clean façade considering that dark and saturated tones discolor easily. Natural cladding materials in appropriate colors may also be practical for reducing maintenance of high-rise buildings.

Color as part of visual ergonomics is given great importance in interior design, considering the time spent indoors. For the areas implicated, the colors of building exteriors are also relevant from the point of view of visual comfort. Color is used to compensate the  glare effect, produced when high levels of luminosity from white or light-colored surfaces reflect back in the eye, causing discomfort and stress.

The climatic and natural lighting conditions of each location should be analyzed before taking color decisions, especially when critical situations occur, as in high latitudes during winter, when bright colors are preferred for visual aid, as opposed to dark nuances.

Design for energy conservation is a present trend in architecture. In order to ensure thermal comfort, sophisticated finishes are as important as design principles of insulation, orientation, ventilation, and color. In hot climates light colors and reflective materials serve to avoid overheating of roofs, while black surfaces, preferably opaque, are used in building exteriors for absorbing the maximum heat.

Color Functionality from a Behavioral Point of View

Color applied to building exteriors has the potential to benefit the user, improving and facilitating interaction with the surroundings. Color serves as an informative tool. It acts as a reference for content, identity, and location, but in order to accomplish its functions, it should be applied carefully, for color randomness and excess work in the opposite direction.

Color codification for safety, as used in industrial building, may be applied to architectural design in a conventional manner, for marking emergency exits and secure zones, or applied in a versatile way to building parts and elements for orientation. On border scale, Familiarization with large structures as fairs, residential blocks and commercial centers, may be successfully achieved by color design.

The semiotic function of color applied to architecture contributes to clarity. This color function is particularly helpful to drivers, as distinctive tones and combinations can be perceived from a distance. When approaching a market or a day-care center, an ordinary person could anticipate its role by the external colors, when these are in accordance with the use of the building.

The functions of color extend to the symbolic aspect as  hues convey meaning. For example, a red door on a black wall would something about the owner’s personality, maybe an artist. Semiotics in a more strict sense applies to nationality and affiliation, as in Olympic colors. Similarly, corporate identity requires color in precise nuances and combinations. The colors of an oil company or a bank may be transferred to the façades of a building exterior. However, the preservation of the architectural character is in the hands of the designer.

Building exteriors acts as a backdrop to human activities, especially in cities. By maintaining a balance between excitement and relaxation in urban color schemes, monotony may be avoided, and outdoor spaces, enhanced. The aesthetic aspect of architecture is relevant to develop positive attitudes and a sense of belonging in the user.

Color Functionality from an Architectural Perspective

Architectural color is based on the formal characteristics of the building, such as compositionstyle,material and proportions. Historical data and usage are also part of the information to be considered in the design. The setting, natural or man-made, is of great influence in the perception of the external appearance of buildings. Ideally, color design should meet the requirements of each project in the formal, semantic and contextual aspects.

Color serves for the optimizes building design by reinforcing style and concept. For functional and aesthetic purposes new constructions deserve a mindful color proposal.

Revaluation of existing buildings may be achieved through color design. An ordinary construction may be transformed by color, emphasizing its character, neutralizing its obtrusive effect or making unsightly parts less conspicuous. Buildings could recover their authentic character by color restoration. Proposals may be based on traditional  color palettes, specific for the location and architectural period. As an alternative to date nuances that approximate to the original ones could be applied according to the architectural style.

Facade decoration may be used to complement building fronts. This mode of coloring plays a key role in balancing architectural compositions to make them more pleasant on behalf of the human scale.

Art and design in the form of pictures, super-graphics, and trompe loeil paintings may be used in the renovation of unsightly elevations. These serve to visually integrate or decompose façades, giving value to blind walls and revitalizing of outdoor spaces.

On a greater scale color has the potential to regulate the impact of obtrusive structures within a context, in urban and natural settings.

A Major Consideration in Architectural Color: Scale of Perception

Building finishes and colors have various functions according to the impact produced at different scales or distances of perception. This refers to the position from user to object, in this case a building. The relevant scales for architectural color perception are the architectural scale, which considers the building as a three-dimensional object; the detail scale, which focuses on its parts and language elements; and the context scale, which considers the setting, natural or man-made.

On the architectural scale color affects the perception of a building as it would in the case of a sculpture, having a direct influence on the definition of volume, plane, and proportions and, consequently, in the articulation of three-dimensional form. Ideally, at this scale, the object and its coloration produce an integral result.

On the detail scale color is important for achieving order and balance within a façade or architectural composition. The different parts of the building present an opportunity for sophisticated color design. Depending on the characteristics of the architecture, it may go from structure and volume to doors and moldings, and the respective materials, textures and shadows.

On the context scale the color of a building determines the degree of visual attachment or detachment to the surroundings. Building-context integration depends on multiple conditions apart from color: orientation, position, size composition, and material quality, amongst others. With ingenuity, color may work to make a building inconspicuous or even camouflage. On the other hand, it is easier to make a building standout by the use of bright or unusual colors. By following a color master plan, a building acts as part of a broader context, from street and block to town and region.

Building color is a changing componentits equilibrium is fragile, and a subtle variation may easily modify the whole. Color is a design tool, but it may act as double-edged sword, as its potential may be reversed to cause discomfort, disorientation and  COLOR POLLUTION. In the best interest of the user, architectural color should be handled in a knowledgeable way.

Color Tectonics in Architecture

Tectonics in architecture and urban design is the discipline dealing with the principles of design, structure, construction, and ornamentation. Color tectonics refers to the function that color plays in accentuating these principles.

Color and form are codependent in built form. In architecture color plays many roles throughout the design process. Color is used dynamically in diagrams in the conceptual phase. In the design development phase, color can enhance the perception of physical form and define interior space. In detailing color can express the parts of the building that contribute to the whole. These color and form strategies will be present as material color in the finished building. In the architecture, color can be functional as an enhancement to form or abstract as expressive media. Color can be associative by carrying cultural values and meaning, as well as eliciting emotional response. In all cases color combined with form becomes another layer of interpretation and clarification of the intentions of the designer [7].

Conceptual Phase

A building, like a city, has an order based upon a clear hierarchical relationship of parts to the whole. Architecture begins with a concept expressed both verbally and in diagram. In the conceptual phase of the design process, line drawings are used to represent an abstract relationship of the essential parts of the building. These parts can be described metaphorically or formally, and the relationship of these parts to one another creates the generative idea that is the point of departure for the design. These relationships are often expressed as a dialogue between oppositions such as public/private or active/passive. They can also represent events in the experience of architecture such as hierarchy, separation, connection, transition, and assimilation. The drawings are usually monochromatic, but if one assigns colors to these diagrams representing the character of the part (i.e., red represents active functions and blue passive, or saturated hues might be dominant and muted hues subordinate), then color juxtaposition and  contrasts can set up a more visually dynamic relationship of these parts in the diagram. These color choices in the conceptual phase are chosen for their dynamic relationships in juxtaposition rather than by functional criteria, but these colors will often influence choices in the design development phase such as the delineation of three-dimensional form, building materials, and lighting.

A repertory theater is a place where actors must project their voice to the audience without acoustical support. A design concept for a repertory theater by Louis Kahn was first expressed metaphorically as “a violin within a violin case.” The diagram was a box representing the outer shell of the building or the “violin case” with an irregular form inside representing the “violin,” an acoustically designed theater. In black and white, this is just a simple diagram. With color, however, the violin and violin case form an expressive dialogue between these parts, making them more dynamic and meaningful (Fig. 5).
Functionality of Color, Fig. 5

Color adding nuance to a concept diagram by Louis Kahn

Design Development

In the design development phase of a design process, color is used to accentuate or diminish three-dimensional form. The exploration of perceptual effects created by color, particularly the spatial effect of color, color and atmosphere, and the familiarity with the principles of camouflage [8] are helpful tools in this pursuit (Fig. 6). The color decisions here are based on how the eye perceives color and form. The accentuating and disguising of form with color are the techniques supporting color tectonics. Using color in models in this phase establishes color juxtapositions and  contrasts that will be present in the final building. Model studies similar to the experiments by Lois Swirnoff [9] are valuable exercises.
Functionality of Color, Fig. 6

Transforming two solid cubes and a void with a color illusion

The purpose of color tectonics is to use color to clarify and enhance the perception of building form. This form is made up of parts arranged hierarchically that unite to shape the whole. This color/form carries the aesthetic and expressive intentions of the architect, and clarity of expression is usually the goal. In some instances, however, there is an intention to disguise and actually deconstruct the true form, and color becomes a powerful tool in this endeavor. This was the case in the Portland Building during the period known as deconstruction in architecture (Fig. 7).
Functionality of Color, Fig. 7

Color used for “deconstruction.” Portland Building by Michael Graves, Portland, Oregon


The details of buildings carry expressive content. Structural details communicate what elements in the building are supporting and load bearing and what are non-load bearing and serve to enclose the building and define space within it. Many functional parts of a building are repetitive, and through this repetition patterns and rhythms are established which support the unity of the building as a whole.  Color contrasts provide a powerful tool for making these parts visible in a meaningful way. In the main entry facade to the Fort Wayne Repertory Theater, light gray concrete is contrasted with darker brick to both characterize the structural forces within a large wall and to accentuate the main entry (Fig. 8).
Functionality of Color, Fig. 8

Color contrast emphasizing structural detail. The Arts United Center by Louis Kahn, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Color Imagery

In the final or building phase of the design process, color choices are more specific. To this point color has been an integral tool in clarifying the conceptual and design intentions of the architect and not as a secondary consideration in the design process. The final color/form imagery will both convey these intentions and also carry meaning through cultural associations, symbolism, and emotional response. The use of colors from the natural and built environmental contexts can give the architecture a sense of place as well [10]. In this process color is a principal consideration through all phases. The imagery experienced in the architecture will carry these design ideas in form and structure through perceptual color effects, but there will be an additional layer of meaning with the associative uses of color and the aesthetic imagery from experiencing the architecture as a whole in its environmental context.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antal Nemcsics
    • 1
  • Malvina Arrarte-Grau
    • 2
  • Galen Minah
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of ArchitectureBudapest University of Technology and EconomicsBudapestHungary
  2. 2.Architecture, Landscape and Color DesignArquitectura Paisajismo ColorLimaPeru
  3. 3.College of Built Environments, Department of ArchitectureUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA