Product & Interior Design

Product & Interior Design

Introduction To The Psychology Of Color: For Interior Designers

Colorcan alter a person’s mood, incite anger, evoke happiness, or call to mind feelings of indifference and sadness. Even so, most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the effects of color in their homes or offices. Yet, the color and design in our home should reflect the people who live inside, and designers and homeowners should use colors wisely to create the intended atmosphere in each space.


But, what is color? In physics, color is essentially the way our eyes and brain perceive different wavelengths of light reflected off objects. Take for instance the rainbow, which represents the spectrum of colors that the human eye can see – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. That’s color, so, what is black and white?  Some people maintain that white is the absence of all color and black is the presence of all color. However, science explains that objects appear white if a rough surface reflects different wavelengths at about the same strength. Black color means that an object absorbs all wavelengths instead of reflecting them. So, what does that say about the colors we see? 

The basis of all color are the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. By combining these colors, you can get every other color, but, you can’t create these colors by mixing other colors. The secondary colors are green, orange, and purple (or violet), which are made by combining red and blue, yellow and red, etc. The tertiary colors are the six grandchildren of the primary colors, so to speak. They have names like blue/green, red/orange, yellow/green, etc. Although this seemselementary and straightforward, it’s not, because, in design, different industries use different color wheels. They might also use different primary color basics, such as RBY (red, blue, yellow); RGBY (red, green, blue yellow), and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and key (or black)).  In addition, different color wheels can include only tertiary colors and/or a variety of hues.



In interior design, however, there some basics you need to know when using a color wheel.

  1. Complementary colors:  These are colors or hues that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, like blue and orange or yellow and violet. Complementary colors are usually used as accent colors in small quantities.
  2. Triads:  Triads form a triangle on the color wheel, like yellow, blue and red; or orange, green and violet. These colors can also be used as accent colors, but they must be balanced. If not, they can overwhelm a room.
  3. Analogous colors:  These are groups of colors that are right beside each other on the color wheel, like red, orange and red/orange.
  4. Monochromatic colors:  Keeping it simple, this is the use of only one color, but in shades from dark to light, like navy to powder blue.
  5. Cool and warm colors:  Cool and warm colors are typically sued to create a mood in a room. Cool colors are blues, greens and purples, while warm colors are reds, oranges, yellows and pinks.
  6. Non-Colors:  Non-colors aren’t found on the color wheel, but still play a very important role in interior design.  Non-colorsare the greys, beiges, browns, whites, and black.



We’ve discussed the basics of color, but what is color psychology and why is it important to interior design?  Wikipedia describes color psychology as the study of hues as a determinant of human behavior.” There’s little doubt that the colors that are chosen for a project can affect a person’s mood, state of mind, and overall disposition. The way color affects our mental and emotional constitution dates to the ancient Egyptians who studied the effects of color on mood and used them to accomplish holistic benefits, such as red: thought to increase circulation; orange: used to increase energy; and blue: to soothe pain.  The development of modern psychology also opened the study of color, which has been used in design and marketing, architectural design, and yes, interior design successfully for decades. Even Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, defined the four temperaments in terms of colors: Sunshine yellow, earth green, cool blue, and fiery red. 

Taking this one step further, how does color make us feel? Redstands for energy, war, danger, strength, power, and determination, but also passion, desire and love.  The various shades of red are light red, which represents joy, sexuality, passion sensitivity and love. Pink, which signifies romance, love, and friendship. Reddish-brown is associated with harvest and fall, and dark red is associated with vigor, willpower, rage, anger, leadership, courage, longing, malice, and wrath. 

Interior designer, Denna McLaughlin of City Studios, says, “Red is never boring.”  It is an excellent accent color, you can use it to make a ‘cool’ room warmer; red is great for kitchens and it is known to increase appetite, and red accent walls can change the way a room is perceived. As the most intense color, red raises a room’s energy and is a good choice when a homeowner wants to stir up excitement, particularly at night. Red stimulates conversation and creates a strong first impression. 

Pink, on the other hand, represents compassion, nurturing, and love, and depending on the hue, it can make a room playful, feminine, and warm. “Keep in mind, pink has the tendency to go sweet and sappy quickly,” says color expert, Kate Smith. “So, if a homeowner doesn’t want a romantic, girly look, keep lines simple and clean and use sophisticated fabrics.”  That said, pink is a wonderful wall color to create a feel-good atmosphere.  It can be used for “girly” children’s or teenagers’ rooms, or to add glamour or comfort to a dining room. 

Orange is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics. It represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation. It is the only color to take its name from an object; the orange.  It is a somewhat polarizing color, and people either love or hate it. In ancient cultures, orange was thought to increase energy levels and heal the lungs.  But, dark orange can also mean deceit and distrust. Red-orange corresponds to desire, sexual passion, pleasure, domination, aggression, and thirst for action. Gold, a distant variation of orange, evokes the feeling of prestige; the meaning of gold is illumination wisdom and wealth. LeatriceEiseman, color expert and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, and author of the book “Colors for Your Every Mood” says, “Orange has steadily progressed up the ladder of consumer preferences, so there’s a greater appreciation for the color.”  Like red, orange stimulates appetite and is a great kitchen and exercise room color. An apricot or terra cotta orange (increasingly popular in the mid-west) can be relaxing. Bright orange adds warmth and adventure, but can be overpowering if used excessively. 

Yellow is the color of sunshine and associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy.  It is an excellent choice for kitchens, dining rooms, and bathrooms. In hallways, yellow can feel welcoming.  However, studies show that people are more likely to lose their temper in an all- yellow interior, so it should be used sparingly.  Dull or dingy yellow represents caution, decay, sickness, and jealously and is rarely used in interior rooms. Light yellow is associated with intellect, freshness, and joy, and is a great outdoor house paint.  Bright yellow evokes optimistic feelings.  Interior designer, Jennifer Agus, of Agus Interiors says, “Yellow is an uplifting color, but you really have to pick the right shade. You want to make sure it’s not too bright or too muted…”  But, for a sophisticated look, use deep yellow and gray. Yellow with orange are excellent choices for breakfast spaces, and yellow is great as an accent color in small quantities. 

Green is the color of nature.  Considered the most restful color for the eye, green can transcend a sense of calmness and security when used in interior design.  Green symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility, and generally makes people feel emotionally safe.  Green is well suited for every room in the house, and can have a calming effect when used as the main color for decorating.  Pairing light green with grey can create a modern feel, and using different shades in one room can add contrast. But, the various shades of green can evoke completely different feelings. Dark green is associated with ambition, greed, and jealousy, while aqua is associated with emotional healing and protection. Yellow-green can indicate sickness, cowardice, discord, and jealously, while olive green is the traditional color of peace.  Interior designer, Shannon Kaye, says, “You can decorate an entire room with greens and have contrast, drama, richness, and balance. It’s so versatile.” 

Blue, by far, is the most popular color in the US, and is associated with trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.  Blue slows down the metabolism and has a calming effect, so it is considered to be beneficial to the mind and body when used in the home or office.  It is said that blue will help bring down blood pressure and slow the heart rate. Light or pastel blue can create tranquility and is associated with health, healing, understanding, and softness, but can come across as ‘chilly’ on the walls in a room that receives very little natural light. Dark blue represents knowledge, power, integrity, and seriousness. Deep midnight blue can create a feeling of luxury when used in a bedroom. Sapphire blues can be great as accent colors. Jackie Jordan, the director of color for Sherwin-Williams says, “Those brighter French blues and sunflower yellows are fun combination for a kitchen.”

Purple, in its darkest values, is dramatic, rich, and sophisticated. It can give a design scheme depth and is associated with luxury and creativity. Lighter values of purple, such as lavender, can add a restful quality to a bedroom. Plus, about 75 percent of pre-adolescent children choose purple over any other color.  Interior designers use purple to add drama, create a hip feel by combining purple, pastels, and modern art; add a bold statement with neon purple, or give a room a mysterious feel with dark purple as an accent.



Because color affects people in very different ways, depending on gender, age, background, and climate, it is best to begin by asking some basic questions about the room you are decorating. 

  1. What feeling do you want the color to evoke? For example, in a kitchen you might want to increase appetite and energy. In a living room; calmness and peace.  Maybe you want to add mystery to a bedroom, or energy to a sunroom.
  2. What will the room be used for? Is the space private or public, and how much of the space will be used? Is the intent of the room for work or to relax?
  3. How much light and what kind of light will be used? Is there natural lighting available in the space, or are iridescent or ambientthe only light sources?  It matters, because depending on the light source, color can appear drastically different. It is always best to test the paint in both natural and artificial light prior to committing to a specific color.
  4. What kinds of accents will be used in the room? Will you use bold accents in the space, or patterns and textures?  Will you add an accent wall? Accents can warm up or cool down a space. They can add personality, bring out energy, make a room modern, and more. And, because of their flexibility, they should bring out the personal style and taste of the homeowner. Try using the color wheel, and remember complementary and triad colors when choosing accent colors.



The use of color in interior spaces by designers requires creativity, talent, and judgement that only comes from experience and knowledge. Just like a professional architect would not start the construction of a building without plans, an interior designer should not begin working on interior spaces without careful planning concerning which colors will support the personality of the inhabitants. It matters a great deal how color appears to a viewer, its effects, and the overall mood color creates. That’s why an understanding of color psychology plays such an important role when choosing colors for interior spaces by designers in different settings and for different functions.


  • Kathryn Pomroy
    Kathryn Pomroy

    Journalist, Artist & Lover of Puppies | Kathryn is a writing junkie and coffee aficionado who attended Arizona State University where she earned a blue belt in Shotokan-ryu Karate, graced the local stage as a ballerina, and graduated with honors with a degree in journalism.