Living life in full colour: exploring the relationship between colour, design, behaviour and emotion

Seeing red…. green with jealousy….. feeling blue. Associating colours with emotions is not new, but increasingly, psychologists are being asked to explore the relationship between colour, emotion and its impact in a number of different settings, including learning in classroom settings, the design of the built environment, including work spaces and travel hubs, and improving wellbeing as a result.

Colour is a powerful tool. It can be used to get attention, enhance clarity, establish a code, label and differentiate items, as well as to influence behaviour or learning outcomes. For example in schools we are often told to use blue or black ink. Red ink is supposed to be used by teachers to correct assignments, notebooks, and class work. This is a deliberate tool to draw our attention to the mistake we make, designed to help enhance our learning outcomes, in the sense that by drawing attention to the mistake we will remember not to repeat the points highlighted.

“Bad” and “good” colours

Studies have disagreed on how exactly our association between colour and emotions develops. Some have suggested it is an instinctive reaction, something primal which suggests to us that things that are red in colour are dangerous or negative, while blues and yellows signal happier less aggressive colours.

However, others have suggested that the connotations we associate with colour are learned, albeit from a very young age. We associate some colours as being “good” and others as “bad” and this impacts how we interact around them in spaces like classrooms and workspaces. The meaning of colours is culturally-specific and differs around the world in different societies and groups.

However, a third view is that colour theory is much more complex than simply yellow = happy and blue = sad. Colours can have several meanings, and can encourage an audience to feel or act in certain ways depending on when and how they are used, and in some instances depending on personal experiences which people link to specific colours. This is the reason why the literature on colour is so contested; in many instances it blurs the boundary between our instinctive associations of colours and those associations we create ourselves through experiences.

Image “Harvey_Nash_13″ by K2 Space is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How colours are impacting on the design of our spaces

Knowing how colour can affect behaviours is informative for designers and psychologists in a number of environments, including in schools, offices or hospitals. In a learning context, such as in a school using “engaging” hues (warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow) to prevent learners from getting bored, and passive hues (cold colours such as green and blue) to keep learners calm can help with learning, but getting this balance right is important.

A number of studies have looked at the impact of classroom design, including use of colour on the learning and behavioural outcomes of both neurodiverse, and neurotypical children, with many emphasising that overstimulation, particularly of young children through excessive use of bright colour can create a disruptive classroom environment and make it difficult to encourage concentration and staying on task. However, some colour in specific areas of the classroom is good to help with engagement and stimulation.

Similarly, colours have been used by architects and designers in their choice of building material or building design to help encourage feelings of calm or reflection. This is particularly the case in transport hubs like airports and in hospitals or care facilities. Using fresh and calming colours which relate strongly to nature is also a technique used by office designers to help create the feeling of open calm and fresh spaces to help improve working environments and improve productivity.

The design of the built environment and how “green” and “blue” features which incorporate natural materials (green spaces and water have a positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing) has been widely discussed by planners and architects. The evidence generally supports the view that the inclusion of green spaces, promotes health and wellbeing across the life course. This combination of colour and the integration of nature into spaces is being used increasingly in the design of buildings and  in master planning for large urban projects.

Final thoughts

Colour and emotion both play important roles in our capacity to learn and be productive. The association between colour and our emotions and actions is complex and a source of disagreement for some psychologists. Colour has been found to affect how people feel both psychologically and physically. Understanding how colour and emotion relate and how colour can be used to change environments to encourage particular feelings of calmness or concentration, particularly in schools and workplaces is something that will be further explored by designers.

Colour should be understood as part of a wider “toolkit” used by designers and architects to ensure that we are building better places that create environments which support and promote wellbeing, encourage positive emotions and create more effective spaces for us to work, learn and interact in.


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Destination stations: the role of railways in regeneration

King’s Cross Station, London © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

From Roman roads, to Victorian ‘cathedrals of steam’, transport has played a pivotal role in the development of societies and economies throughout history.

Today, rising energy prices, road congestion, and climate change, as well as reduced household sizes and an increased demand for urban living have put the potential benefits of urban transport hubs back in the spotlight.

Transit-orientated development

Transit-orientated development (TOD) is one response. An American-concept, it involves the creation of high-density mixed-use developments around a transit station or stop, such as a railway station, usually within a half-mile radius (a 10-minute walk approximately).  It may include office space, retail, leisure facilities and housing, as well as public areas and green space, and a variety of public transport options.

The aim is to create attractive, diverse, walkable places.  TOD can also help to significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

Stations as ‘destinations’

In Europe, TOD has yet to ‘catch on’. However, it shares many similar principles with the increasingly popular concept of developing railway stations as destinations in their own right – for shopping, working and socialising.  Railways often form an important part of a town or city centre, and the combination of transport node and central location has the potential to attract people in great numbers.

The redevelopment of London King’s Cross station and the surrounding industrial wasteland made it one of the first ‘destination stations’ in the UK.  Around the station, new homes, shops, offices, galleries, bars, restaurants, a hotel, schools and a university were created, along with 20 new streets, 10 new public parks and squares, and 26 acres of open space.  In fact, the redevelopment was on such a scale that the area now has its own postcode – N1C.

Some other key examples of newly developed ‘destination stations’ in the UK include Manchester Victoria Station and Birmingham New Street Station. Network Rail last year stated that they intend to create many more such ‘destination stations’.

Economic and social benefits

As well as environmental benefits such as reduced air pollution and traffic congestion, mixed-use developments in and around railway stations can help meet housing demand, and spur the economic and social regeneration of their surrounding communities.  Particular benefits can include:

  • Improved passenger experience/satisfaction
  • Attracting more businesses into an area
  • Improving the supply of labour for businesses
  • New job creation
  • Increased demand for food, retail and leisure facilities from greater numbers of commuters, residents and workers
  • Helping high streets to compete with online retailers and out of town developments
  • Contributing to public health goals through increased walkability of areas
  • Making good use of previously inaccessible/waste land

Government support

There is strong government support for delivering improvements around railway stations.

The recent Housing white paper recognises the regenerative potential of railway stations, viewing them as key anchors for the next generation of urban housing developments.

Two new sources of funding for railway station developments have also recently been announced: the second round of the New Stations Fund – a £20 million pot to build new stations or reopen previously closed stations; and the Station Regeneration programme – which aims to develop railway stations and surrounding land, while delivering up to 10,000 new homes.

Alongside this, there are also plans to release large amounts of unused railway land for housing – enough to build 12,000 houses across 200 sites.

Large and small

In addition to developments focused around one particular station or city, there are also a number of major railway-based infrastructure projects currently taking place.  Among these are the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (including recently approved plans to redevelop Glasgow Queen Street station), Great Western Electrification, Crossrail and HS2.  All of these have the potential to catalyse regeneration in their surrounding areas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also a number of successful smaller scale regeneration projects involving railways.

Addressing the challenges

The development of railway sites can pose a number of challenges, including contaminated land, fragmented land ownership and reconciling short-term economic development goals with the longer time scales necessary in larger infrastructure projects.

However, according to James Harris, a policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute, planners are ‘uniquely’ placed to work with landowners, infrastructure providers, developers and the local community to help deliver a strategic vision for these locations.

Planners should also be flexible and creative in their approach towards station redevelopments, focusing on outcomes rather than processes, says David Crook, assistant director of station regeneration at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Cities and Local Growth Unit.  In doing so, he says, planners can help make a station regeneration project ‘more than the sum of its parts’.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in our blog post ‘Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?