For our Exploring the Impact of Color on Classrooms study, PPG leveraged our deep color knowledge and studied the effects of a freshly painted classroom on students’ and teachers’ engagement. As part of our research, we engaged color expertise to guide the participating teachers’ color selection and placement, based on color psychology and the intended use of the learning space.
Using evidence-based design and principles, the classroom colors were selected and applied to enhance engagement, and most importantly support both the teacher and the students in the desired outcome for their time spent in the room.
To learn about how to apply these principles in a classroom, read on for a Q&A with experienced color experts who specialize in educational and classroom design.
First, hear from Maria Oliveira, PPG Color Design Manager and educational design expert, on the process of designing a classroom with color.
Q: Describe your approach to creating a classroom color scheme?
MARIA: I refer to creating a color scheme for a classroom as a process of using color as a language. Meaning, color is the connector that ties everything together, from educators and administrators to the emotions and impacts created in a space, and ultimately the students’ experience.
It’s often said that color helps create a learning environment that improves visual processing, reduces stress and challenges brain development through visual stimulation, relationships and pattern seeking.
It’s important to determine the desired energy or behavior you want to create in a room -- happy, energetic, creative, focus or calm. Then, determine the amount of time spent in a space and desired energy level.
Also, color can be used as a tool to create a sense of community within certain grade levels and guide students throughout a building. This concept of “wayfinding” or creating paths and classrooms using thoughtful colors and graphics is an important design tool that assists young students with navigating their school. The colors around them become an element that they identify with and helps them feel like part of a group.
With all of this in mind, it is generally accepted that neutral colors like tan, beige, cream, taupe, and silver are comfortable, conservative, stable and versatile, providing a safe, secure environment. Warm colors of rose, melon, coral, honey and yellow are nurturing and embracing, and create a friendly atmosphere. Warm colors can also be used to reduce the scale and size of large spaces, making them more intimate.
While brightness and warmth pull attention outward, softness and coolness of color have a reverse effect. Cool colors of pale green, mint, sea foam, robin's egg, aqua, sky, denim and soft blue are cool, refreshing, calming, relaxing, soothing and expansive to provide a spacious feeling in a classroom. Meanwhile, softer surroundings created by subtle or cooler hues have centripetal action which enhances the ability to concentrate.
Q: What are the most important considerations in selecting colors for a classroom
MARIA: Color is a powerful communicator. It impacts us on many psychological and physiological levels. Color can enhance or impair learning, morale and behaviors. Studies have shown that color affects a student's attention span and perception of time. Visual stimulation actually rewires the brain, making stronger connections while fostering visual thinking, problem solving and creativity.
A successful technique to focus attention in classrooms and to provide visual breaks against neutral walls is the use of feature walls. The feature, or accent wall, should be the main wall at the front of the room or a side wall that is a solid plane. Painting the teaching wall a deeper or brighter shade than is used on the side walls has two effects: It attracts attention to the front of the classroom, yet the eyes get a visual break when focus is shifted to the side walls. In addition to breaking up monotony of the wall color, a feature wall adds greater visibility to the teacher and educational materials, relieves eye strain as students transition from coursework to instructor, and reduces glare from bright overhead lights or natural light.
Q: Describe the process for using color to bring energy levels up or down in a classroom.
MARIA: Color can help our bodies and energy levels transition. Warm and bright color schemes complement the active, energizing nature of children. However, they may be better used as accents as these colors may be too harsh on full walls.
For adolescents, cooler colors and more subdued hues provide enough stimulation without creating distractions or inducing stress. Blue, in particular, seems to be strongly associated with math and science.
High schoolers prefer burgundy, gray, navy, dark green, deep turquoise and violet. A variety of color is important, and it is advisable to incorporate a full spectrum in designing educational environments.
Next, hear from Fawn Chang, a color and design expert who worked directly with participating teachers to guide the classroom color selection process.
Q: Describe the process for working with teachers in the study and the guidance you provided to them.
FAWN: I met with participating teachers to understand what they wished to create in their classrooms -- focus, calmness, clarity, joy. With this in mind, I assessed the classrooms to understand how each room was used and at what time of day. The amount of light in a room or elements such as whether students spend time in the classroom first thing in the morning or directly after lunch makes a difference in how color is used and perceived.
Together, we examined the room from the point of view of a student. For example, the wall students see immediately as they walk into the room sets the tone: a warm and soft color like a pale yellow from the recommended selection of colors works nicely to establish a happy and comforting space, whereas soft blue is refreshing and inspires restful creativity. Vibrant colors are held to a minimum and used purposefully.
Color can do a lot to create an environment where engagement and learning are easier. Creating a color palette for a classroom is like creating a recipe with the just-right amounts of lightness and darkness and cool and warm colors.
Q: How did the teachers react to learning about color selection and placement
FAWN: Most teachers have a great understanding of color, but were surprised to learn how color can influence students’ bodies, minds and behavior. They were intrigued about how color can be used to direct students’ eyes and calm their bodies to create an environment that promotes focus and allows students to better absorb information.
We focused on removing visual clutter to create spaces where students can focus and minimize disconnections. For example, one teacher used dark colors to camouflage the blackboard and focus students’ attention on other learning tools.
Q: This study focused on 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classrooms. Would your advice have been different if you were working with different age groups?
FAWN: Absolutely. We know that our eyes and minds process colors differently at different ages. Infants are drawn to the contrast of black and white, preschoolers prefer primary colors, secondary and tertiary colors work well for grade-school aged children, pre-teens tend to like darker colors, while teenagers lean toward complex colors. We must design for the body first, and dial colors up and down in value, saturation, palette and placement based on how we want the body to react.
It is important to consider not only how we want to design our environments and buildings, but also the age group of students, thinking and emotions we want to create based on our surroundings.
Q: As the PPG study was completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional classroom setting has since shifted quite dramatically. How would you now guide educators to color psychology, using the principles of this study to apply to remote learning alternatives?
FAWN: Color is light, and light is life. These principles absolutely apply to every built environment. The color and light we spend time in directs our behavior and focus and can be applies to work and learn from home environments. We currently process 83% of the information about our spaces visually, yet the body understands and is nourished by proper lighting and color and at specific times of the day to support our circadian rhythm, which controls most functions of our body including our sleep/wake cycle, metabolism, and the ability to be clear and productive. Using color to align the body’s response with the time and purpose of the room is a significant and easy way to up-level the health and well-being of students, teachers and everyone who needs to spent time in our built environments.