[00:00:00] Sarah: You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.
[00:00:27] Learn more at universaldesign.org.
[00:00:31] Alee: Hi, listeners, welcome back to another Good Fit Poor Fit episode. You may have heard from me in the past episode–#72–on UD and Service Dogs. But for those of you who haven’t had a listen yet, I’m Alee Halsey and I’ve been working with UDP as a level two OT student over the fall semester.
[00:00:48] Over the past months, I’ve learned so many different ways we can modify and adapt homes to make them more universally accessible. There’s quite a spectrum for complexity and price involved in the changes we can make to our homes, but I’ve especially enjoyed learning about how creative we can be to find simple cost-effective changes to accomplish UD goals.
[00:01:07] Perhaps it’s the painter in me, but thinking about this, my mind immediately jumps to color. There are so many ways a bucket of paint can completely transform a home and with little effort and cost. A $30 quart of paint can go a long way and can accomplish the very same goals as extremely pricey renovations.
[00:01:26] Sarah, this is a concept you discussed previously in a fantastic article in Apartment Therapy with a writer who experiences a disability–and check out the link in the show notes below to read more. I loved the points you all brought up about the recent trends of all-white home design and how this can pose serious difficulties for those with disabilities.
[00:01:44] Do you mind sharing with us why this causes issues and some of the color solutions you brainstormed together?
[00:01:50] Sarah: Of course. Well, first off, Alee, I think it’s quite fun that in your research for this podcast, you found the article I contributed to several years ago. There is definitely a trend of things being minimal and looking “clean” by being all one color. Oftentimes, this is seen in design as white walls, white countertops, white cabinets, white baseboards, and more.
[00:02:13] I love the design aesthetic it’s trying to go for; however, choosing all of these elements as one color makes navigating the home and scanning the environment even more difficult. When everything is one color (and it doesn’t have to be white), it’s difficult for people with low vision or cognitive disabilities to know where one surface ends and another begins.
[00:02:36] This causes a lot of problems with setting items down on maybe countertops for those who have difficulty with depth perception. They might not notice they’re putting a cup on the ledge of the sink where it connects to the countertop. When you think about people navigating the home, difficulty occurs when there’s not contrast between doors, the baseboards, framing around doors, and the wall color. Without these hints of color to show us that there is a door to walk through that’s a different color than the wall, people can get a little confused navigating the home.
[00:03:08] This also happens when stairs, handrails, light switches, electrical sockets, appliances, and other controls blend right into the environment and it can be difficult to find. Have you ever tried to go down a flight of stairs and all the stairs look like they blend together because you can’t tell where the edge is?
[00:03:24] How about trying to find that outlet on the wall that blends into the paint color? For those who use sign language to communicate, we’ve even heard that choosing a paint color on the wall that doesn’t blend into most skin tones is also helpful for people to see hands when they’re communicating. When you really dig into it, and once you start thinking about this topic even more, there are lots of ways to adjust the color around the home just slightly to make a difference in contrast.
[00:03:53] Now, we don’t want to go overboard here with everything, then it will look a little too wild and choppy. So there is a subtle level of contrast that’s important to meet. Even too much contrast, say a dark line on a white floor, can make flat surfaces look like steps. I think there is an element of creativity here, though. I know in our apartment building, each floor of the building has a designated color.
[00:04:17] This color is integrated into parts of the walls as well as the carpeting. When someone is navigating the building, they can determine what floor they’re on based on the color. This is a great wayfinding tool for many people too. My daughter, age four, has figured out which floor corresponds to which color.
[00:04:35] Things like this help us cognitively and alert us to our location. Little hints of color like this can be really helpful.
[00:04:42] Rebecca: I love that you brought that up, Sarah. That’s actually something that I’ve worked on with clients in professional settings in terms of wayfinding for labeling different floors. Say, the finance floor is blue, or the engineering floor is orange. This can be a really awesome way to help people find their way in a space they’ve never been to before if they’re say, interviewing or if they’re a contractor who’s just visiting the building. And it’s a really easy and simple universal design that can actually help everybody to find their way a little bit easier. And I also think a lot about what you said earlier comes into play in bathrooms a lot.
[00:05:24] You see those are all white a lot of the times and I’ve heard that there are a lot of challenges with people slipping and not knowing where one thing ends and another begins in an all-white bathroom, which is a kind of unsafe spot for a lot of people to begin with. So I think this comes into play in a lot of different ways here.
[00:05:43] Alee: You’re right. Color makes a big difference in just how we’re able to navigate a space safely, but also for wayfinding. My mind automatically goes to people who have low vision or cognitive disabilities when it comes to who benefits from this. But you’re right, Sarah, even small children can be part of this group as well.
[00:06:01] The deaf community is also a group that I hadn’t thought of here. This also got me thinking about other groups of people who might be overlooked but would benefit just as much from color technique in the home, one of which is those who are colorblind. In their case, we need to be wary of using red or green for strategic color purposes if you know someone in the home is colorblind and can’t differentiate between those colors. Rebecca, are there any other quick color fixes you’ve seen in the home?
[00:06:27] Rebecca: That is a great question. And interestingly enough, my dad is one of those colorblind people with whom I have lived, so I’ve actually given this some thought. One thing that comes to mind right away is electrical stuff. I’m sure you’ve seen that sometimes colors and cords will be labeled by color, kind of like you used to see on the back of televisions for various inputs and outputs.
[00:06:50] My dad will have trouble with tasks like this that rely entirely on identifying and matching colors sometimes. And a really easy fix for this is written labels. I’m sure listeners, if you’re a regular listener, you know, I love labels. It’s not my dad’s favorite thing, taking the time to put a written label on something, but I really do think it’s a good hack that I’ve seen him use, especially when it comes to electrical tasks that may require such matching during a rewire. And it’s definitely not worth the risk when it comes to the electrical stuff, if you ask me. Plus, just the labeling is another universal feature because I think that it helps everybody.
[00:07:30] Sarah: I’m sure there are many examples out there like this where people have to navigate instructions or our world by color. My uncle is also colorblind and he said that he had to memorize the position of colors on stoplights to notice when one was brighter to have it indicate for him when the lights changed. And while your dad isn’t a huge label fan, maybe he’d get into the idea of using different symbols or different shaped stickers? This reminds me of one of my favorite games I love to play called Ticket to Ride. Many games often rely on colors as a cue for moving around the board and figuring out strategies.
[00:08:11] This game of Ticket to Ride is one such game where you’re putting down train cars to get to your destination before the other players. What was really interesting to me though, is that each color was also labeled with a symbol. So if someone was colorblind, they could still play the game by matching the symbols if they couldn’t see the colors.
[00:08:30] A very intuitive idea for these game makers, I’d say. Sorry, Alee I think I went down a rabbit trail here onto a different topic, but maybe you can get us back on track with homes. At least my example is still related to some meaningful tasks in the home.
[00:08:45] Alee: Not to worry, Sarah. I love these suggestions. There are absolutely going to be times where there is a color in or on objects within the home, such as wires or game pieces, that we can’t change. We’ll have to troubleshoot around that, and labeling in these ways is a great trick. Finding a shorthand system with symbols can make that a lot easier and perhaps even more decorative.
[00:09:06] Perhaps you could use symbols on your faucets to indicate which is hot rather than a red handle. There’s all sorts of ways you could get creative. Overall, we’re seeing a lot of purposes color can serve within the home. Another way we can use it strategically is to enhance the purpose of our different rooms.
[00:09:23] For instance, designing an office space in a color that increases concentration or performance. I came across a really interesting study that tested this idea. Their participants were tested doing work tasks in an office that was red, and then in one that was blue. Halfway through, participants switched from one room to the other and interestingly, the results showed that those who switched from the blue office to the red office made significantly more errors in their work following the switch than other groups did. Not only does this tell me that I should avoid red in my home office, but it certainly brings to light how important these color changes can be now that we live in a world where so many of us work from home. I was wondering if either of you have noticed what color work environment seemed to be where you function best? Or perhaps you might be able to think of a time where a room’s color was disruptive for you?
[00:10:14] Sarah: I know I work better in an environment with calming colors, but I think a lot of this is personal preference for sure. We see this in our homes and in our choice of clothing. Do we want to stand out or remain neutral and blend into the background?
[00:10:28] I know a lady who loves red and she has an accent wall in her home of red, and all of her clothes and accessories usually have a hint of red. However, whether we love these pops of color out there or not, when designing a home for a wide variety of people, I feel like we probably should set the space up to work well for the most people as possible right off the bat, since anyone could move into a home. Once someone moves in, they can get that bucket of paint out and do what they want. But starting off with some good base colors of grey, off-white, and hints of blues and greens are usually what I go with. It’s a good standard color palette and have them complement each other versus clash.
[00:11:11] Rebecca: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense, Sarah. Start simple and then recognize that everyone’s gonna have their own preferences, especially when it comes to color. When you mention the woman that you know who loves red, it reminded me of a time I was on a Zoom call with a woman who was in this bright yellow room.
[00:11:27] I mean like highlighter yellow, and I love the color. It was so vibrant and joyful, and I told her that, and she said that was how it made her feel too. But then she panned around with the camera and she said, “It’s only one wall, though. A whole room of this color would just be too much!” And I totally understood what she was saying.
[00:11:46] I can see where that kind of vibrant light might not be great on all four walls, especially in the room where you work all day long. It could work for some, I recognize that, but I don’t think it would be ideal for me. I tend to enjoy nice light, pastely kind of neutral and natural colors in rooms that I’m in all the time, especially if I’m working or sleeping in there. A bit calmer, a bit less stimulating, and then definitely I prefer simple paint on walls other than busy wallpaper. There’s actually a time in my house growing up in which my mom had, I kid you not, three different, very busy wallpapers across two open-plan rooms that ran into one another. It was a serious headache, people! We look back at photos now and we think, who in the world thought that that looked okay?
[00:12:34] And forget about the stimulation. I don’t know how anybody concentrated in that room. And now, my mom has swung the complete opposite way and the entire house in which I grew up in is grey. So I guess she learned her lesson, but I also feel it might be a slight overcorrection at this point.
[00:12:51] Alee: Hey, time of life of our individual circumstances may also completely change what color or patterns work for us at the moment. Or perhaps, her brain had just simply had enough! Isn’t it crazy what an impact it can make, though? I did some more digging on why color and strong color contrast can affect us so much.
[00:13:09] And one explanation is how our brains have been wired to pay attention to objects of contrasting color in our environment. This made it easier for our ancestors to find food or notice potential hazards. Among plants and animals, bright colors also serve certain survival functions such as reproduction and protection.
[00:13:26] This makes me think of David Attenborough’s “Birds of Paradise” episode or the vibrant poisonous frogs of the Amazon where color is equally a source of strong attraction as it is for warning or repulsion. For these reasons, it is clear color is strongly linked with arousal states and emotion, and can be a trigger for these as well.
[00:13:46] In a red office space, this bold color can be arousing and increase energy and alertness. But, based on the results of the study I just mentioned, it could be causing a level of stress that negatively affects our performance. In general, I find this triangle between color, physiological, and emotional response fascinating.
[00:14:03] However, it can work really differently depending on the person, as we all have different personal or physical experiences, as well as cultural influences that impact our emotional response to certain colors.
[00:14:14] Sarah: I agree, Alee, this is really fascinating that our productivity, the emotions and how we feel we’re able to function in this space can change due to the colors. In a way, this also makes me think about how sensitive our senses are and why having environments that are calming makes such a difference in our emotions and our ability to function.
[00:14:35] I do that silly thing in the car when traffic gets busy where I turn down the radio. My husband’s like, “Why are you turning down the radio?” But there’s just something about that extra noise to me that’s really distracting. Or, where I have to clean up my desk to feel I can start my work. Feeling calm and organized and really focusing in on how the environment is making us feel has a direct impact on how we function.
[00:14:59] I know in UD we often get caught up in the features in a home, but this discussion is really great to remind us to think about all of these sensory elements as well.
[00:15:10] Alee: Agreed. We all have to take into account what is going to work for us as individuals, and color is a tool that can be used very differently depending on the person. This is actually a really important point Deborah Pierce makes in her book, The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities. She lists a variety of colors and qualities color therapists have assigned to them.
[00:15:30] For instance, blue is serene, orange is energetic, red is stimulating and comforting, and yellow is cheery. However, she also notes that personal experience and cultural traditions influence how these colors make us feel. For instance, purple is often associated with wealth, royalty and nobility, but in Thailand and Brazil, it represents mourning.
[00:15:52] This would make for a completely different experience in a home space, one that might elicit feelings of comfort and luxury in contrast to one that’s filled with feelings of sadness. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to consider the individual person if assisting them with color home modifications.
[00:16:10] As OTs, we consider the whole person. We’re not just looking at how color can help them function or move throughout the physical context of the home, but we also must consider their cultural context, values, and beliefs when consulting them.
[00:16:23] Sarah: Yeah, Alee, I agree and I’m really glad you mentioned Deborah Pierce’s book, The Accessible Home. It’s a really great resource and we can put that link in the show notes for you to check out as well. There is a whole science out there, like you said, to color and what emotions and meaning that color gives off, and that can change culture to culture, just like you mentioned. I’m not as well versed in how different cultures may view color. That is something I am actually curious to learn more about because it is so interesting. I do know though, that color and emotion play into so many things throughout the home, from choices in paint color to decor, and more. Businesses even need to consider this for their branding.
[00:17:02] That’s why we see a lot of restaurants with red because that elicits a certain feeling versus more calming colors of blues and greens that often get put into hospitals and doctor’s offices.
[00:17:14] Alee: That’s right, and as we’ve discussed, one color can elicit a very different experience depending on the person and/or the context. Red being an example…Pierce lists it as a comforting color, but as we saw in the office experiment, it did not have a comforting effect.
[00:17:28] Otherwise, the participants would’ve performed better in their work tasks instead of worse. However, as you mentioned, Sarah, it can be advantageous in the context of business branding. All in all, this supports that the experience of color can be different. Perhaps another reason why is due to physiology and diagnoses that completely alter the way individuals experience this aspect of their environment.
[00:17:50] I actually want to jump back to the color yellow. It also makes for a very different emotional experience depending on the person. Personally, it’s one of my favorite colors, and like your Zoom colleague, Rebecca, it’s one I associate with Pierce’s description as cheery. However, I came across another interesting study that proves how and why yellow can have the complete opposite effect for other individuals like those with Autism.
[00:18:14] For those of you who don’t know much about this diagnosis, many people with Autism experience difficulty processing sensory information in their environment, which includes visual input like color. Because their brains have difficulty taking in and interpreting this visual information, they can become easily stressed or overwhelmed, which leads them physically and emotionally drained.
[00:18:35] The study compared typically developing boys and boys diagnosed with Autism in regards to their preference of six colors, including red, pink, yellow, brown, green, and blue. It found the boys with Autism were significantly less than typically developing boys to prefer yellow, and it explains the results because boys with this disorder perceived yellow as being sensory overloading.
[00:18:59] I also thought it was neat how the study went on to explain why yellow can be such a challenging color to process for these individuals. Our eyes have three different types of cone cells for perceiving color, which corresponds to red, green, and blue light. But in order to perceive yellow, two cone cells have to be used at once, which requires more effort for our brain to process this information.
[00:19:21] All of this being said, it’s very important to design the colors of your rooms to match the needs of its inhabitants, and these needs will be very different from person to person. It also means that we can use color as a tool to mitigate some of these challenges such as combating overstimulation, anxiety, or depression.
[00:19:39] In your experiences, have you recommended particular paint colors for clients’ homes for these reasons?
[00:19:44] Sarah: Alee, I’m really glad you mentioned this study, and I’m glad you were able to bring this research and science into our conversation.
[00:19:51] But before I get into some of my recommended paint colors, I want to share that I have a friend who has a son with Asperger’s, and he had this exact same experience. They were at church and after dropping him off in his classroom, he wasn’t able to stay in the room for very long and raced away to flee that uncomfortable experience. When my friend sat down with him to discuss what was going on, he mentioned it was the color of the room that was making him uncomfortable. I want to go back to your question, Alee, about recommending different paint colors. We haven’t recommended particular paint colors in homes specifically, as we like to keep some of these choices up to different individual preferences and styles. But we have gone into a lot of the same conversation as we have discussed today. Keeping in mind contrast, calming colors, taking note of how all of these elements complement each other and speak to one’s sensory needs.
[00:20:46] Alee: For sharing that experience, Sarah. That alone is a testament that color has a profound impact on how we interact with our world, sometimes causing us to run from it. I’m glad that you all take such a collaborative approach at the Universal Design Project to consider all of these aspects of color, as we’ve discussed.
[00:21:04] Our experience of color is multifactorial, and to make a space that’s the best fit for an individual requires taking all of these into account. So thank you again for joining us for this episode. I hope you’re leaving feeling inspired by the array of possibilities color has in the world of universal design.
[00:21:22] Feel free to share any thoughts or ideas you have on incorporating color into UD solutions in our comments section below. We would love to hear from you! I hope you all have a great day!
[00:21:31] Sarah: Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected].
[00:21:58] Thanks for fitting us into your day!