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Last updated: June 30, 2021 • Home Improvement

The Psychology of Light and Color in Interior Design

Have you ever wondered why a room can make you feel alert while another tends to relax you? Just take a look around your home and try to understand how each room makes you feel. Now look around the room and analyze what you see. Color and light are both critical elements of interior design, and while they make a visual difference in every room, most people overlook the impact colors have on our mood and the way we feel in each room.

Interior design deals with more than just choosing the right furniture for the room and the right throw pillows. Light and color can make a room look larger or more intimate, warm or cool, exciting or relaxing. It all comes down to the use of color and light in your interior design. This area of interior design is still a developing field, especially in lighting, as technologies give way to new types of lighting and ways in which we can use light. However, homeowners can follow some general rules to enhance their interior design and improve the use of their space. The key here is to understand how light and colors impact us and the room and use them to maximize space.

What is Color?

colors rainbow pattern multicolored butterflies morpho

Many illustrious minds were troubled by this question, but physics explains color by how we perceive light reflected on surfaces. In school, we all learned about the basics: primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), secondary colors (the mixture of primary colors resulting in orange, green, and purple), and tertiary colors (the mix between primary and secondary colors). The rainbow includes primary and secondary colors, representing the color spectrum seen by the human eye. But what about black and white?

Going back to colors as light perceived on surfaces, think of a rough surface that can appear white in some light regardless of its color. Or another that may appear black because it absorbs all light. This happens because some colors react differently to light intensity. We can say that all colors are derived from the primary colors, but you can not create more colors than the three types mentioned above by combining other colors. So what do you do? Using black, white, and gray results in variations from the colors we already have, giving us shades, tints, and tones, respectively.

How to use Color?

Woman holding paint roller looking at samples

The use of color is a science on its own or an art form, but understanding how colors work together isn’t necessarily as complicated as one might think. Interior designers often use a color wheel as a guide when designing a room. Each of the following schemes is used in interior design and can ensure balance when combined correctly.

Types of color combinations

Complementary – colors that are opposites of each other on the color wheel – best used as accent colors.

Triads – colors that form an equilateral triangle on the color wheel – best used as balanced accent colors.

Analogous – colors next to each other on the color wheel.

Monochromatic – shades, tints, and tones of one color.

Looking at a color wheel, you will also see that half of it is based on blues and greens, while the other is based on reds and yellows. This also splits colors based on temperature, warm or cool, that affect how space is perceived. Cool colors create the illusion of space and formality, while warm colors create intimacy and closeness. While living in a big home does have the physical effect of distance between the inhabitants of the space, the space can be made to seem smaller, cozier and warmer through the correct color pallet.

Non-colors like white, black, beige, brown, and grey are not on the color wheel but still play an important role in interior design, often as dominant colors.

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The 60:30:10 Rule 

Patterned carpet in pink

Now that we understand what color is, the most important rule of how we should use color is following the 60:30:10 rule. Before you get carried away and decorate your whole house with the same color, think of the 60:30:10 ratio. Colors, even the perfect hue, can be boring, dull, and bland on their own. A carefully considered balance will ensure that those adjectives will never be applied to your home. The most appreciated interior design trends of 2021 make sure to apply this rule.

The 60:30:10 rule underlines the percentage for your color scheme. One color, usually neutral, should dominate and occupy about 60% of the space. The secondary color should cover 30% of the space, and accents should not cover more than 10%. And don’t forget, when we talk about color, we don’t only refer to wall paint. Furniture, flooring, drapes, rugs, and everything else in a room have a particular color. Conversational pieces draw the onlookers’ eyes and their color, shape or lighting plan tends to stand out. Keep that in mind when you decide on a color scheme.

The Psychology of Color

Psychology colors word cloud showing meaning

The basics of color are just that, the basics. Knowing the different types of colors and how to use them is one thing, but understanding how colors affect our behavior, mood and disposition is another story entirely.

The color of our environment directly impacts our mental and emotional constitution. Modern psychology took what Ancient Egypt started and expanded it to apply it in everyday life, from marketing to interior design. Let’s look at how the primary and secondary colors impact human behavior.

Red

Looking at a red cape incites anger in a bull, which is also one of the emotions humans experience in a red room. Other feelings encouraged by the color are strength, passion, energy, love, war, power, danger, and desire. Red is a good choice for the kitchen, but it can also work in the living room and bedroom. Lighter tints of red inspire sexuality, love, joy, romance, and friendship, while darker shades are associated with courage, anger, wrath, vigor, and leadership. Red works perfect as an accent color, but make sure to use it sparingly. The color’s intensity can overcrowd a room quickly, and people with high blood pressure are discouraged from using it.

Orange

As the only color named after an object, orange is linked to feelings of joy, enthusiasm, creativity, attraction, stimulation, happiness, and success. If you live in the tropics, it can work fantastic in a complementary color pallet. Orange is a perfect color for the kitchen or an exercise room as it stimulates the senses. Lighter tints like gold are associated with prestige, wisdom, and wealth, while darker shades are connected to pleasure, determination, or appetite stimulation. However, dark orange can be associated with distrust.

Yellow

The color of the sun is linked to joy, intellect, energy and is best applied to kitchens, bathrooms, dining rooms, or hallways. It is the most welcoming color. However, studies have shown that it can also invoke anger when used as the main color. It can be too much for the psyche. Darker shades can be related to sickness, decay, and jealousy, but light tints evoke optimistic feelings like freshness, and we already mentioned joy. Picking the right shade is essential for yellow, but a deep yellow and grey can result in a sophisticated look.

Green

The color of nature, green, is the easiest color on the human eye. It is generally associated with calmness, security, growth, freshness, harmony, and fertility; green suits every room in the house. Looking at lighter tints of green, we can create a modern feel when combined with greys and have a calming effect. However, darker shades can evoke the opposite effect, like feelings of greed, jealousy, and ambition. Yellow-green is linked to sickness, discord, and cowardice, while olive green is the color of peace.

Blue

US’s most popular color of choice, blue, inspires trust, wisdom, loyalty, faith, heaven, and truth. Like green, blue has a calming effect on the mind and body and even slows down the metabolism. Ideal for people with high blood pressure, light tints and pastel tones are linked to health, softness, and understanding but can seem chilly in excess. Darker shades represent luxury, power, knowledge, and integrity. Blue and yellow work wonderfully together for a kitchen especially in a home by the beach, and midnight blue gives a sense of luxury when applied in a bedroom.

Purple

The darkest shades of purple adds drama to any room with its richness and sense of sophistication. Used correctly, purple can add depth to any design scheme and is usually associated with creativity and luxury. Lavender tints have a similar impact to light blues adding a restful quality in a bedroom, while dark purple gives a mysterious flair to any space.

What is Light?

3D rendering image 3 colors on concrete wall

Light can come from different sources, the sun, a lamp, a fire, and is measured on the Kelvin scale from 1,000K to 10.000K. Warm lights are between 1,000K and 3,000K, neutral or day light between 3,000K and 4,500K, cool light between 4,600K and 6,500K, and cold light between 6,600K and 10,000K. 

Lighting in interior design is usually used to provide artificial lighting during the evening and at night when no natural light is available. Rooms with little or no natural light also rely on artificial light. However, what interior lighting design started to understand recently is that light impacts the mood of a room similarly to color. The two work hand-in-hand, as the lighting type and placement play an essential role in how any space is used.

When we think about light, we must always consider the level of natural light available in the space, how it falls, how it lights up the room, and how the room is used. Always remember that light impacts color, size, and the use of any room.

How to use Light?

Wedding flower lamp light decoration

Light can add or subtract from the colors in the room, the surfaces the light touches, and the room’s functionality. When it comes to light, the best option is natural light, so, if at all possible, try to maximize the amount of daylight that comes into the room. You can do this through large windows, sheer drapes, and curtains that invite natural light inside the room. Avoid blocking the windows with furniture and study how the light flows through each room. In particularly dim-lit spaces, when bigger windows aren’t an option, mirrors can be placed in areas where natural light shines through. This will allow the light to circulate further into the room.

An inadequately lit room feels small, cramped, and filling it with closely positioned furniture will only increase that effect. For this reason, we have artificial lighting, but how do we use it? Taking a look at the Scandinavian philosophy when it comes to light, we can better understand how warm light versus cool light affects our mood.

Types of Lighting

Beautiful farm house kitchen dining space

Ambient Lighting – most commonly used in residential homes – illuminates the whole room through central fixtures, wall sconces, or lanterns.

Accent Lighting – used to highlight the art or architectural design – halogen lights are ideal based on their intensity and the way they focus light.

Task Lighting – used for task areas like a working desk, kitchen counter, kitchen island, reading nook – they provide bright light for task areas that require attention and focus.

Through the use of light, we can focus attention on certain elements, limit the activity to a particular area, or light up the entire room if necessary. Like outdoor lighting, indoor light can improve any interior design, but it is crucial to plan it ahead of time because light fixtures aren’t the easiest elements to move around. Know where your reading nook, dining table, kitchen island, and bed will be. Some areas require more attention than others, but all in all, light is a great way to personalize your home in such a way that it improves your lifestyle.

The Circadian Cycle

Circadian rhythm sleep/wake cycle exposure

While this concept may seem foreign, it is the concept that governs our entire lives. The circadian cycle is the biological process; our internal 24-hour clock regulates our response to sleepiness and alertness, more commonly known as the sleep/wake cycle. This circadian cycle is based on the presence and colors of light.

Between morning and noon, natural light grows in intensity and changes in color, going from the warm, orange-yellow hues of dawn to cooler shades at noon.

Between noon and afternoon, natural light decreases in intensity towards sunset, and the color shifts from cool white at noon, to the rich yellowy glow of dusk.

Humans and every other living element on the planet are dependent on the sun’s cycle. From eating to sleeping, humans’ ability to work or relax is affected by the type of light we have from the sun. While outside amenities tend to ease your mind, why should the interior of your home be any different? Considering this, we can use interior lighting in much the same way. Most of our lives are spent under artificial light, at work, at home, at the gym, etc., so why not apply the same biological process through artificial lighting in our interior design?

Biological and Psychological Secrets of Light

When we consider the type and intensity of artificial light, we must understand how these factors can influence us biologically and psychologically. From a biological standpoint, light impacts the quality of our sleep. In contrast, from a psychological perspective, light affects our mood, can decrease depression, and assist us in adapting to our environment.

Regarding the atmosphere in a room, lighting can have a drastic impact, making a space feel homey, comfortable, and intimate, or sterile, formal, and unwelcoming.

Types of Light

Most of us are used to the simplest type of lighting with a fixed intensity that comes in white or yellow hues. However, recent technology allows us to manage these light characteristics to enhance our interior design and influence our mood and emotions.

Brightness

The amount of light that any light fixture gives can affect our emotions. Brighter light is known to intensify emotions making us more prone to emotional outbursts and imbalance. In contrast, low light can help us manage our emotions, balancing them and allowing us to live an equilibrated life. 

Hue

We already covered how colors can affect our emotions, but as a general rule, blue light has a relaxing effect, red light excites us, while green light has a pleasant impact on our mood.

Conclusion

Colors and lights can work together to enhance a simple interior design to magazine cover heights when used correctly. Misused, however, they can make even the best designer home look crowded, bleak, and uninviting. Choosing the right color and light depends on the individual, and interior designers work with their clients to determine the right use of both elements for their benefit. Knowing what the room’s purpose is, how you intend to use furniture, and the emotions you want to inspire guarantees you a well-balanced lighting and color scheme. When in doubt, take tint and shade sheets of the color you’re considering and glue them to the wall just to see how the room’s natural light affects the color. It’s the simplest trick in the book. While you’re at it, why not also revamp the exterior. In case you intend to sell your home, it might help to know that its exterior color can affect the sale price of a property.

Using light and color to enhance your interior design isn’t always easy, but the 60:30:10 rule is a certainty, as is the color wheel. Light requires you to understand the use of your space and the kind of light you want in it. Browse around, keep in mind what you have to work with, and have fun! You’re already halfway there.

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