Promoting patient well-being with colour and light

Table of Contents

Through a scientifically based colour and material concept, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries can improve the quality of their patients’ stay and thus support the recovery process. Staff also work better in a consciously designed environment. The investment in an appropriate consultation pays off several times over.

For most patients, entering a hospital is a stressful life situation. The burden of the disease is compounded by uncertainty as to how the recovery process will proceed. Unplanned hospital stays are often accompanied by oppressive everyday worries. This makes it all the more important, when designing health care facilities, to consider not only functional and technical perfection, but also a colour and material concept that promotes the well-being of the patient and thus supports recovery in the best possible way. This is because medicine can only unfold its full effect if the people to be treated feel comfortable and secure in the hospital.

Focus on people’s needs

The scientifically supported colour and material advice is based on the needs of the human being. Every colour stimulus that is picked up from the outside triggers a subjective reaction in the inner world. Thus colour influences the cortical activation as well as functions of the vegetative nervous system and also triggers the release of hormones. For this reason, the correct and appropriate setting of colour stimuli must be taken into account when selecting colours. Too many colour stimuli can miss the goal of moderate stimulation just as much as a low-irritant environment.

In addition to these physiological effects, the scientifically supported colour and material advice also incorporates the findings of colour psychology. This means that the emotional effect of colours, their symbolism and also their associative power are taken into account. The same applies to the synaesthetic effect of colours. Synaesthesia refers to the simultaneous perception of different sensations. Thus colours not only appeal to the sense of sight, but also excite the sense of touch, smell, taste or temperature through holistic references and sympathies. People perceive certain colour nuances and combinations as warm or cold, hard or soft, sweet or sour, etc.

User-oriented planning

A successful interior design harmonises the needs of the users with the ideas of specialist planners and decision-makers. When designing health care facilities the correct weighting of user needs is particularly complex because different user groups, some with very different needs, use some rooms together, others exclusively. In addition to patients, doctors, nursing staff and practice assistants as well as relatives and visitors spend a large part of their time in the rooms of hospitals and practices. And if they feel comfortable in these surroundings, this also has an effect on the patients, which in turn has an effect on the recovery process.

In the user-oriented individual design of the various rooms, especially of large facilities, it is crucial that this is done within the framework of an overarching concept. Because only a hospital designed as a whole conveys that harmony and security which positively stimulates the self-healing powers of the patients.

What should be borne in mind when designing the individual rooms in a hospital or medical practice?

A friendly welcome is important

Already the entrance hall of a hospital or the entrance area as well as the waiting room of a doctor’s practice should spread a personal and friendly atmosphere for those entering. A feeling of security and warmth can be combined with a homely, representative room atmosphere. The reception area should correspond, not necessarily with regard to the choice of colour, but with regard to the high-quality design and room atmosphere, to the rest of the appearance of the hospital or practice.

Comfortable patient rooms

The design of the patient rooms is central to the well-being of the patients. Here, people from different social backgrounds, ages and personal tastes spend different amounts of time depending on the length of stay. The severity of the illness or injury also varies. This raises different expectations of the hospital environment. Frequently occurring dysfunctions such as anxiety or insomnia can be counteracted with creative means.

Doctors and psychologists today agree that a positive atmosphere in the hospital room promotes the healing process. To achieve this, the room must be optimistic, friendly and comfortable. The ceiling deserves attention because it forms a main field of vision for bedridden patients. It may be slightly coloured without disturbing the objective assessment of the patient’s skin colour through reflection.

Multifunctional corridors

The design of corridors is important because they occupy a large total area and therefore convey a considerable part of the overall impression. If each department is assigned a different colour milieu, the corridor is perceived as part of the orientation system. Staff use corridors as transport and communication routes and as work areas between different departments. For patients, they serve as ideal walking surfaces for movement. An interesting ambience in terms of colour and light supports the recovery process of the patients and the staff works more motivated, more willing to perform and more concentrated, so that symptoms of fatigue can be reduced.

Work psychologically optimized operating rooms

In operating theatres as well as in the treatment rooms of a medical practice, it is not only important to ensure that patients place their full trust in their medical skills and in the medical-technical equipment. Industrial psychology aspects must also be taken into account. In particular, the visual efforts of the surgical teams working intensively and over a long period of time must be taken into account. In order to prevent eye fatigue during operations, large differences in luminance should be avoided.

Light and colour play together

In general, the effect of light in the design of colours and materials in health care facilities deserves great attention. Around 90 percent of the sensory impressions are absorbed through the eyes. Light and visual conditions have a major influence on concentration and performance as well as on the ability to react and general well-being.

When selecting colours and materials, care should be taken to avoid extreme contrasts between light and dark in combination with the definition of lighting sources in order to prevent excessive eye fatigue. Especially in hospitals, where many elderly and frail people move around, a glare-free environment is important to prevent falls.

When planning a new building or conversion, but also before renovating health care facilities, it is worthwhile to consult a qualified colour consultant who works on the basis of scientific findings. The small investment in a wellthought-out colour and material concept in relation to the total construction sum considerably increases the utility value of the project and thus pays for itself several times over.


Corridor Health Centre Kitzbühl, Austria

Author: Martin Tanner
Published in: SAR – The Swiss Doctor & Hospital Review, February 2009