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Color Benefits Schools


By Jill Pilaroscia

The school environment is a clear example of how color shapes human experience and behavior. Unfortunately, many public-school color choices are relegated to administrative and maintenance staff. Classroom colors are often chosen based on ease of cleaning and cost cutting, so dull, institutional colors like grey and beige prevail.

But thoughtful color choice in school environments is crucial to student engagement. Several significant studies show that children behave and perform better in spaces where color is carefully considered. Dr. Harry Wohlfarth performed a study in the early 1980s among schools where institutional colors prevailed.

Students were “least stressed” in the school where drab walls were replaced with warm yellow and light blue, and full spectrum lighting was added. The students also showed reduced aggression and higher I.Q. test scores. Other studies have shown that school color choices can have an important impact on issues like attention span and absenteeism.

Color for Change

De Anza High, a public school in El Sobrante, CA, is a case in point. Built in 1955, the facility was long considered inadequate and had a reputation as a troubled school. Test scores and enrollment had sunk to new lows when the district broke ground on a new building in 2010 designed by the San Francisco office of DLM Architecture. Colour Studio was hired to develop both the interior and exterior color palette.

“Color is relatively inexpensive way to bring energy and dynamism to a school,” says Colour Studio principal Jill Pilaroscia.

De Anza High
All photos provided by Jill Pilaroscia / photographers and firms noted. De Anza photos: DLM Architects photos by Tim Maloney

The entrance to De Anza High School in El Sobrante, CA.

De Anza hallway

Active colors are used in heavy trafficked areas at De Anza High School.

For De Anza, lively shades were chosen for active spaces like the entry, corridors, gymnasium, and cafeteria/multi-purpose room. Quieter hues were employed to encourage focus in classrooms. To bring balanced energy into the auditorium of warm and cool hues, Colour Studio used warm woods, theatrical red velvet curtains, cool temperature paint and upholstery colors in deep blues.

De Anza gymnasium

The gymnasium at De Anza High School.

De Anza auditorium

The auditorium at De Anza High School.

The results of the new design and dynamic color program have been impressive. Enrollment grew significantly after the building opened in 2013, and grades have improved appreciably. The principal has also reported improvement in attitude.

Color on a Budget

For the Filipino Education Center, a public school in San Francisco, Roberta Wahl of PLUM Architects used color and thoughtful landscaping to energize the design. An urban school site for more than a century, this former preschool was converted into a middle school for 230 students in response to community outreach and feedback. A small footprint maximizes open space, which in turn is utilized for play yards and open garden seating.

Filipino Education Center exterior
Filipino Education Center photos: JD Peterson

The Filipino Education Center, designed by PLUM Architects.

Because the redesign relied on public funds, Wahl explains, “It is our challenge to find an architecture that is delightful while meeting the limited budget given to us. We take this on with pleasure.”

Filipino Education Center courtyard

Another exterior view of the Filipino Education Center.

Color can energize a built environment in a highly cost-efficient manner. Wahl envisioned the building as a "little red schoolhouse," she says. At the same time, “There was a lack of green in the area, so that was added to give vibrancy and a sense of urban “greenery.” Additionally, striking redwood staircases and lounging benches provide warmth and dynamism to the campus. “I wanted something ‘precious’ for the kids, something beautiful that they would typically not be given because people had little trust in them. This is where the wood came in. They loved it and after nearly ten years, it’s yet to be marred.”

Filipino Education Center interior

The cafeteria at the Filipino Education Center.

PLUM was awarded a Coalition for Adequate School Housing Award of Merit in 2009 for the project.

Punches of Color

Color is also an integral element at Nueva School in San Mateo, CA, a private school designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco. The firm used a Le Corbusier-inspired color palette of primary hues to add a playful, dynamic appeal to the building. Punches of bold color on the mostly warm gray exterior help bring distinct design elements into focus.

Nueva School exterior
Kyle Jeffers

Nueva School in San Mateo, CA, designed by LMS Architects.

Nueva School interior
Kyle Jeffers

Interior of the Nueva School.

The firm also employed strong color pops to connect the building to the outdoors, where generous public spaces are highlighted by splashes of blue, yellow and red. For the interior, LMS maximized daylight with white surfaces that reflect sunlight to create a luminous environment. The school provides a variety of innovative educational environments—from flexible classrooms and outdoor seminar spaces to science laboratories and tech shops—designed to inspire the 21st-century student and offer a replicable new model for all schools.

Nueva School gymnasium
Kyle Jeffers

Gymnasium at the Nueva School.

Nueva School courtyard
Tim Griffith

Outdoor space at the Nueva School.

As the stellar examples above show, there is no one formula for using color in an educational setting. However, a number of factors must be considered, Pilaroscia explains. A cross-disciplinary approach—one that considers grade level, demographics, culture and geography, biological and psychological responses—is the best way to bring color into our school's classrooms and corridors.


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Colour Studio Inc.; Consultants; Designers; Asia Pacific; Color + Design; Commercial / Architectural; Design; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America

Comment from Jesse Melton, (1/10/2017, 7:45 AM)

The problem with color in institutional buildings is that it's institutional. Meaning there's a reason behind the chosen colors and that's where it always goes off the rails. It's just like how new designers overthink their decisions and lose touch with the instincts that drew them to the role to begin with. Just like that except with too much of a budget, an unsound set of guidelines and goals that nobody on any committee can identify the source of.

I'm a huge fan of bold colors, color in general actually, but only for the sake of the colors and their appropriateness in the design. Deliberately embedding psychological manipulation into the pallet is sketchy to begin with but when the practice is 'institutionalized' the best you can hope for is a textbook example in architectural forensics books of the future. An easy example is the greenish color of corridor walls in hospitals, schools, Federal offices and housing projects from the 1970's - early '90's. Endless studies supported the colors as being calming and helpful in maintaining mental focus. The reality is the colors signify something has gone terribly wrong if you are in a place where the colors are used. You're working at a school and an accident sends you to the hospital and after rehab you are jobless so you apply for aid at a government office and end up in a housing project where desperation eventually has you robbing a police station. Whatever it is, all you know is that everything has gone pear shaped and they'll probably fix you up for your funeral in a room with the same colors.

Color is hugely important, but if it's overthought it is as dangerous as grinding up Xanax to add to the school food.

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