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Intentional or Incidental? Taking ‘Color’ Seriously

TUESDAY, JUNE 14, 2011

By Barbara Jacobs

Inside or out…why should “color” be the subject of specific, intentional consideration?

It’s surprising. Even though color is such a great part of our experience in the responses we have to an object and even to an environment, color is often, surprisingly, left as an afterthought in the design process. Is it because we, as individuals, don’t usually take conscious notice of the everyday colors and patterns around us?

Typically, the colors we take note of are only those that stand out for some reason, something we identify as either “beautiful” or “unpleasant” in the extreme.

What’s a good time to think about color?

Whether it’s a building’s exterior or interior, all building materials have color—one way or another. At the foundation, and something we all probably agree on, is that many materials have naturally-occurring color selections and others use surface applications that can be either selected or created for custom design.

So, what becomes most important is how we choose to select and apply these materials and colors for the best possible results.

Since the properties of color are so important to us as humans who—for the most part—occupy a built environment, the best time to start to consider the part that “color” will play in a building is at the outset of any design process.

You might believe that color is only an aesthetic concern. Or, you might be one of the emerging group of design professionals who believe that our color selections can actually make a significant difference not only in what we think of a building or a place, but even in how we feel when we’re in a space. The myriad, far-reaching effects of color are detailed considerations on yet another level of the importance of our color selections.

An approach to color design 

I like to think of color as an aspect of a building that can help create a supportive and healthy environment. This philosophy that I call of “supportive color design” is a basic way of looking at color design that can apply across the board to any kind of building, in exterior, interior, from health care to offices, retail settings, residential developments, and more personally in our own homes.

This philosophy is applicable to and compatible with any size building, for any purpose, and in any budget. Fundamentally, supportive color design  based on the idea that our color selections are driven by the needs of the occupants.

The key to successful color design is in understanding  how to use color to meet those needs in a way that is not based on recipes, pop culture, or generalizations. Each setting is unique, and deserves an approach that is not a cookie-cutter solution but a very site-and-use-specific consideration.

For example

The principals of an orthodontic dental practice in Cambridge, Mass., called upon me to create a color palette for all the diverse materials for the entire office. The image shown here is of the reception area, where the materials included walls (paint), existing brick, and a new design for the reception desk that was extended on to the brick wall.

Barbara Jacobs color and design

The owners wanted to create an environment where patients and visitors of all ages would be comfortable and feel positive about being in the dental office. They wanted their office to have an upbeat, energized feeling that was not overwhelming or “over the top,” yet exhibited a creative and interesting flavor to help create an enjoyable experience. Concern for the owner’s budget was also a factor. 

The colors, textures and overall placement and design of the colors and materials were selected with these goals in mind.

Color, Shape, Light: Don’t wait for paint!

Color is light, and color + light create visual shape in space. A professional lighting designer who can interpret your needs can be a valuable addition to your team to attain the ideal results with any colors you select.

Considering color at any phase of a project is important. But ideally, starting as close to the beginning is best. Even in the conceptual phase—where the project goals are defined—can be very effective in setting the stage for a color palette even where your preferred natural materials are concerned.

Research has shown that color accounts for more than 60% of these responses. Wherever we go, color is part of our experience.

When the intention is to create the most effective spaces possible, selection of colors early in the process—specifically to complement the objectives of the occupants—will produce positive results that will be noticed and appreciated.

About the author

Architectural color consultant Barbara Jacobs is the originator of Barbara Jacobs Color and Design, a design and consultancy firm offering “integral color solutions for architecture, interiors and business.” She has been an IACC-accredited color consultant/designer since 2000 and an active member of IACC-NA (International Association of Color Consultants/Designers-NorthAmerica) since 1996, also serving as the newsletter editor for that organization (

Barbara has worked in the field of environmental color design since 1986. Her work has also included creating and installing decorative finishes in residential and commercial projects, consultation for product colors, and creating custom paint colors.

The website for Barbara Jacobs Color and Design is located at; Barbara also can be contacted at, 508-359-5753 or 508-472-8105.


Barbara Jacobs

Can we talk?...about color, that is. That’s our objective with this ongoing discussion—a Color Exchange, if you will—in this Durability + Design blog. Whether we know it or not, color affects all of us, in many ways. So let’s engage in this exchange and explore this mysterious and exciting subject of color, its effects, and its applications.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Color selection; Design

Comment from Mary Lawlor, (6/15/2011, 1:24 PM)

Barbara, you are right on with your “supportive color design” philosophy. It's refreshing to see more and more public and professional spaces portayng "the belief that our color selections can actually make a significant difference not only in what we think of a building or a place, but even in how we feel when we’re in a space". Thank you for your valued writings!

Comment from Carolyn Atkinson, (6/15/2011, 11:13 PM)

How many people are still of the opinion that at some end process a colour will correct all design errors?I spend a lot of time talking about the bones of a design and light- natural and artificial- and function and form and how colour influence is a driving force.A lot of my clients front up with design and all that is involved in their choices and ask 'what colour should we use?' - almost as 'tail end Charlie' comes the colour! It seems like pure sense and good practice to me to ask about colour, and the overall ambiance required at the onset of a design process. Colour must always embellish, support and in some cases even nurture the design. Our view of space is emotionally attached to how we feel about colour selections we or our clients make.But - design without colour is a empty shoebox devoid of the shoes.

Comment from Chris Haught, (6/16/2011, 10:03 AM)

As a residential painter, I agree with your philosophy. I posted your blog on mine here,

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