Managing Conflict with Color

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Conflict management is a fundamental part of our professional environments and color affects our psyche tremendously. Clash in a work environment is bound to happen – different people, backgrounds, and ideas on how to do things.

Disagreements impact work production tremendously, and not only for those who are frustrated; it also takes away time from those who have to manage the issues.

Blue or Red?

Color inherently has divisions, too, with categories like warm and cool, light and dark, and bright and subtle. It is also known that designing with certain colors can have measurable impacts on worker production and general contentment.

So, what if colors were designed around the workplace to aid us in conflict management?

Let’s imagine an environment in which color could be designed to meet the personal needs of each workstation, office, or community space. Colors could be selected by individuals or designed to make each person measurably happier in their work place. And, in doing so, color could lower the stress level and, therefore, conflict.

The impact of environment on productivity

Think back to how you studied while in school. If you ever crammed for an exam, maybe you needed absolutely no visual or audible distraction. But perhaps if you studied with friends, you worked best in a vibrant place like a bright, bustling coffee shop.

According to Nancy Kwallek, a professor at the University of Texas and specialist in color psychology, a bright red room will make you less productive if you are not able to “screen” out other diversions. Kwallek states “high screeners” and “low screeners” have very different needs for color design in their workplace.

“The three office color schemes employed” – Color in Office Environments

Those who are able to block out distractions well, work more efficiently in red / or highly contrasted and saturated rooms. Likewise,

If the [calming cool colored] office environment is inherently more relaxing, then high screeners may not experience enough arousal to reach a high level of productivity.” –Color in Office Environments by Nancy Kwallek

Therefore, if you work more efficiently in a coffee shop with your iPod playing instead of the quiet, white, workstation at the end of the row, that is definitely something to consider when thinking about productivity in commercial design. This defends the argument that today and in the future, the more individualized a worker’s space, the more productive a worker is. While designing, a variety of different colors to cater to different productivity needs is essential.

The impact of color on behavior

So we already know that the right environment can make us more productive, and that a workplace with fewer distractions borne from preventable conflicts could also improve output.

An underlying element of color is its ability to make people feel happier. In fact, scientists have been studying this for years.

In the early 1980s, Harry Wohlfarth and Catharine Sam from the University of Alberta studied 14 severely handicapped youth. The youths’ environment was originally painted with orange, white, beige and brown – all colors known to either be jarringly energetic or subdued.

But once the environment was changed to yellow and blue – colors known to evoke happiness and calmness – the children’s blood pressure dramatically dropped and their violent behavior decreased.

Selgas Cano Architecture Offices

Notably, when the original colors were painted back on the walls, aggressive behavior and blood pressure increased again.

Resources behind the color:

Of course, it doesn’t take a study like this to confirm what we already personally know – that color can affect our psyche and, consequently, our behavior. (After all, just imagine how you feel after weeks of dreary, gray days during a particularly bleak stretch of winter).

But scientists have been able to hone in on which colors affect us in what ways, and how the body physically reacts to color as well.

Another recent study by Kathie Engelbracht at Perkins and Will highlights the physical reaction the body can have from color:

“It has been found that when color is transmitted through the human eye, the brain releases the hormone, hypothalamus, which affects our moods, mental clarity and energy level.” – The Impact of Color on Learning

The fact that there is both a psychological effect and a physical effect from colors in environments makes a designer’s job much more complex. Many designers have learned yellow is the color to provoke happiness in the human brain. But we cannot paint every workplace yellow. (Really.)

Branding, monotony, and issues with finding one’s individual psychological and physical color needs prevents this. Yellow, though a great joyful hue, needs to be balanced with purples and greens for composure. Reds and oranges energize us and blues make us feel influential. Deep blues make us feel austere and influential, both feelings adding high confidence.

All colors are ingredients to the perfect cocktail of happiness hues. The design question we need to answer is where to paint which colors for each individual worker’s happiness?

The more the future workplace varies, the more designers have an important job to design towards the individual. Workspaces designed with color can enhance your happiness and production, which means the less stress, disagreement, and conflict management you will have.

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  1. Great article Valerie. I am definitely a “low-screener” and glad I have total control over my office environment. Creams, glass and natural greenery abound!


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