“The effect of beautiful objects, of variety of objects and especially of brilliance of colour is hardly at all appreciated. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect. Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery.”
-Florence Nightingale on Nursing, 1859.
Colours impact our lives in more ways than one. Manifested in all seven forms of art, colours play a key role in brand recognition and remind us of places – airports, hotels, a holiday, modes of transport and festivals. While colours of the sky, the trees and the flowers bring us closer to nature, each colour carries with it a specific memory, feeling and a power to influence. So, when asked what comes to their mind when they think of hospitals, most people talk about a peculiar smell, the openness or darkness of that space and a particular mention of colours – white, blue green and the morbid grey
The qualities we look for in our homes are nurture, safety, a feeling of being looked after, being welcomed and reassured in moments of stress and anxiety. These feelings make us ‘feel at home’ and always play a key role in the healing processes. And quite interestingly, these feelings also form the subtle clues to heal when we are away from home. So, there must be ways where clinical and institutional, hospital environments can be designed to nurture the same feelings to initiate the healing process. However, a typical patient’s journey, within a hospital, mostly starts from a parking space or some dark, cold underground parking which lacks thoughts of design, detail and lighting. Even new visitors experience stress and anxiety when they enter a hospital environment. And yes, waiting and reception areas often leading to a maze of corridors, offer no comfort or sense of ease at all from the constant buzz. Is it something to do with colours? May be, yes.
Colours, when carefully explored, can be the best tools to assist orientation and finding way to the correct services. A monotonous and dreadful trip to a hospital can be transformed into a healing journey by using a narrative in attractive art-work. The goal should be a journey which is a poetic reminder of a soothing, safe haven outside where each patient hopes to return.
Being fascinated by the marvels of nature and still preferring familiar settings to new changes, we humans have a unique way of coordinating or associating things to a pattern in our lives. Have you noticed that road systems all over the world follow three basic colours? Red, amber and green are worldwide colours for traffic management. This coding makes driving on the wrong side of the road in a different continent easy when the mind is pre-conditioned to decide ‘when’ to stop and ‘when’ to go. The next decision is to know where to go and modern technology now has global positioning devices to solve that dilemma.
Colours can further alleviate the stress factor by using a generic colour coding or zoning of various patient services with clear graphics and signage. For instance – upper body treatments related to mind, chest, lungs and heart could have a pleasing, refreshing yellow colour used carefully as signage, artwork, flooring patterns or toning wall patterns in corridors. Wall to wall landscapes, backdrops, mood lighting, ceiling art and wake up lights are some of the many solutions which add both surprise and fun element to the already drab and monotonous environments. Likewise, treatment areas for physical ailments related to lower body, hypertension, liver, diabetes can have dominance of green tones for cooling effects. Kids and maternity have the flexibility to use a variety of colours – adding playful scenes of birds perching on branches, balloons, bubbles and kites. An indication of sandy, pebbled path and meadow coloured flooring patterns with right textures is always a happy reminder of some memorable, happy holidays. Blue colour has been observed to add more depressing feelings in the already disturbed minds is a clear ‘no’ for mental health areas where soothing tones of cream, yellow and orange add more freshness as symbols of new life. Pathology, physiotherapy and radiology which always form the backbone of diagnosis can be zoned together with similar dedicated colour schemes making them easy to locate.
Art on its own improve the hospital environment, enhance working lives and improve patients’ experience. Apart from general artwork such as paintings, murals, photographs, textile hangings or sculptures for display, art could also include performers, dancers and musical artists to support future events around the hospitals. Charities and organisations like ‘Paintings in Hospitals’ which loan artwork for healthcare organisations should be encouragedas a better alternative to relax the minds than blank walls and ceilings with TV blaring for distraction. A survey of the patient’s preferences and their interests in art, colours, hobbies and music is a good start to define a beautiful facility, integrating treatment with healing. A simple, homely gesture of providing empty photo frames for family pictures and well chosen tapestry in patient rooms is another way to get better. Budding photographers can be encouraged to display their work for limited periods on a shared canvas providing a flexible and ever-changing landscape, incurring very little installation costs.
Green colour has always been associated with nature, growth and recovery. Tiled surgical suites, patient rooms, clothing and instruments, all went green in the post World War Two era and need revival. Original art, warm and energizing colour schemes of soft yellows and oranges balanced with wider neutral palette, personal photographs and well-defined green spaces always break the monotony of the typical clinical environment. A few minutes of break when carefully designed as a ‘welcome’ break can work wonders like a power nap uplifting morale and productivity.
Let us not forget the ancient Egyptians who mastered colours for cures. In the Greek city of Heliopolis, they even had the City of the Sun. When the sunlight entered the building, its rays split into colours of the spectrum and the individual colours were ‘conducted’ into different rooms where people would bathe in the colour that their state of health required. Yoga and Ayurveda from India talk about tuning in ‘chakras’ – the seven ‘rainbow coloured’ energy centres along the spine. These centres are actually the seven endocrine glands sending chemical messengers, the ‘hormones’ which are linked to immunity and circadian rhythms in our bodies.
Colours do bring out responses in the body by energizing and healing it. Modern research has also shown that moods, health and well being are affected by colour therapy. Mental health experts are talking about relaxed ‘colour-breathing’ by focusing a patient’s attention to breathing and making them think about the colour his body needs. Conclusively, a healthy mind is a healthy body because energizing the mind has direct effects on the body. Design and colours are not just tools for treatment but when made to work hand in hand in healthcare environments they initiate healing mechanisms and would surely promote good health in the very near future.
Happiness and abundance is all for you – in your space and your mind… just give it a chance!
Yamini Kumar is an architect believing in integrated design approach to heal built environments. Creativity to her means hope, expression and therapy.
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Copyright photo courtesy: Chetan Somani, Arch-aid and Aditya Kashikar, West Hertfordshire NHS Trust