/ 17 July 2008

Colour me happy

I have a problem: my office is painted magnolia. It doesn’t have red furniture. There are no blue streaks across the walls. At least my favourite pen is green — although I’m not sure that really counts.

Until last week, I thought a bland office was normal. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a bland office was part of what made it an office. But then I was converted to colour.

Colour at work, you see, is apparently not just some fluffy nonsense in recruitment brochures. In fact, the designer Kai Stania reckons that pretending colour doesn’t matter is naive. “You can’t say you don’t care about colour because colour affects you immediately –your mood, your ability to work — you can’t get rid of it,” he says.

Elsewhere in Europe, office colour is taken extremely seriously with regulations about what kinds you can use where. Until recently, for example, Stania says he’d never have introduced a bright white table top because the glare would be overwhelming (though now we stare at computers rather than desks, it is becoming fashionable).

So, how should we be using colour at work? Stania says it’s all about function and ratio. “If you want a space where people will have a quick meeting, you might use bright colours — people can only stand them for five minutes to half an hour, and that will influence the way they talk to each other in that space,” he says. “But in a meeting room, where you want to talk in detail, you don’t want it painted red (because unconsciously everyone will want to leave) or so bland that you fall asleep. It’s all about finding the appropriate use for the space.”

It all sounds logical, but does anyone in the real world take any notice of this stuff? Well, as it happens, accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) takes colour very seriously. So much so, it has a department devoted to it.

Anne Muirhead is the head of the future working environment team at PWC and says that colour is an essential part of figuring out how to create an environment in which people will want to spend time. “We spend a lot of time looking at trends and how people at school and university now — our future potential employees — might like to work,” she says. “We discovered that they didn’t want plain white or grey walls — they wanted an environment that affected them psychologically in a positive way.”

As a result, every time PWC refurbishes or opens a new office, employees attend workshops to help choose colours and to ensure every floor is different. Office manager Gordon McIntosh was involved in choosing colours for PWC’s Glasgow office. “Before, the office was rather drab with white walls. Now I have mainly yellows and blues — but it’s nice to go to another floor and find a completely different atmosphere,” he says. “It’s definitely made a difference to my work.”

Muirhead, whose office has also been redesigned, agrees. “The introduction of colour, and that people were given a choice, has made a measurable difference,” she says. “They have a sense of ownership and take care of the space better. But it also affects your mood — when I look up, I am staring at something designed to be calming or to help me feel more upbeat.”

But if you’re thinking you can persuade your boss to introduce a little sunshine yellow into your drab office world, you might want to think again. Professor Clare Johnston, head of textiles at the Royal College of Art and colour consultant to everyone from hardware store B&Q to department store Marks & Spencer, points out that most companies do take colour extremely seriously — just not in the workplace.

“Colour makes a huge difference to products of all kinds, and it can be a huge headache, because just as a wrong name can alienate people, so can the wrong colour,” she says. “But I’ve often had the experience of visiting a company I am advising and being horrified by the environment they expect people to work in.”

Getting colour taken seriously is not just difficult, it’s also risky: most companies reckon colour should be about branding. “It’s not bad to use brand colours in the office,” Kai Stania says, “it depends on the ratios in which you use them. If your colour is orange, then use it in your hall or lounge, but don’t use it in office spaces because people will become distracted.”

The very idea of an all-orange office makes me feel queasy. And then there’s the problem of getting all my colleagues to agree on a hue for the walls.

What is worse: office warfare or dingy walls? Which is why, although I’m sure a little blue here, a dab of yellow there and a ribbon of cerise on the ceiling might make all the difference to my working environment, I think I’m going to stick to magnolia.–