Using Color in Your Wayfinding

Nov. 5, 2018

Making sure visitors can easily navigate a building is the most important aspect of wayfinding. But if you’re thinking of a new wayfinding plan, there are a couple of things you should know first.

An important aspect of any building is wayfinding, or the physical characteristics of a space that helps the user figure out their way around. The last thing any building owner or facilities manger wants is for guests or tenants to roam around, confused and frustrated while trying to find their destination.

While there are many ways to create wayfinding in your facility, there are a few color considerations to incorporate into your plans.

Color Based on Age

It may seem juvenile to think of things like “pink is for girls, blue is for boys,” and while there’s a push back against gendered colors, preferences vary between age groups.

(Photo: Berges Family Girl Scouts Program Center—a collaborative learning environment for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri)

Studies have shown that color preference by gender begins to fade in the 18-22 age group and for the most part vanishes by the age of 61, for those between the ages of 8 and 12, there is a significant difference in preference.

I Hear Design Podcast

Royce Epstein, a+d design director of Mohawk, discusses millennial pink with EiC Kadie Yale in this latest episode of the interiors+sources interior design podcast I Hear Design.

Over the last several years, pink has made its way into the design industry—but why?

Listen to Epstein and Yale discuss its origin story as a gender descriptor, why it’s so prevalent, and how long designers can expect it to stick around. 

If a building is used primarily for school-aged children, understanding and utilizing gendered colors is important, particularly if there is any need for separating the sexes. For example, using pink or using reds which have a purple tone in it for a boys area and blue or yellow-toned reds in a girls area could cause mix-ups that are far more embarrassing for young children than adults.

Over the age of 18, however, the need for gendered colors typically disappears. Individuals may still have a strong preference towards particular colors, but they are less likely to use specific colors to delineate where they should go.

[See before & after photos: Berges Family Girl Scouts Program Center]

However, if a space is still split by gender, there has been found a minor trend of women preferring colors which have tones that are red-purple (often “warm” tones) and colors from red to green, while men have a preference towards colors from blue to green.

Designing for Those Over 65

It seems somewhat obvious when pointed out, but as someone ages, their ability to see colors as vibrantly is decreased. Interior designers working in retirement communities and senior living will oftentimes wear sunglasses when looking at colors to mimic the amount of saturation-loss their end users experience when seeing a hue.

There may not be a gendered color preference for those over the age of 65, but it’s important to use hues that are different enough that they don’t begin to look the same. Using a similar color to point out spaces on either side of the building from one another can cause unnecessary stress if the main user is over the age of 65.

Warm vs Cool Tones

Primary (red, yellow, blue) and secondary (orange, green and purple) colors have shades within them depending on how they are mixed. A tone will be neutral if the color is pure, meaning only one or two colors in equal amounts are used to create it. For example, pure red on its own is neutral, as is a green which is made up only of equal parts of yellow and blue. (Photo: Mohawk Group)

But there are so many shades outside of those six hues, so when a color is mixed with a higher ratio of one primary color, it appears either “warm” or “cool”.

Warm colors are made with more red or yellow in the mix; cool colors are made with more blue.

This is a basic way of describing color theory, but unless one is an expert at choosing color palettes, it’s a good rule of thumb to choose all of the colors within either warm or cool tones.

This is particularly true when it comes to spaces that are made for children. While studies have shown kids don’t show preference to cool or warm tones as a whole, from a young age, humans begin to choose either cool or warm and tend to keep their palettes along those tones.

[Related: Do These 5 Things When Master Planning]

Warm and cool colors can, of course, be mixed in an interior, but keeping to one tone helps harmonize a space.

This goes for neutral shades as well, such as grays or beige. Most have had experiences where they’ve used a gray, white, or beige that they like for walls, flooring, and furniture, but accents that they think should work in the space suddenly seem to clash. Why, when blue seems to go with gray, does this set up not work?

The How and Why of Red and Blue States

As the 2018 midterm election results approach, why is it that some states are called “red” and others are called “blue”? Looking at the psychology of color, can associations be made between how each party characterizes themselves and their values?


Oftentimes, this is caused by the person not realizing that the neutral they’ve chosen has either a warm or cool tone, then includes accents that are the opposite.

Choosing one tone and keeping with it throughout the project can help make the interior seem more cohesive, including which colors for wayfinding are chosen.

Wayfinding by Brand

Branding is in no way new. It first became a standard part of business in the early 20th century, and increased relevancy in the mid-century as companies like IBM and Mobil hired renowned graphic designers to create their branding strategy.

(Photo: Moss Adams office in La Jolla, Ca., designed by ID Studios. Móz metal counter fronts in Khaki with a rectilinear pattern engraved on the surface to mimic tiles.)

Today, branding has expanded beyond logo and typography to include color; few can deny that when they look at the relevancy of hues like “Tiffany Blue”.

Incorporating brand colors within wayfinding, whether there is one or many tenants in a building, is the quickest way to get someone on their way as their mind already connects the company with a specific color.

Mood and Atmosphere

There’s a reason why emergency exits, stop signs, and first responder lights are red.

Of the many color-receptors in our eyes, approximately 64 percent have evolved to register the color red.

The reason is due to biology. In nature, red typically signifies a danger that needs to be recognized: many red plants and berries are poisonous; blood—either your own, that of an ally, or that of an enemy—is red, allowing one to see if they or their ally needs help, or whether their enemy is incapacitated; the red of a fire means either danger or a social gathering.

[Related: Human-Centric Approach to Lighting]

Because of the way in which humans evolved to be aware of things that are red, the color evokes a physiological response. When seeing red, one’s heart rate and breathing increases, as well as their aggression, testosterone levels and sense of urgency.

Locations within a space which require immediacy, such as an immediate care clinic within a healthcare compound or an emergency meeting space, should utilize red, whether via paint on a wall or the color the words are printed in on a sign.

Similarly, it takes more light bouncing off of the color yellow into the eye for the brain to register the hue. The increased lighting can tire the eyes more easily, but the brightness makes it so that it’s easier to see the color immediately.

Conversely, blue and green tend to calm and relax people because of their appearance in nature as a healthy ecosystem: ponds are blue when they’re clean of pollutants and green plants are healthy and thriving.

What’s more: only two percent of the cones in the human eye are used to register blue, so the eye doesn’t become fatigued by overuse.

When planning wayfinding, take into consideration the mood and atmosphere you want your space to give off. If reaching the destination is of immediate importance, the use of bright reds and yellows are going to be more noticeable; if guests should feel more relaxed in reaching their destination, calming tones are better to use.

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About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Architecture & Design Expert

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School.

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