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Orange is the New Black

Organisational Culture

I work with companies to help them get the maximum return from their learning environments, and not surprisingly, when looking at the design the choice of colour is an important one.  But it is not simply a case of choosing from the corporate colour palette, what is cheapest, or most fashionable.

Human beings have a relationship with colour, consciously and unconsciously; it plays with our moods and is said to impact on our performance. This provides us with a wealth of information on each colour in the visible spectrum, and gives me a lot of what I need to identify the palette best suited to achieve the client’s brief.  But in my world, as well as considering how a colour scheme can support a learning strategy I also have to consider how this will marry with the colours of the client’s brand, and that of the competition too!

Our Relationship with Colour

Frank Mahnke, recognised colour expert says that we have a relationship with colour, and it is a progressive one, influenced firstly at a biological and unconscious level.  We are then swayed by its symbolic, cultural and fashion status, before we contemplate it on an individual basis1. 

So what then of orange?

Despite being adjacent to red on the colour spectrum orange doesn’t have the same biological or unconscious ‘alert’ trigger.  And on a conscious level we associate it with vitamin C, and being fit and healthy.  Culturally our association with orange plays it mostly safe and has “virtually no negative cultural or emotional association.”2

Of course colour goes in and out of fashion, and as we enter the autumn months we often see an increase in orange hues. But this year, more than most it has strutted its way down the catwalk too.  This will likely sway personal preference, and people may well be more drawn to it more than usual. But the problem with ‘coming into fashion’ means that it will go back ‘out of fashion’ before long!

The Physical Power of Colour

Light from the sun travels in waves, and when it reaches an object it reflects back as the visible colour that we see (and associate with the object), and the rest is absorbed as energy, which is said to have an influence on us.  Applying this theory to the colour orange we can consider the therapeutic contribution it makes to the learning experience.

The three ‘ lower ‘ [frequency] colours of yellow, orange and red are in Colour Therapy Terms called “magnetic” and generally these are warming and activating colours.3

The warming energy that orange radiates is thought to encourage stimulation in all forms, physical, mental and social.  Interestingly is also said to stimulate the appetite too, which could suggest why it is seen in various shades on the walls of some restaurants and cafes.

But what about learning spaces, and how colour can support the learning experience?

In a recent survey of L&D professionals 96% of those who responded agreed or strongly agreed that there had been times when the environment had had a negative impact on the learning.  Yet in contrast 93% of the same audience said that painting walls and furnishings in ‘learner-friendly’ colours would help to achieve a highly successful learning experience4.

So, would orange be classed as a ‘learner -friendly’ colour?

Well, because of it’s stimulating properties it’s a good colour for social and collaborative spaces.  And as a mental stimulant you can also use it to draw out people’s creativity5 too.

Furthermore, orange is said to put people in an optimistic mood, awakening self-confidence, so this is great for supporting people as they step out of their comfort zones.

Like any colour, it is all about balance. Too pale, and it can appear weak and ineffectual; too bold, and it can be overbearing and can actually repel us; there is a vast range of options between bright, zesty mango and creamy, orange frosting.  The watch-out with orange is that too much of it can “over stimulate and lead to nervousness and restlessness”6.  Everything in moderation.

Corporate Identity

Outside of the learning environment there is the added complexity of the colour association with corporate identity; the client’s own and that of the competition.  The client may be happy to inject a burst of warming orange if it is a phone company of the same name or a major DIY chain.  But if the corporate colours are significantly different, or worse still, they represent the competition, then discussions need to be had before anyone opens the paint lid!

When I worked for Tesco I supported the redesign of their learning academy.  They could have rejected orange outright because of its association with a major competitor, but instead recognized that a splash of orange here and there, with the calm and reflective tones of blue and green would create an outstanding learning space.  And they were right, it did!

To use orange or not?

I think orange is a great option for learning spaces: warm, reassuring, social and creative.  It has very little negative connotation, consciously or unconsciously.  However too much of it can have negative effect, may conflict with corporate identity (depending on the client) and whilst currently enjoying a centre stage is likely to go out of fashion soon enough.   So I would opt for small doses of this citrus shade, as a secondary or accent colour, to get all the health benefits without any of the pips!


If you are interested in finding out more about Colette’s expertise in this area, connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.


Sources and References:

Hornung, David (2014). Colour. A Workshop for Artists and Designers (2nd Ed,) Laurence King Publishing, London

[1] https://iaccna.com/ (5/10/15)

[2] Mahnke, Frank, H. & Mahnke, Rudolf, H. (1993). ‘Colour and Light in Man-Made Environments’. Chapman and Hall, England.

[3] http://www.colourtherapyhealing.com/colour/colour_pyramid.php(30/9/15)

[4] 93% from a total of 50 L&D professionals who responded to a detailed survey on PhysLearning Environments by Colette Wall, 2015.

[5] http://www.colourtherapyhealing.com/colour/orange.php (2/10/15)

[6] http://www.lifescript.com/well-being/articles/u/understanding_the_feng_shui_color_guide.aspx (6/10/15)

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