Color Chameleon

Color psychology in design and how shifting shades can change your mood

The world isn’t always black and white, there are always shades of grey. And blue and green and purple and tan and ochre and puce and cerulean and...

With so many options—limitless options, in fact—color is indeed a powerful tool. You can use color to change the size and shape of furniture pieces, as well as whole rooms. You can even use it to change your mood.

Of course, with so many options, it’s also not surprising that many people find themselves in a state of color paralysis—colors, combinations, hues, shades, tints, complementary, analogous, intermediate…it can seem overwhelming, and make you want to retreat to the land of safe and soft neutrals.

But if you arm yourself with a little basic knowledge about the psychology of colors, and have an understanding of how the different color families can affect mood, you can begin your exploration with confidence.

Adding a splash of color to various rooms around your house could help brighten your spirits, calm you down, or get you motivated. Before committing to a color, Keri Olson, owner of Twin Cities-based KOR Interior Design, has some advice.

“When you are selecting colors, get samples so that you can view the color in the room and at different times of the day.  A north facing room will make a color look much cooler than the same shade in a south facing space.”

The colors here will help get you started in your exploration.


Red is never boring…it can be used to amp up the energy of a room, instill warmth, inspire conversation, and even stimulate appetite. 

Those traits make red a great choice for common areas like living and dining rooms, where drawing people together and stimulating conversation are paramount. (Ever wonder why red is such a common color in restaurants? Now you know!)

But don’t rule it out for some of the cozier spaces in your home like a reading nook or a bedroom. Lovers of this vibrant color take heart…red can still find a place in quiet spaces if used in the right hue and in the right amount.

Where pink-reds can be cooler, and orange-reds energetic, reds with brown or purple undertones are warmer and can make a space feel more intimate and calming. And while four red walls could be an overpowering experience, red as an accent, paired with soft grey and magenta can make a room feel cozy and soft.



Appropriately, orange combines some of the traits of red and yellow. It is energizing and exciting like red, and warm and friendly like yellow. A true orange conveys fun, joy, and playfulness and encourages social interaction in an easy-going, conversational way  

It is frequently used in kitchens and dining rooms to foster a welcoming atmosphere and to stimulate the appetite, and encourage feelings of comfort and abundance. It's also popular in workout rooms because of its capacity to motivate and inspire activity.

While most people think of tangerine orange as "the" orange, the color can range from terra cotta and deep rust to soft salmon, peach, and apricot. While the darker, richer colors are commonly found in kitchens and gathering spaces, the softer, paler oranges can make a good choice for a calm, romantic, and relaxing bedroom.


Yellow is an extremely bright and positive color. The wonder color, yellow has also been shown to increase metabolism, activate memory, stimulate the nervous system, promote communication, and spark creativity.

Its inherent energy means it is perfect for the kitchen. Not only will it make your room appear sunnier, but it will also invigorate you with much-needed energy at the end of a long day. It also can create an illusion of space and a welcoming feel for cramped areas such as an entryway.

But while it is versatile…it is also a tricky color to get right, and subtle differences can make for dramatic mood effects.

For hallways or basement rooms without natural light, a strong, saturated shade of yellow can create the illusion of light. But something that strong can be too much for a space calling for an approachable, timeless look. Consider a more muted shade for a kitchen, nursery, or study.


The color of nature, balance, and harmony, green combines the refreshing quality of blue and the cheerfulness of yellow. Because it goes well with so many other colors, it can be used almost anywhere. In fact, while some colors can have a dramatic (or disruptive) effect and are best kept in check with other colors, green can stand alone, and also works well as part of a tonal ensemble. 

To bring spring to a patio, try Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2017: Greenery—talk about a blend of nature and color theory! Called “nature’s neutral,” Greenery is a fresh yellow-green that evokes revival, renewal, and reinvigoration. A versatile shade, it blends well with neutrals, brights, deeper shades, pastels, and metallics.

Want to relax? Green is highly conducive to comfort and restful sleep, which can come in handy at the end of a busy day. A neutral shade such as muted sage, celery, or a light pistachio can help you feel more peaceful and tranquil and is ideal for a bedroom. Or, try using a pale, seafoam green paired with crisp white in your bathroom for a relaxing, spa-like getaway.

In addition to its connection to the natural world, green is also associated with wealth, prosperity, and growth. If you want to create an impression or lend drama, some of the darker shades are quite striking. Try an emerald green to create an elegant look in a powder room or forest green to create a welcoming front door.


As vast as the sky and as serene as a deep lake; as regal as a peacock and as stalwart as your true-blue best friend... Chances are, no matter what mood you're looking to engender, there's a blue for you.

Blue is considered calming, soothing, and relaxing…as well as being a color of strength and dependability. It is also said to be excellent for creativity, energy, and healing.

This adaptable primary color can go well in many rooms, depending on the hue you choose and what you pair it with.

Get inspired, boost brain activity, and increase productivity in your home office with a high-energy shade of blue like sky blue or sapphire. 

Engaging blues, such as cerulean, lapis lazuli, turquoise, or Classic Blue (another Pantone Color of the Year) are great for gathering spaces such as living rooms, home bars, or porches.

Associated with purity, cleanliness, and water, blue is an ideal bath color--brighten it up with a crisp, clean light shade, or add undertones of green for a spa-like feel.

Harness the calming restorative qualities of a light blue with a touch of grey for the bedroom. The grey undertones help warm the blue and prevent it from becoming chilly or overly pastel. Further warm the space with neutrals such as chocolate brown, deep plum, or warm greys and taupes, or with natural fibers like sisal, sea grass, jute, or wood.


Luxe, laid-back, and lighthearted: purple can play many roles. 

In its deepest, richest incarnations such as eggplant or violet, purple is dramatic and sophisticated. The color of royalty, it’s associated with luxury, creativity, and opulence. It makes an excellent accent or secondary color, and can add depth and drama to your room. 

“If you want to cozy up a room, dive into deep colors,” explains Olson. “Consider painting the wall and trim all one color, always painting the millwork in an enamel with a higher sheen level.”

On the other hand, the lightness of lavender creates a soothing atmosphere. After a stressful day, this gentle shade can help calm the nerves and allow relaxation. Try it in the living room to lend softness and an air of informality to the space. If you have a hard time unwinding at bedtime, consider painting your walls lavender to create a peaceful haven that will help you sleep more deeply.

The Neutrals 


Black is the absence of all color, and readily absorbs light. Using black as a wall color can give a feeling of mystery, drama, or elegance. It can also be paired with metallics in a sleek and edgy design. Using black as an accent color is a great way to highlight other colors and make them pop or to add depth to a room. It is best used in controlled situations, and in smaller doses, however, to avoid coming across as broody or seeming like a permanent Halloween display. 


The foil to black, white reflects light and is the presence of all colors. It connotes purity, cleanliness, airiness, and serenity. White can be extremely calming and is ideal for creating an open, airy feel and making smaller rooms feel bigger. You can easily add pops of color to a white room in the form of bright furniture, tasteful artwork, or accent pillows.

And just as Olson talked about painting the wall and trim in the same deep color for a warm and cozy feel, this approach also works in reverse.

“Paint all walls and trim (doors and windows) in the same light color for an airy feel.  I particularly love this with stained wood floors,” says Olson.


A mainstay neutral color, brown has much of the same weight and drama as black, but is warmer and softer. It has elements of the red and yellow properties. Its associations with the earth and the natural world make it a solid, reliable color that blends with others. It can be used to highlight bright colors, like lime or tangerine; or can be paired with another soft color like sage to create an inviting, warm feel.


A perennial neutral favorite of designers, grey is highly versatile. A solid, weighty grey connotes strength and contemplation and can be an excellent choice for a den or office. On the other hand, a softer dove grey paired with plums and violets can create a delicate and soothing bedroom environment. 

You can glam up a dining room by pairing a charcoal grey ceiling with a bright red wall; go hip and trendy in your living room with slate grey paint and hints of chartreuse; or make a space earthy and inviting by pairing a cloud grey with other neutrals in the cream and brown colors, such as ecru, saddle, or fawn.

Neutrals aren't the staid choice you might think--they are great for people who like to redecorate frequently, as you can easily change the look of a room simply by swapping out accent pieces.

Even the dreariest day can seem brighter if you decorate with the right wall colors. Trends come and go; the most important factor to consider is how the colors make YOU feel when you are in your space.

“Here is what I wager,” says Olson. “Once you take the plunge and start to experiment with color you will experience your home in a whole new and colorful way.”

Whether you want to create a relaxing retreat, spark creativity, enhance conversation, or get motivated for the day…your color options are myriad. Use the suggestions listed above as a starting point to make over your house—and your mood.

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