Ecological Valence Theory and the Use of Color in Design

Why do we prefer certain colours to others? Why do some colours make us feel happy and energised while other colours make us feel agitated or sad?

The Ecological Valence Theory

Object and colour association – a concept that Palmer and Schloss have called the “ecological valence theory” – contribute to our natural colour preferences and rule our everyday decisions, whether we might be shopping, eating or decorating a home.

Every day, we are subconsciously affected by the colours which surround us. Depending on our personal visual experiences, colours can provoke different emotions within different people, which can naturally affect our mood and behaviour. For example, the more pleasure and positive affect an individual receives from experiences with objects of a certain colour, the more they will tend to like that colour1 and choose objects of a similar colour in the future. On the other hand, a colour can trigger a negative emotional response when an individual is faced with an object that they associate with an unpleasant experience.

Schloss and Palmer proposed in their seminar study in 2010, that people in general are naturally more attracted to colours associated with significant everyday objects that tend to evoke positive emotions.2

  • Blues and cyans are usually positively associated with clear bright sky or clean water. These associations can naturally have a positive effect on an individual as they are reminded of calming and relaxing experiences.
  • Shades of green are generally associated with healthy vegetation; reminding an individual of our natural outdoor environment. These responses can help strengthen our innate connection with nature and evoke a feeling of calm.
  • Red is generally associated with fruits such as an apples or berries – again, helping to strengthen a connection with our natural surroundings.
  • Bright colours including white and yellow are usually associated with the sun, evoking feelings of happiness and warmth.

It’s interesting that all of these associations are with natural elements that are indicators of a healthy environment for survival. According to the Savannah hypothesis,3 humans tend to seek out colours which are within the colour palette of nature when it’s thriving.4 However, colours such as brown, grey and dark yellow are frequently associated with unpleasant visual experiences involving dying vegetation, rotting food or faeces; therefore they tend to provoke a negative emotional response. These dull tones are commonly found within an urban environment which lacks healthy vegetation.

Using colour in spaces

We have mentioned positive and negative responses to colours – but how can colours be incorporated into the spaces we inhabit daily in order to create healthy environments, which can help boost our mood, concentration and creativity?

Within a working environment, applying reds and blues to surfaces in periphery vision can boost an individual’s concentration and creativity.5 When an individual views a red object, physiologically, muscular strength is increased as well as heart rate, which can help to instantly improve concentration and work performance.6 The colour blue can have the opposite effects on an individual: it can provoke a sense of calm and help to lower blood pressure. Such impact can help the individual to enter a relaxed state of mind, which can naturally boost their creativity.

Medium shades of green can also support enhanced creativity because of its common association with elements of nature and our environment.7 By simply adding a plant to your desk space can instantly help to reduce stress levels and boost creativity. Generally, bright colours such as white, yellow and orange have the ability to excite and energise an individual, which can help to boost their motivation and enthusiasm within a workplace.

A key element of the biophilic design approach is the use of natural analogues – the use of natural materials, patterns, textures and colours within the built environment. Ecological Valence Theory can explain our colour preferences and the benefits they can bring to physical, psychological and cognitive well-being.

Why not try adding a touch of colour to your working environment?



1, 2 Palmer, S., & Schloss, K. (2010). An ecological valence theory of colour preference.

Orians, G.H. & J.H. Heerwagen (1992). Evolved Responses to Landscapes. In J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (555-579). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Human Spaces: The global impact of Biophilic Design in the workplace, p. 32

Mehta, R., & Zhu, R. (2009). Blue or red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Science, 323, 1226-1229.

Elliot, A., & Aart, H. (2011). Perception of the colour red enhances force and velocity of motor output. Emotion, 445-449.

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2 responses to “Ecological Valence Theory and the Use of Color in Design”

  1. Sunil maniramka says:

    Good article.
    However tend to disagree that colour browns can b depressing.
    A cup of coffee , the vast landscape of barren earth , mountains desert under the blazing sun r not depressing at all.

  2. […] Oliver Heath Design, we use a colour theory called Ecological Valence Theory. It suggests we react well to colours we’ve previously had positive experiences of. Positive […]

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