Lobbying for color

June 29, 2015

Interior design professor studies effects of wall color on learning

Kathryn Grube, assistant professor of interior design, has received the 2015 Publications Award from Johnson County Community College for her research on the use of color on classroom walls.

Grube has published four scholarly articles on the topic, including, "Why Don’t We Have Colored Walls in Our Classroom?". A second article turned the question around and provided an answer with "Detrimental Effects of White Values in the Classroom."

Five new shades to consider

The real-life application of Grube’s research may be appearing at a wall near you. At JCCC, Grube presented the deans with a palette to make over the college's walls. She suggests one of five new colors: Vast Sky (sky blue), Jonquil (golden yellow) Tangerine (soft orange), Easy Green (muted green) and Hyacinth Tint (soft violet). A focus wall, which Grube calls a "teaching wall," draws the eye with a more saturated version of the same color.  (See inset for color examples.)

Color examples

"These color solutions promote academic achievement, boost morale and create a positive, innovative, and non-threatening place to learn where students enjoy going to class," Grube said.

Why white on walls?

JCCC, like many educational institutions and offices throughout America, favored white walls. Unfortunately, white walls may not be as conducive to learning and productivity as other colors within the visible spectrum, Grube said.

According to her research, plain old white doesn’t help with some key elements of learning, Grube said. In fact, colors within the proper spectrum with the appropriate amount of reflection, such as the ones she selected, can:

  • Create an enriched learning environment
  • Increase academic achievement
  • Improve both student and educator morale
  • Decrease vandalism
  • Decrease absenteeism
  • Create a secure and comfortable atmosphere for student learning

"White is a detriment to learning," she said. "White walls are proven to cause detrimental psychological effects, such as anxiety, disruptive behaviors, lack of focus, and depressive moods to students and educators that spend time within the space."

So why was white the default color for classrooms? Originally, white paint was seen as hygienic and helped reflect light before electric lighting was widely available. Since then, using white paint for classroom wall finishes has remained as a perpetual design tradition, but it's causing a disservice to educational potential, Grube said.

Misconceptions about white being right

Even though color research has repeatedly proven negative facts about white walls for over a century, white walls remain constant in schools because of a misperception largely due to tradition and misinformation about the increased cost of colors and ease of maintenance for white walls.

"There's no thinking involved, right? If something needs a touchup, you just go grab a can of white paint off the shelf and you're done," she said.

But her research shows that white needs more maintenance because it shows every spot and scuffmark. White also has a tendency to "gray" over time, which denies the psychological and physiological senses any real sensory feedback.

"There is also a misconception that white paint costs less," Grube said. "I have interviewed multiple painting contractors and discovered there is no cost difference in the product or installation based on the values of color recommended for classroom settings."

Paint with students in mind

Grube suggested her simple paint chart with colors proven to increase academic acumen.

"After all, the students and the community are the ones that should be targeted for benefit when it comes to any educational facility's goals," she said.

Ultimately, Grube would like to take her message of better student performance through color all the way to the President of the United States and have the unnecessary traditional design standard replaced with 100 years of evidence-based color research.

"I'm ready to change the standard nationally," Grube said. "Let's put some color on our classroom walls and better our educational outcomes. The time is overdue."