Have you seen the scene in Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed movie, where Bowman finds himself in a bedroom built by aliens in a remote spot in the universe? Or the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce meets God in an empty office tower? Or the video of John Lennon’s iconic song, Imagine, where he is playing the piano in a large mansion?
These are stunning scenes with a unique atmosphere. They feel magical and surreal, pure and distant, far from our everyday reality.
And these places are WHITE all around – improbably white.
The colour white has interesting qualities; it’s pure and clean, and can be really beautiful. At the same time, too many white surfaces can make a space feel sterile and unnatural … You are rarely surrounded by whiteness in nature, unless you’re in a snow field or in the fog, in which case you probably feel a bit cut off from reality anyway.
Interestingly, when it comes to picking colours for office walls, the most commonly chosen paint colour is white. Admittedly, it’s a safe choice; everyone knows what white walls will look like once painted. It’s a neutral colour, so nobody hates it and it doesn’t trigger intense emotional responses. It doesn’t clash with any other colours, and it makes a room feel more spacious.
When choosing office furniture, decision-makers often carry on with the pattern, filling up their white rooms with white workstations and white storage units.
Some of these office spaces more closely resemble hospitals, laboratories or space stations, rather than workspaces which are supposed to energise and inspire people. But this is not just a matter of sentiment …
Environments dominated by white can create tangible problems.
White spaces can be understimulating – or in other word, boring – making people restless, emotional, and less able to concentrate. (These reactions are largely similar to being in overstimulating environments). They can also dampen creativity, and make people more risk-averse as well as colder towards each other. Have you noticed that in bright white rooms people tend to be more self-conscious and talk less?
Furthermore, people working in offices with white surfaces all around them often suffer from eye strain, and are more likely to experience headaches and nausea.
White certainly has its place, but when it comes to designing spaces for people, it’s best to make it a backdrop, rather than an all-encompassing feature. Metaphorically speaking, it should be like the space between the notes in music.
So if you prefer to have white walls, bring your space to life with colourful decoration, plants and other eye-catching items.
A good example is the office of JobAdder, a software company whose brand values include ‘white, spacious and clean’. The user interface of their software has lots of white in it, and so does their office space. However, their space is far from sterile; the white walls and desks are well complemented by bright coloured furniture, lively indoor plants, as well as a bar style lunch area and a domestic style break space, which are both dominated by timber.
Stanford d.school’s ‘White Room’ is another interesting example. It’s a small enclosed space in the campus where design students go to generate and exchange new ideas. All walls, and even the floor of this room is coated with whiteboard paint. In this room, all surfaces act as a blank canvas, and the real features are student’s scribbles and sketches of early ideas.
To sum it up: choose white with purpose, not just because it’s safe.
Enjoy white, but remember that white is most beautiful when applied in moderation. And make sure you don’t miss out on the joy of being surrounded by a range of colours – they all have their own meanings, and can enhance the ambience of your workspace and influence people in their unique ways.