Hue, did you know?

Most of us that have been given the gift of sight experience something so unique to our existence, it’s hard to fathom a world without it. It is also something most of us don’t actively notice and just go about our day as normal, but without this perception experienced by us, our world would not be half as interesting as it is without COLOUR.

Colour is in its most simple explanation is “a property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light.” (Oxford, 2020)

Most living creatures use colour as a method of navigation, either to food, a place of shelter, camouflage or to avoid danger. The light waves humans can observe is known as the visible spectrum of light. The best way the visible spectrum is summarized is when light refracts through a prism, resulting in a rainbow. The observable colours are a result of the length of the light waves, red has the greatest wavelength with indigo having the shortest. (NASA, 2010)

You might think white and black are also colours, but technically they are shades. (Adobe) Add either one to one of the observable colours and you get a darker or lighter version of the colour. However, for the purpose of this article, we are going to use black and white as design colours, which exist, due to them being obtainable by adding pigment to a mixture.

Now that we know what colours are, how do they affect us?

The observation of colour can stir up both a visual and emotional response in us. Besides for our visual response to colour, we also have an emotional response that is rooted in our hypothalamus – the portion of our brain responsible for maintaining homeostasis, emotional and physical response. (Westland, 2017) Seeing the color orange, for example, can also stimulate mental activity that often stirs up a sensation of hunger. 

So, with the heavy lifting out of the way, let’s get to the fun part: colour in designing outdoor spaces!

There are a large number of studies that focus on our emotional responses to specific colours, so we will look at the most commonly discussed and apply them the outdoor design.

Let’s look at the popular design colours and their effects on us and how to use them in outdoor design as described by


Red is the warmest colour that can be observed by the human eye. It usually triggers emotional responses of danger, anger and caution. It can also be associated with passion and energy, and simply seeing the colour increases a person’s heart rate, making them more aware of a situation. So, if you have a particular focal element in a design, you can use red to draw attention to it.


Similar to red, orange evokes vitality and happiness, making people feel energised and enthusiastic. Use it to draw attention along a path or towards an object.


The colour of happiness and spontaneity, it makes people feel hopeful, optimistic and cheerful. Being the most energising warm colour, it can give you design energy and get people excited and often rush you along. Use too much and you might overwhelm the user. Use it to grab attention in an energetic and comforting way.


Symbolising growth, health and generating the feeling of optimism and freshness is usually associated with green. Foliage in the outdoor space does a fairly good job of relaxing and calming a person. Sometimes, painting a wall green when plants aren’t also works. Instead of using one shade, try and fading the green from dark to light from the lowest point to the highest point. This gives the impression of growth and making it seem like the highest point is growing, generating the feeling of optimism (frequently used in corporate spaces).


The sky and our oceans reflect blue light, so it is no surprise that this colour renders a feeling of calmness and spirituality. Often used in professional settings, it creates a feeling of togetherness. However, too dark blue can create a cold and disengaging space. Light blues tend to be more relaxing and friendly. Often, outdoor furniture and even outdoor pillows in a light blue can make a space feel calm and tranquil.


This combination of the coldest and the warmest colour creates a sense of relaxation and passion. Often, purple is associated with royalty and wealth. It is often seen on the clothing racks or associated with make-up brands. In the correct quantities, it oozes luxury but can look horribly tacky if overdone. Use light purples in larger application to create a romantic mysterious space.


Being playful and romantic with a touch of sensitivity and tenderness, pink is the colour one would think of if you had to describe the word ‘cute’. Use it as a combination colour to make a space charming and playful.


A staple in every pallet, brown evokes a sense of stability and being down to earth. It also emits emotions of friendliness and practicality. Often representing old fashioned and a sense of establishment, use it for large furnishings, tables, couches, or even perhaps a footbridge. Enforce the stability and dependability of your design with this colour.


This is the colour of power, elegance and simplicity. However, it is often also associated with mourning, fear and death. Some settings allow for this colour to display a space as professional and mysterious, but can also create an intimidating and unapproachable setting. This colour is often avoided in foyers and reception areas, but lighten the colour up a few notches and add some green to it and you will be surprised at the effect of this colour blocking duo.


Fresh, pure and clean. You won’t be wrong in assuming this colour represents purity and innocence. (Why do you think brides wear white traditionally?). One of my favourite colours to use in Mediterranean design, grey-green foliage with a sandstone hard surface finish creates a minimalist and modern look.


Grey is almost everywhere! Associated with maturity and responsibility, it makes you think of formality and dependability. On the other side of the coin, it can come off as being cold and conventional. Use grey for large surfaces, but break the cold grey with splashes of colour like yellows or pinks to make the space more inviting.

Okay, so there are certain colours, the way they make us feel and an idea of what to use them for, but what if you want to evoke a specific emotion?

Emotions and the depth experienced by being exposed to a colour depend largely on the shade or brightness of the colour.

Happiness can be found in the warm colours, their variations and pastel versions of the same. Often combining primary and secondary colours can amplify the effect.

If you want to create a calm space, green and pastel cold colours like baby blue, lilac and mint help facilitate the feeling. Stick to neutral colours for walls and large surfaces, using cold pastels as an accent. Less, here, really is more. 

Getting people excited and energizing people about something in a space can be brought on by using bright and highly pigmented colours. But be cautious of using too much red and yellow as it can irritate the eyes, whereas royal blue, turquoise and emerald greens generate a feeling of being refreshed and energized.

These colour values and their respective emotional response are based on large study groups. The emotional response to colours is very subjective and that is something you should always take into account when using colour in design. Colour is diverse and our experiences associated with them vary greatly, at the end of the day, pick a colour that makes you feel happy, calm, energized or refreshed and enjoy your outdoor space!

Contours Design Studio has predicted the trends setting theme of 2020 to be colour, which we incorporate not just with plant and flower colour in landscaping, but also with furnishings, surfaces, edging, sculpture and lighting.

Design tip:

Colour blocking is a great way to make any space look well put together. To get it right, get yourself a clour wheel and use colours on opposite ends of the wheel to make sure you block the right colours with each other.

Bonus design tip:

When struggling to pick a colour, buy 2 or 3 canvases and paint the potential colours on them. Ensure they are at least an A3 size. This allows you to have moveable swatches and you can see how the light plays with colour in different spaces. This saves having to paint over tiny dark swatches and all over the place and a tester will easily coat a canvas twice!


Adobe. (n.d.). Understanding black and white as colors. Retrieved 06 24, 2020, from Adobe:

NASA. (2010). Science Mission Directorate. Retrieved 06 2020, from National Aeronautics and Space Administration:

Oxford, D. (2020, 06 24). Oxford Dictionary. England, Oxford.

Mark Mac Hattie is a Landscape Designer and blogger for Contours Design Studio.

N.D. Landscape Design, B.Tech Landscape Design 

Master’s of Landscape Architecture

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