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Let the colour in. Make it change your life and work

– We are only around 20% conscious of the colour decisions we make, though we are making them all the time – says Karen Haller, leading global expert in the field of Behavioural Colour and Design Psychology, who reveals the backstage of her daily job. Read the interview and fall back in love with colour.

For the interview, I put on something I’ve been wearing a lot recently – a blue long sleeve top. Does it say anything about me?

Karen Haller: Every colour we choose to wear will either be supporting how we are feeling, how we want to feel or how we want others to interact with us. Every colour we like and don’t like tells a story about us, from our past or in that moment. This is just one of the facets of colour that I research and explore – human behaviour and the connection with colour.

What are the aims of your research and exploration?

I’ve carved out a niche in Behavioural Colour and Design Psychology where I examine and look for ways to bring colour not just to the core of design but to the centre of our lives. To use the power of colour to influence our behaviour for the better, to create positive states of wellbeing that help us to thrive. My aim is to bring colour back to the forefront and revolutionise how we use it for positive good, positive change and wellbeing.

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Other than using colour to influence positive behaviours and wellbeing, why does colour play such a crucial role?

We have only to imagine living without colour even for a brief moment to see how much we rely on it to guide us through our everyday lives. Without colour, how would we know if a flying insect is harmless or will sting us, if a road is safe to cross, or if food is ripe or poisonous?

Sounds accurate but we hardly ever think about it, do we?

Colour is an amazing phenomenon. It’s around us all the time and influences just about everything we do. But we are only around 20 per cent conscious of the colour decisions we make, though we are making them all the time: about what we wear, what we eat, what we buy, or how we relax or energise.

 

When did you realise that for the first time?

My first colour epiphany moment took place in my twenties. After school I drifted into IT and the far-from-colourful work as a project manager and business analyst.  I enrolled in night school to study fashion design and then millinery. One evening, I was pinning chocolate-brown feathers onto a teal-blue hat, and just seeing the impact of the colours together stopped me in my tracks. I thought, that’s it, it’s colour! I didn’t know quite what it all meant, but I had to find out.

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– Colour makes us feel something. It comes in through our eyes, but it makes its way into our heart. It is woven into our emotionsKaren Haller.

Was it easy or rather a long winding road?

I went on to study traditional colour theory, which focuses on the ‘colour wheel’. This is the arrangement of hues in a circle that shows the relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colours. It was originally developed by Isaac Newton and was intended for use by artists, but for me it only scratched the surface. I had a sense that colour went much deeper, that it connected to our moods, our feelings and our behaviours. The colour wheel couldn’t answer my questions like why you like yellow, but I don’t, why you think of red as exciting and energising, while I find it aggressive, why I liked orange yesterday but not today, why certain tones of blue look good on you, but don’t suit me, why I can relax in one café and not another and dozens more questions like these. My further search took me on a course in child psychology and interior design, and, by chance, on a weekend workshop in the highly researched but little-known discipline of applied colour psychology. This was the missing piece of the jigsaw; this was my second colour epiphany moment – a science that helps us to understand the language of colours. I finally found what I was looking for.

What language is that?

It is the language we all speak – the unspoken sensory language of emotions. Colour makes us feel something. It comes in through our eyes, but it makes its way into our heart. It is woven into our emotions.

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You have been working in your field for almost twenty years now and belong to its pioneers. Was it easy to begin?

I’m still learning - that’s what I love about colour, every day I learn something new. The journey hasn’t been easy – quite the bumpy ride! I remember at the beginning being told that no one was going to be interested in colour psychology. However, I decided to start sharing my knowledge, and the common reply would be: ‘You do what?’ ‘What on earth is that?!’ But I was sure I had something really important, so I just kept working with clients, helping them with their colour and design challenges.  From this I was able to put a measurable framework together that helps my clients achieve the positive outcomes they are looking for no matter the application or context. I found it removes those endless subjective debates. For architects and designers whose focus is on creating a holistic solution for their client, I’m often brought in to collaborate with them.

How do you find working with architects and designers now?

I love collaborating with them and I’m finding more are open to working with a colour and design psychology specialist. We all have specialist skills and working together as a team means we can come up with innovative solutions to meet the demands of our ever-changing world and how we live and work. I’ve also seen an increase in architects contacting me to discuss adding me to their bid application as they see the value of colour and to have a point of difference.

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What is their view to colour psychology today?

This came in an unexpected way. I wrote my book “The Little Book of Colour, How to Use the Psychology of Colour to Transform Your Life”, which came out in August 2019 (published by Penguin), for the everyday person, as a companion guide to help them to fall back in love with colour again. To my delight, it’s become very popular among design professionals who tell me how helpful it’s been for them in their work – how they’ve found a new way of working with colour and new ways to move the ‘colour conversation’ forward with their clients. This shows me that colour is beginning to be taken seriously and not something that is just aesthetically pleasing or an afterthought.

The Little Book of Colour

Learn more about the phenomenon of colour in Karen Haller’s ‘The Little Book of Colour’ here

Could you describe how you would typically work with a client?

As strange as this might sound, during my initial consultation I don’t talk about colour or design – do this and it can very easily descend into a long-drawn-out subjective debate. Instead, I keep it objective by focusing on areas such as the context, purpose, customer specific considerations, positive behaviours, and positive outcomes my client wants to see expressed for those using the space. I collect and analyse this data and out of that I’m able to ascertain the specific harmonious colours, saturation, proportion and placement, along with the design style which is likely to create the positive outcome for the majority of people using the space. Using my applied colour and design psychology framework means there is a proper workflow in the design process that is end user focused and measurable.

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– Over the past four decades or so grey offices was commonplace – very industrial, functional, and utilitarian. It was not uncommon for companies to regularly take their staff on motivational away days into nature to re-energise and motivate them – says Karen Haller, author of “The Little Book of Colour”.

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And how is the colour concept linked with our efficiency and well-being at work?

Over the past four decades or so grey offices was commonplace – very industrial, functional, and utilitarian. It was not uncommon for companies to regularly take their staff on motivational away days into nature to re-energise and motivate them, only to find this didn’t last long when they were back in the same grey office – beginning to feel tired, drained, and demotivated again.

This was known then as ‘sick building syndrome’ with many contributing factors including air quality, lighting, temperature, ergonomics, smell, acoustics – the sensory experience we now call well-being. Whilst these factors have greatly improved over the decades, the area still lagging behind is colour as it wasn’t always considered a possible factor and it’s still often seen as something that is just superficial and decorative.

Then we saw many offices being designed in bright colours with playful slides, rope bridges and treehouses which works if this is in alignment with your company’s values and outcomes, however this could just feel like you’ve gone from a minimal sensory experience of grey utilitarian to one of complete emotional overwhelm. Just because it works for one industry or brand personality doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone.

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It seems colour is a powerful tool!

And the most amazing thing is that we've got this tool at our fingertips – in our wardrobes, at home, in the offices, businesses, brands, products – when you think about it, every business is in the colour business. Never has there been a time when we’ve had such a wide choice of colours to select from, enabling us to select the colours to create spaces so that we can feel good and thrive.

It’s interesting that you mentioned choice because with the revival of regimes and ideologies there appears to be attempts to impose colour and design styles.

We are seeing a lot of change in the world right now. To have a choice and to make our own informed decisions is at the very core of what makes us human – it’s a basic human right. When it comes to being able to choose colour, I hope this is a freedom we never lose.

The Little Book of Colour

Karen Haller is leading global expert in the field of Behavioural Colour and Design Psychology, specialising in business brand colour, interiors, healthcare and wellbeing. Having studied colour for over 20 years she understands how colour affects us, influences us and how businesses and designers can use it to influence behaviour. She consults, trains and heads colour campaigns for prestigious global brands such as Farrow & Ball, Dove, Dulux, Orange Mobile, Logitech, Fiat and BASF. In 2019, she published “The Little Book of Colour”.

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