Choosing Medical Product Colors

Color is one of the most important things in our lives. Colors affect us emotionally and psychologically, often to a degree that we are not even aware of. I would guess that almost everyone has a favorite color.
A Technical Note on Color

There are many different models for describing and specifying color. This article was written mostly from the perspective of the Hue-Saturation-Value model (HSV).

When most people think of a “color”, what they’re thinking of is its hue – red, green, blue, yellow, etc. Hue is just one dimension of a color, however. Colors also have different levels of saturation and different levels of value.Color is just as important in medical products as it is in other areas of our lives. The delivery of health care is evolving to take into account the entire patient experience to a much greater extent than it has in the past. According to David Scott of KYDEX LLC , “As healthcare facilities are being designed or redesigned to create patient-centered environments, we’re seeing more attention focused on the external design of medical devices. In these cases, the machines are just as critical to the overall perception of the room and the healthcare experience as the color of the walls and choice of furnishings.”

Response to color varies between successive time periods (trends/fashion) and between cultures. Colors and color combinations also take on connotations due to the way they are used commercially (branding) and how prevalent they become in that context. Colors and color palettes also cycle in popularity. Indeed there is an entire industry based around predicting color trends.

For the reasons noted above, choosing color is a moving target. Which explains why there is no definitive method for making color choices. So how can a developer of medical products bring some rationality to an endeavor that will remain subjective? The goal of this article is to provide a conceptual framework that those in medical product design and development can use to make effective color choices.

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Color Selection in Medical Device Design Starts With the User

When considering color, you need to understand who it is that will be using the product and what will appeal to them from a color standpoint. “Appeal” doesn’t mean what colors do they like. It means what are the characteristics and values the user will associate the product with. Does your (typical) user want the product to feel precise? Intelligent? Durable? Sophisticated? Are there particular colors/color combinations that they associate with those characteristics?

You can obtain knowledge of the user via a number of methods. A discussion of those methods is beyond the scope of this article. The point is that if you don’t know your user, you won’t be able to select product colors that will help the product sell and be well received in its market.

It Continues with the Purpose

Once you understand your user, you can begin to devise a design strategy for developing a successful product – one that appeals to users and satisfies their wants. Beyond the medical function of the product, what are you trying to achieve with your design? Is your primary purpose to make the product easy to use? To make it appeal to a particular market segment? To give it an aura of precision, strength, etc.? To make it feel calming – or exciting – or fun? A good strategy will combine a number of elements that, when brought together, will achieve your goal. Color is one of the most powerful of those elements.

It is Accomplished via the Process

A process ensures thoroughness and consistency. To ensure that you consistently choose proper colors, your process should include an examination and analysis of these things:

  1. Existing (competing) products: What are others in the product space doing? Are their colors bold? Subdued? Should your product be consistent with the competition, or should it be markedly different? Are there certain colors that are expected?
  2. The environment in which your product will be used: Are there particular colors that dominate the environment? Is the environment visually busy, calm or in between? Will the product be used primarily in a hospital/clinic environment, in the home, or in public? How do you want your product to sit in that environment – should it stand out or should it blend in? Does it need to be discreet, or could it be a status symbol?
  3. Cultural considerations: Do you know what various colors symbolize in different cultures? How strong are those symbolic associations? Can they be ignored in favor of using color that will promote other design goals?
  4. Corporate colors: Many companies are tempted to use their corporate brand colors in their products. That can be appropriate if the brand colors fit with what the product needs to accomplish. Unless that is the case, the temptation to use corporate colors in the product’s color scheme should be avoided.
  5. Sterilization method: If your product is reusable, you need to consider how the sterilization method will affect the color of the product. EtO and gas plasma sterilization does not have a significant effect on color. Radiation sterilization using gamma or e-beam will cause a color shift toward yellow. Further information is available in this study by Eastman Plastics Color-shift will be most noticeable in transparent materials.

How to Choose Color for Medical Product Design

Once you know what your users want and what your strategy will be for satisfying those user wants, what should the colors actually be?

Color Temperature

Start by choosing temperature. Most products will have one color that covers most of its surfaces. Should that dominant color be warm, cool or neutral? Look back at the color wheel. The green-cyan-blue side is cool, while the yellow-red-magenta side is warm. For the vast majority of medical products, you won’t want them to scream. So you’ll probably end up on the cool side. Indeed, most medical products currently and historically have used greens, blues and colors in the neutral space of whites/greys. There are several reasons for that. Most importantly, blues and greens are calming colors, which is what you want in the anxious environments of hospitals and clinics.

David Pantalony authored an interesting article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal regarding how green became the color of hospitals and medical machines. He cites an American surgeon, Dr. Harry Sherman, as being the first to use green in the operating room in 1914. Finding the traditionally white environment to be too bright and glaring with new electric lighting systems, Sherman experimented with an operating room all in green, reasoning it was the color compliment to the red of hemoglobin. He found that his eyes could rest on anatomical features and details much better and without tiring. Around the same time, using color as a therapeutic treatment came into vogue, with green used for its calming qualities. Eventually, use of green in hospitals became pervasive.

What about the warm side of the color wheel?

Warm colors are great for accent colors, and for color coding purposes and for attracting attention. The contrast of color against a neutral background is easily perceived. Employing color contrast in a reasoned way will make the product easier to understand and to use.

Although warm colors will be used mostly for accent and effect, there are times when you might want to consider colors from the warm side of the wheel to be the dominant product color.

Warm colors are basically energetic and happy. Products designed for use in pediatric care is an area where you might want to use warm colors. Another area would be obstetrics/gynecology – associating pink as being feminine has a very strong bias in our culture. Purple also has a feminine association, though not as strong as pink. Similarly, medical products designed for ailments exclusive to the female anatomy could use warm colors as their dominant.

Finally, warm colors will promote a feeling of physical comfort – food, warmth and shelter (home). This suggests that warm colors could be considered for products used in recovery and patient rooms.

Neutral Colors

By and large, the best choice for the bulk of a large medical product’s form is going to be one that serves as background onto which color and value contrasts can be selectively applied. White and light gray are good starting points. Pure white signifies cleanliness and purity – perfect for a medical product – but too much white can be overwhelming. When designing products for use in the operating suite and other environments having areas of high illumination, be especially sensitive to the fact that white reflects the most light, causing glare and tiring the eyes. Giving the product’s white surfaces a matte finish will mitigate those problems somewhat.

Limiting your palette to white and light gray is just that – limiting. Subtle additions of hue can provide a significant shift in how the color feels, while still keeping the surfaces predominantly neutral:

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Invenia ABUS, by GE Healthcare.
Breast cancer screening device.
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SEDAYSYS sedation system,
by Johnson & Johnson

 

A functional reason for employing white, light gray or subtle tints is because unclean areas will contrast against the light background, making it easier to see whether the product has been cleaned thoroughly.

A reason for employing darker colors would be if the product is reusable and will be sterilized using gamma or e-beam radiation. Those methods shift colors toward yellow (to a varying extent, depending on the material). Any yellow shift will be less noticeable in dark colors. Dark colors also conceal dirt – a good reason for using dark colors on casters and around the base of floor-standing products.

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Which Neutrals?

In the ultrasound cart to the left, the use of dark gray implies serious, no-nonsense. “I’m here to do a job”. The dark gray also provides a contrast to the light gray, thereby drawing your attention (a cue that makes for good usability) to the handle (which also attracts attention because it’s the only form that’s set at an angle). Dark gray is also used at the control surface – the area of the machine that will be touched the most and therefore will have a tendency to get dirty. The dark (low) value of the grey will hide smudges.

Light gray is the dominant color. It also says, “don’t pay attention to me – I’m in the background”. The relatively high value of that gray makes the cart feel visually lighter. If the gray were darker, such a large machine would feel ponderous. If the dominant color was white instead of gray, the cart would also take on a different character. It would feel “purer” (which isn’t necessarily needed in this context), “happier” and would attract more attention to itself, detracting from its seriousness. The monochromatic appearance furthers the effect of solid, business-like seriousness. The few areas of pastel accent color add an element that mitigates the austerity of gray and helps make the machine feel approachable and not intimidating.

Neutral Value Synopsis

White: pure, sterile, bright and more cheerful than any tint of gray.
High value gray: more serious than white but still possessing lightness. Will call less attention to itself than white will. Provides a good background field against which to apply contrast.
Medium and low value gray: As you move from high value to low value, the colors get heavier. One application of the darker grays is to use them at the base of an instrument to suggest solidity. Use medium or dark gray depending on the impression of heaviness/solidity that you want.

 

Neutrals other than Gray

Browns and its tints (beige) can also be considered neutral colors. Browns are to be avoided because they associate with dirt and decay – not good for medical products. Beige and other light tints of brown could provide a warm neutral color. Products that you want to blend into a person’s skin color (a hearing aid or electronic patch, for example) could use beige. Beige has also been a popular color for medical carts and large units such as ultrasound systems. Beige is much less popular currently, I believe because light grays have a stronger association with high-tech, which many companies want to promote in their products.

For medical product design, a good way to achieve a warm neutral is to add a small amount of yellow to a high value gray:

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After Temperature

The warm/cool/neutral decision will most likely be relatively easy to make. The next step in narrowing your color choices should focus on the value dimension of color at areas on the product where the user will need to interface.

The terms “value” and “brightness” are often interchanged. Value refers to how light or dark a color is:

High Value                                 Low Value

choosing medical product colors

Differences in value creates contrast, and contrast is what our visual system perceives the quickest. Contrast is also created by a color hue against a neutral background, but in most cases it’s created by dark against a light background or light against a dark background. Because our eyes perceive contrast first, designers can use it to direct the user’s attention to the most important areas of the product.

It’s important to keep the contrast effect in mind when choosing which hues to employ in the product because different hues can be similar in value. Here is an interesting illustration from Bruce MacEvoy’s Handprint.com of the importance of value differences:

This is Edward Hopper’s “Lighthouse at Two Lights”:

choosing medical product colors

When you remove hue but keep contrast, the image is still easily recognizable:

choosing medical product colors

However, if you keep hue but remove the value information, the image is much more difficult to interpret:

choosing medical product colors

A technique that artists use to judge value differences in a painting is to squint their eyes. That makes value differences stand out. Per MacEvoy, the most accurate way to judge value difference is to view the object in very dim light, when only the eye’s rod receptors (which can’t sense color) are active.

Saturation

Saturation refers to how dominant a hue is in comparison to grey:

Low Saturation              High Saturation

choosing medical product colors

The difference between saturation and value can be confusing. A hue becomes less saturated as it moves higher in value (by adding white to the hue – that is what a tint is). But it also becomes less saturated as it moves lower in value (by adding black to the hue – that is what a shade is). A good way to think about saturation is to consider how pale or how strong the hue is (per Colors on the Web)

choosing medical product colors

As it relates to medical product development, you can make decisions regarding saturation levels by considering whether you want a bold effect or a soft effect. Highly saturated hues will be bold. Less saturated hues will be soft.

The Scale of the Product

Different color options are available depending on the size of the medical product you are designing. Large products will require a greater area of neutral color so as not to overpower the spaces in which they’re used. Smaller products such as hand-held tools and devices can, to a greater extent in their overall form, use colors that are darker, bolder and more saturated.

Choosing colors for large products is complicated by the fact that most color swatch samples are much smaller in relation to scale of the product. An identical color on a large object will look different than it will on a small object. To judge colors for large medical products, have candidate colors mixed in paint and apply the paint to 15”x20” (or larger) boards. Compare/judge the boards in the environment and under the lighting conditions that will be present where the product is used. You will get a much better idea of how the color will appear on the product than you will from a 1” color chip. The perception of color varies depending on the background against which it is viewed. That’s why it’s best to view the colors in an appropriate environment. This phenomenon can be seen quite dramatically in what’s known as the Bartleson Brenneman effect:

choosing medical product colors

In each row, the five squares are the same value. But their appearance changes depending upon the value of the background against which they’re viewed. This is also a good example of the effect of contrast. A dark background pushes all gray values toward white, while a light background pushes them toward black (From Bruce MacAvoy).

Corporate Colors

Using the colors of the company’s corporate identity can be problematic when it comes to medical products. On the one hand, you’ll want to use the corporate colors where you can as part of your design strategy in order to promote brand identity. On the other hand, if the corporate colors are not appropriate for the context they shouldn’t be used. If you can’t use the exact colors, you might be able to use a tint or shade of the color(s) or a close relative.

Surface Finish

The finish of the surface can dramatically affect the way the color is perceived. You can make effective use of a single color by treating some components with a matte finish and others with a gloss finish:

choosing medical product colors

You can also use three or four different texture levels to create a value composition using a single hue. The difference in the way light is reflected from the different surfaces will create a variance in value levels that the eye will perceive as distinct colors.

Surface treatment is inextricably linked to the way colors are perceived. Surface treatment should be considered in conjunction with color choice. The same color will look very different depending on whether the surface is metallic, brushed, anodized, transparent, translucent, etc.

With medical devices, surface treatment will affect how readily the product is able to be cleaned and disinfected. Fingerprints and smudges are readily seen on shiny, mirror surfaces, but too rough a texture will provide areas for contaminants to hide.

The Effect of Environment on the Perception of Color

The colors of a product will be perceived differently depending on the environment it is used in. The biggest factor will be the type of light it is seen under, and the lighting level. This is yet another reason that you should evaluate color choices by observing them in environment in which the product will be used.

Color Blindness

Approximately 8% of men and .5% of women are deficient in their color perception. It’s not that they can’t see any color at all (although for a very small segment, that is the case). It’s that they have difficulty distinguishing between certain colors. The most prevalent deficiency is red-green color blindness.

Ensuring there is sufficient value contrast is critical when designing for colorblind users. Red and green hues that are close in value won’t be able to be distinguished. However, if one of the hues is dark and the other light, the value contrast will be able to be seen:

choosing medical product colors

Where paying attention to red-green colorblindness is most important is when red and green are used as emergency signal cues.

(The above is per Tips for Designing for Colorblind Users, by Joshua Johnson)

Color Fashion and Trend

Color popularity most definitely impacts color choice for medical products. Using popular colors makes products seem current and up-to-date, as opposed to seeming dated. The psychological effect of using the “latest and greatest” should not be underestimated. Be careful though with unusual colors that trend due to fashion, especially if the product’s life is relatively long. Up-to-date can seem out-of-date after as little as one year.

Furthermore, we are seeing many medical products that were once used exclusively in controlled care settings moving into the home. In the home environment, medical products will need to have aesthetics more in line with consumer products. In appealing to consumers, color has great importance. Colors should be chosen that will fit and identify with users’ lifestyles (remember, knowledge of your user is the first step in choosing color).

Color Coding

Color coding is extremely important in medical devices. After value, hue is the distinguishing signal that is most quickly and efficiently processed by the brain.

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According to the authors of Handbook of Human Factors in Medical Device Design, the most important factors to consider when using color for function coding are color choice, consistency, and number of colors. Per the handbook, red, green, yellow, orange and blue are the most easily recognized colors. Whichever colors are chosen, they should be used consistently throughout the product. The number of colors used for coding should be as few as possible (one color in addition to the base color that indicates user touch points, for instance, would be best). Numerous studies have found that we can only keep three or four pieces of information in our short term memory at one time. That would suggest that no more than four colors should be used for color coding.

Color coding should not be relied on as an exclusive cue. There should be a redundant signal as well (value difference, shape difference, etc.).

Biocompatibility

Some medical products will be required to have resin colorants that are biocompatible. A custom thermoplastics compounder will be able to provide colorants that have passed testing for FDA approval.

Summary

The subject of color is rich and complex. It is also a powerful tool for design. I hope the information in this article helps you make deliberate, thoughtful and appropriate color decisions for the medical products and devices you will be designing in the future.