Color is one of the most influential elements of a design. It’s also a complex, somewhat mysterious subject. Most people, especially non-designers, know little about its constituents and properties. In fashion, color trends come and go. There is an entire industry dedicated to forecasting what next season’s colors will be. In medical product design, trends are far less important. In our industry, color needs to be used to achieve three objectives:
1) Increase functionality by making the device easier and more intuitive to use.
2) Encourage the desired emotional response in the patient and/or user.
3) Reinforce recognition of the company’s brand.
Color can be used to increase the functionality of a medical product by making it easier and more intuitive to use. In the hierarchy of our visual system, the first thing that attracts the eye is contrast – usually contrast in value (dark against light), but also contrast in color. By highlighting with color the areas of the device that the user needs to interface with, you can provide the user with a cognitive map of how to quickly “read” the device so they intuitively know how to turn it on, where to push, pull or lift to open an access port, where a luer gets attached, or simply, what are the most important controls to interface with:
In addition to attracting our attention, color is also very powerful in providing a system of organization. You can use color to divide a form and define different areas of function and importance. This is a technique that can be used in a very subtle way yet still be effective, for instance by using different shades of gray or different values of the same color. You can also use color to group items or functionality:
Another characteristic of visual perception is that we perceive light-colored objects to weigh less than dark-colored objects. You can employ this characteristic to make a heavy object seem lighter, or to suggest that an instrument has a base that is sturdy and well-anchored. You can also use the value component of color combinations to make a device appear smaller: use a light color around the periphery, a darker color at the interior:
Finally, lighter-toned objects encourage that they be kept clean – it’s easy to see when they’re dirty! That’s one reason why light colors and pastels predominate in medical devices. This is beginning to change, though, as some companies are experimenting with bolder, more saturated colors in an attempt to distinguish their brand.
To a greater extent than we like to admit, our decisions are guided by emotion. Most of us probably believe that we rely predominantly on reason. But physiological and psychological processes of which we are largely unaware have a strong influence on how we think and on the conclusions of our consciousness. Of those things to which we react emotionally, color is at the top of the list.
When addressing color’s influence on emotion, you need to clearly understand what you want the overall impact of the design to be. Should it calm a patient? Should it seem intelligent and precise to a surgeon? Should it have a sense of fun about it so it’s less intimidating to a child in a pediatric setting?
Part of our emotional response to color has to do with the symbolism that certain colors have come to be associated with. Complicating things is the fact that symbolic associations differ among cultures, emotional effects differ among individuals, and color psychology is not a definitive science. Despite those caveats, certain colors do seem to evoke a more or less common response. You can use these to make purposeful color decisions:
- White has a strong connotation of cleanliness/sterility and purity; therefore, it’s very appropriate in a medical setting. And because any color contrasts with white, using the neutrality of white for the bulk of the form allows you to easily use color to describe and draw attention to user input areas, thereby increasing the device’s usability, as mentioned above.
- Light grey doesn’t have the pristine connotations that white has. But because white is so ubiquitous in medical settings, light grey can be a good alternative to make your company’s product distinct. Bright white can be overpowering and feel too sterile, whereas light grey is softer and calmer.
- Blue has a soothing effect. It’s generally thought of as being the most serene and calming hue. That’s one of the reasons it predominates in medical device design. Green is also calming, and is associated with balance, harmony, and reassurance. Using soft tones of green or blue on accent areas of devices will make them feel less threatening – very appropriate in a clinical setting where the device is used to provide treatment to patients.
- Black connotes seriousness, sophistication and excellence. It can be very effective for devices intended to be used in the laboratory. You need a compelling reason to use it in clinical settings though, because of black’s association with death.
- Red is energizing. Because it’s a primary color, it can be appropriate in a pediatric setting. Its obvious association with blood makes it a color to avoid for devices used in the clinic, except in small amounts and for functional reasons to attract the eye to important areas.
- Pink is a tranquil color. It has obvious feminine associations, and should be employed with that in mind.
- Yellow is sunny, optimistic and friendly. Great for pediatrics. Too much yellow can be overpowering though, so evaluate it carefully.
- Orange is a happy color. As such, it can also be comforting. As with yellow, too much can be overpowering.
- Brown is reliable and supportive in certain contexts, but its association with decay makes it a dubious color to use in medical devices.
- Purple is associated with royalty, but also with religion and spirituality. As such, it could be used to provide reassurance to recovering patients. Lighter tints of purple are felt to be somewhat romantic, delicate and feminine. We are beginning to see purple being used more often in medical devices.
- Violet is closely related to purple and carries with it some of purple’s connotations. Violet is considered to be serious and thoughtful. It’s a color that encourages contemplation, so it will have a quieting effect.
In addition to hue, a color’s relative level of saturation also influences our response. Bold, saturated colors can be fun and uplifting. As such, they can be appropriate for therapeutic products and for devices to be used in pediatric settings. Soft, tinted colors, regardless of hue, are more subtle and calming.
Color is an extremely important component of a company’s brand image. Using color to promote brand needs to be done strategically – not based on the colors of the corporate logo. Choose the colors based on the functional and psychological factors that will be appropriate for the bulk of the company’s envisioned product offerings. Color is one of the most powerful tools you can employ to develop a design language for a family of products. It will be one of the main elements that makes a particular device immediately identifiable as coming from your company. And that’s a foundation upon which you can build, because branding is about establishing trust: if your products are trusted, your brand is trusted, if your brand is trusted, your products are trusted.