Does the color of your office walls promote neurodiversity?

Color conundrum.
Color conundrum.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Designing a truly inclusive workplace is a messy task.

Heightened awareness of neurodiversity —an umbrella term that refers to the breadth of human neurocognitive functioning—has made that project more complex and all the more urgent.

Companies like SAP, JPMorgan ChaseGoldman Sachs, and Microsoft attest to the advantages of hiring workers diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. In proven cases, neurodivergent employees tend to have terrific capacity for creative problem-solving and greater attention to detail. And they are more common than even they may realize—researchers believe that 1 in 8 people or 15% to 20% of the population exhibit atypical brain patterns but are often left undiagnosed.

Creating work spaces that accommodate everyone’s needs can seem overwhelming and prohibitive. Where to begin? A recent report from the architecture firm HOK titled “Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace“(pdf) covers a number of recommended design interventions, from improving acoustics and lighting to introducing access to nature. But one simple, often neglected element employers might want to think about when considering the environment they provide to employees is the hue of the walls.

Kay Sargent, director of HOK’s workplace practice, emphasizes the need for more thoughtful use of color in office environments.  Instead of using paint as a decorative or branding element, she suggests thinking about its emotional and psychological effect on neurodivergent staff.

Sargent cautions against using bright colors and bold artwork in rooms meant for focused work. Loud colors, she explains, can actually be oppressive for workers who tend to get overwhelmed easily. “If I do that, I would have literally short-circuited you,” says Sargent, who has a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD and OCD. “It’s totally counterintuitive but you have to look through it through their lens.”

Her suggestion echoes a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology indicating that yellow is the most fatiguing and most sensory-loaded color. Researchers say a yellow room can be punishing for people with autism spectrum disorder whose sensitivity to sensory stimulation is already enhanced.

Sargent’s advice also challenges the all-too-common corporate decorator instinct of painting surfaces to match a company’s brand colors. Colors that work on logos don’t necessarily work in environments. For example, painting walls electric orange—once a popular branding color—can make someone agitated or even hungry. Sargent notes that overstimulated environments are typical of tech headquarters in Silicon Valley. “They want you to be there all the time…but they’ve actually been proven to literally stress people out,” she says. If you’re absolutely compelled to use company colors in interiors, Sargent suggests introducing it in small doses, like desk accessories or pillows.

This doesn’t mean offices have to paint everything in white, either. As a general guideline, occupational therapists believe that light greens and blues are the most welcoming colors for workers with sensory issues. Sargent notes that some neurodivergent workers actually need more stimulus, too. “A lot of times, people who are neurodivergent need areas where they can get their energy out,” she explains. “Game rooms aren’t not just fun social spaces. Those are absolutely critical for people who have excess energy. The same goes for having a chalkboard where people can doodle or draw.” These are areas where companies can safely introduce brightly colored walls, she advises.

Ultimately, the core principle in designing for neurodiversity is choice, explains Sargent. If an office is too small, allowing for remote work several days a week often results in happier employees. But this doesn’t excuse managers from improving their office environments from what they currently offer, she says. “That may be the reason why no one comes to the office anymore.”