The psychology of colour in restaurant design

I’ve blogged about the importance of first impressions when impressing customers. We humans are visual beings. At a conscious and subconscious level, we rely on the sense of sight to navigate our way in the world. Visual processing is closely related to cognition and behaviour: What we see influences what we think, which influences what we do.

Colour plays a huge role in the psychology of behaviour. For example: research by the Color Marketing Group on consumer purchasing behaviour found that colour accounts for up to 85% of purchasing choices. Apart from the colour of merchandise, though, retail designers know that the hues in the shop itself influence consumer behaviour.

The same applies to restaurants. Food, after all, involves sight as much as taste, smell, touch. Exactly how colour affects our emotions and behaviour has long interested psychologists. And it should interest anyone who is involved in F&B design.

In an article titled Turning the Tables: The Psychology of Design for High Volume Rest, Staphani K. Robson – a lecturer at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration – said: “Research on consumer reactions to particular colours has been going on for decades and has found that colour not only affects people’s perceptions and attitudes, but can actually elicit a biological response.”

Anyone involved in conceptualising and creating restaurant brands, spaces and menus should keep this in mind. A restaurant customer may not consciously notice how the design of the restaurant they’re in affects their comfort levels, but on some subliminal level, they may feel edgy in a space, and eager to leave; or they may feel comforted by its ambience, wanting to linger (and drink and eat more). While there’s more to the psychology of design than colour (think layout, acoustics, lighting, textures), colour is key.

Think of hue when you ask yourself important questions. Like, what mood, brand associations, energy do I want to convey? What kind of clientele do I want to attract? What impression do I want to create – subtle and lingering or bold and impactful?

On the topic of bold shades, punchy colours (think red and yellow) are often used for fast-food chains because they encourage quick ins-and-outs, ensuring tables are freed up fast. Too bold causes sensory overload, you see, hence the subliminal desire for a quick escape. That’s not to say yellow and red have no place in F&B design. Yellow is the first colour the retina perceives; and red demands attention as it makes us want to “stop”. It’s about using such colours in the right proportion to suit your needs.


There are no hard and fast rules – context is key: How you use colour is determined by what you want to achieve. There are also some nuances and caveats.

For instance, we’re attuned to variations in shades, like saturation, intensity, brightness and combinations. Clashing colours are off-putting, so check your colour wheel and make sure your primary and secondary colours are either complementary or make for a pleasing contrast.

There are also subjective variations. I may like blue; you may not. Different cultures also regard colours differently, and colour is perceived differently according to gender. Apparently, men prefer bold colours; women prefer softer shades. Men are more receptive to colour shades (when black is added to a colour); women to tints (when white is added).

Still, there are some associations experts agree on.

BLACK: Since it evokes a sense of sophistication, authority, power and sleekness, this classy colour can work well with any food concept. In an interview with Lorraine Elliot on the site Not Quite Nigella, interior Designer Paul Kelly – who has designed restaurants in Asia and Australia – said “The darker the better”. This is because dark colours bring textures to the fore. Just avoid too much of it, though, as it can come across as cold.

BROWN: This earthy hue ensures a sense of comfort, wholesomeness and reliability. Of course, as it’s the colour of many foods, it’s ideal for places like coffee shops, bakeries or in restaurants where meat features strongly on the menu. Its earthy nature makes it suited to menus angled towards organic ingredients or a farm-to-plate philosophy.

WHITE: The colour of purity, innocence and hope can feel clinical (too much like the “hospital” in hospitality), so it’s best as a secondary or accent colour. That said, it adds a sense of spacious luxury and cleanliness. This year, white is popular with architects using stark white interiors so that the diners and food become the colour and contrast.

RED: The colour of passion, love and romance is also the colour of many foods, so it’s no surprise that it enhances the appetite and is thus a common (and good) choice for restaurants. The colour fires up the hypothalamus of the brain – the part that activates when we get an energy boost. Red can create a sense of urgency, though, so don’t go overboard.

ORANGE: Similar to its warm counterpart above, orange stimulates the appetite and is comforting and energising. Its downside? It can look unprofessional.

GREEN: Nature’s shade is calming, soothing and is said to induce thirst. (Could this be one of the reasons bar brands are often green?). As it’s so associated with fresh things, it’s a logical choice for healthy or vegetarian restaurants.

YELLOW: It promotes the feel-good, youthful energy of a brand-new morning. A lot of it can create unease, so it’s often used in establishments that want quick turnarounds.

BLUE: The colour of trust, security and calmness is often used for corporates, banks or study spaces. It’s believed to suppress appetite, so unless you’re a seafood brand or Greek restaurant, it’s not the wisest choice.

PINK: It’s calming and settling, but as it’s not associated with that many foods, it’s not the best choice for food brands – unless you’re selling sweets, baked goods or a particularly feminine, romantic concept.

GREY: The colour of concrete feels solid, mature, reliable, but it’s not exactly uplifting. It’s best used with a contrasting colour. Add shine though, and you get silver – classy, clean and suggestive of high-end brands and quality.

Duncan Fraser-Smith is the founder of The Cutting Edge Agency that specialises in the development and creation of benchmark F&B concepts through conceptualisation and training, as well as sourcing and partnering with international brands and high-profile chefs to successfully establish their presence in the Middle East.

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