Using color in the dental office

April 1, 2013
It is not unusual for dentists to ask us, "What is the best color scheme for a dental office?" We love this question because it means they're thinking about the impact of color.

by Jeff Carter, DDS, and Pat Carter, IIDA

It is not unusual for dentists to ask us, "What is the best color scheme for a dental office?" We love this question because it means they're thinking about the impact of color. The answer however, isn't as "cookbook" as you might want it to be. Even so, we offer the following ideas on what we find makes color selection successful.

Identify your impact objective. Color evokes reaction. It is a design choice that should effectively reinforce the experience you want for visitors of your office. Impact objectives are best described in adjectives such as "restful, calm, relaxed, soothing" or "stunning, amazing, unexpected." Selecting colors similar in value (consistent level of lightness or darkness) and limited in contrast will reinforce the "restful" response, while colors selected from a range of high contrast (dark to light) will elicit a "wow" response.

Be true to your color preference. Color choice is personal. In our view, there isn't a right or wrong color. Success in color should reflect personal style and preference. If you react positively to dramatic use of color, then a successful color approach for your office would include high contrast or strong hues. If that is uncomfortable to you, then subtle differences in color will be a more successful design solution.

Colors do not stand alone. How well colors work in combination with other design considerations is what makes them successful. Complementary, analogous, or monochromatic are terms used to describe differing combinations of colors that work based on where they're located on a color wheel ( It can be frustrating, however, to apply your "complementary" colors to a space yet be disappointed in the outcome. In practical application, perfect colors will or won't work well based on other aspects of how they are applied, such as various textures (fabrics vs. paints vs. wall coverings), varying finish (shiny or matte), level of light (too much or too little), or type of lighting (fluorescent, incandescent, or LED), as well as how exterior light can change color throughout the day, and more. Understanding this when selecting colors will help avoid disappointments.

If possible, select colors for all materials to be used (flooring, paint, fabrics, wall coverings, etc.) under the same lighting conditions in which they will be applied, and review them at different times of the day. You may change a selection (we have!) when you find that something looks great in the morning light but is suddenly unfortunate in the afternoon light.

Select a dominant color and edit the rest. This is perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of working with color -- how to balance color in an interior space. When different colors are distributed in equal amounts around a room, they become dissonant in color terms. Chaotic may say it better. Pleasing application of color is typically imbalanced. When one color significantly dominates other colors used in lesser amounts, the result is appealing. This applies whether the dominant color is a hue (e.g., aqua, persimmon, etc.) or a neutral (e.g., beige, taupe, gray). Pleasing spaces are deliberate unequal distributions of color (hues and neutrals alike).

Use shades, tints, tones, and neutrals. It probably isn't surprising that we caution against using "pure hue" primary colors -- yellow, red, blue -- in a dental office. The same intensity that may attract you to a primary color as "lively" will be the same reason you are repelled when it is applied in significant amounts in your office. And while one might argue that primary colors are consistent with an eye-popping impact objective, we suspect most of you will agree that long-term enjoyment of color is an objective as well. If so, color longevity is best delivered through neutrals, shade colors (hue with black added), tints (hue with white added), and tones (hue with gray added). Primary colors are best applied in well-edited amounts.

It isn't the color that fails, but the application. For the color fearful, consider a dominant neutral with strategically applied color accents to create interest. For the color brave, be selective and thoughtful through color editing and an imbalance strategy. How do we answer the "what color" question? Start with the colors you enjoy the most.

Jeff Carter, DDS, and Pat Carter, IIDA, are owners of PDG - Practice Design Group. Located in Buda, Texas, PDG offers a full range of design and consulting services to dentists nationwide. For information, call (800) 511-7110 or visit

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