The importance of colour and contrast

As people get older, there are a number of changes in normal vision which are simply due to ageing. These include:

  • the need for additional light
  • increased sensitivity to glare
  • reduced peripheral vision
  • reduced sensitivity to contrasts
  • reduced speed of adapting to change in light level
  • reduced visual acuity
  • reduced depth perception
  • altered perception of colour i.e. being less able to discriminate between unsaturated (less intense) colours such as pastels

With older age, there is a greater likelihood of additional eyesight conditions, being on medication for other conditions, having a form of dementia, and perhaps some or all of these things. What the eye sees, the brain must interpret, and this can vary given different circumstances, type and progression of dementia, and abilities.

Understanding that an older person with or without dementia will probably perceive their surroundings differently is a good starting point for the design of living environments. Good design can help enormously in making it easier to interpret and navigate a building in safety, and the use of colour and contrast can be used in different ways to assist in this.

High contrast
When we want to draw attention to something important, greater contrast helps to highlight it. For example, the toilets are more easily found if the doors are made obvious; a coloured and contrasting toilet seat helps with positioning; stairs can be made safer with a contrasting strip along the front edge; grab rails can be located; the outlines of furniture can be seen more clearly

Low contrast
The opposite effect can be achieved by lowering the contrast. A feature which you may not want residents to be attracted to, such as staff rooms or storage cupboards, can be somewhat disguised by choosing colours which match the background e.g. a white door on a white wall. This is also a useful way of making floorings safer, by keeping to a single colour over different floor finishes, or making changes in the floor colour gradually rather than suddenly. It is the sudden contrast which can make the floor levels look uneven, like a step, and this can cause hesitation and unsteadiness which can lead to falls.

In the context of floors, patterns are best avoided where people are walking. A large or busy pattern can confuse the eye, and again cause hesitation if it looks like an obstacle or a hole. Shiny finishes can look unsafe, so a matte flooring is preferable and people can walk more quickly and safely.

Contrast is the key to vision. If there is no contrast, objects cannot easily be seen and differentiated. Contrast is vital in being able to comprehend the environment and understand the features and elements of a building that we need to use in our ordinary daily lives. As we age we lose the ability to differentiate colours clearly, our perception of depth diminishes, there is a loss of visual acuity, we have less spatial awareness and our sensitivity to contrast lowers. Without good contrasts, the world becomes more hazy, we struggle more and more to make sense of it and we function in life with less confidence.