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Visual contrast and colour selection

When designing the look and feel of a new office, it is important to consider how colour palettes used within workplace environments can make a difference to the level of comfort and spatial awareness experienced by the staff and visitors.

Visual contrast

Visual contrast between surfaces and features in a building is important to assist people with visual impairments to navigate safely around the workplace, and to identify features and potential obstacles.

The use of contrasting colours is an effective tool to assist with interpretation of a physical environment, for example, the choice of colours walls and floors can assist individuals with visual impairments determine depth and space more easily. Effective visual contrast promotes visual clarity, orientation, and the perception of space.

The following tools can be used to help determine visual contrasts:

Colour and contrast - Te Tari Taiwhenua Department of Internal Affairs

Colour contrast determinator - Vision Australia

An example of low visual contrast, showing a white chair on a white wall with a grey floor.

Low visual contrast

An example of high visual contrast, showing a white chair against a purple wall with a grey floor.

High visual contrast

Light reflectance values

The most commonly recommended solution to measuring contrast is by a surface’s light reflectance value (LRV) such as walls, floors, ceilings and doors. The LRV is a measure of the amount of light that a surface reflects and is represented by a scale from 0 to 100; where 0 represents a fully absorbing surface (black) and 100 a fully reflecting surface (white).

Shown here is a chart of LRV’s ranging from 0% to 100% in four different colours.

These ceramics show LRV’s at work. They have a high LRV, and are sitting on a surface with low LRV.

An example of light reflectance values. On the right there are a range of colours showing differing levels of light reflectance value, while on the left are a set of white ceramics on a black bench, showing the difference in light reflection.

A colour study of Aotearoa/New Zealand

Natural landscapes and cultural heritage help create the aesthetic backdrop of the national identity. A variety of these colours also revolved around blue, particularly from sea and sky, as well as rich greens and reds. Extending beyond communications material, stationary, and digital platforms, these colours can be applied to elements within the built environment, imbuing workspaces with a reflection of Aotearoa.

A set of six images that show the different colour themes which commonly can be seen around New Zealand. These colours are used as the inspirations for the upcoming colour palette.

Six images showing commonly reoccurring colours throughout New Zealand.

New Zealand Government colour palette

In order to help people with visual impairment to experience the size of a space they have entered, and to find their way around, there should be a visual contrast between adjacent surfaces. Attention to surface finishes with good natural and artificial lighting design should be applied in accordance with the Government Building Performance specification.

Plain surfaces, or a small pattern using complementary colours, are preferred for surface finishes. Avoid the use of patterns on large surface areas such as floors and walls as they can be visually confusing and may make it difficult for people to identify potential obstacles and changes in level. On the floor, the use of stripes should be avoided as these can be perceived as the edge of a step and become a trip hazard.

Recommended

  • Agencies use similar colours of those shown in this colour palette
  • Complementary colour combinations

Avoid

  • Bold patterns
  • Geometric designs
  • Stripes and contrasting lines
A colour palette showcasing the advised colours and shades for government branding. This includes vary shades from black to white, as well as Red, Purple, Blue, Green and Yellow colours.

A colour palette showing the recommended colours for government.

Achieving visual contrast in the workplace

The following guidance provides examples for achieving colour contrast within the office environment.

Ceilings and walls

There should be a visual contrast between the wall and the ceiling to help people with a visual impairment to navigate the size of a space they have entered, and to help find their way around. It is assumed in most cases that the ceiling will be tiled and coloured white with an LRV of 90-100%, therefore walls adjoining the ceiling should, for example, have a maximum LRV rating of no more than 70%.

Adjacent walls

Wall-to-wall contrast is recommended where colour is being utilised as a tool to assist wayfinding. In this instance, wall colours can provide visual contrast to each other, in addition to contrasting to ceilings, and other fittings such as signs, floors and doors.

It is recommended a colour gradient difference is applied between two adjacent surfaces of no less than 30%. For large areas, a difference in the LRV of 20% or more is acceptable, provided the illuminance on the surfaces is in accordance with government Building Performance specification.

Signage

The following guidance should be applied to make signage visible within the wider office environment:

  • A signboard should contrast visually with the wall behind
  • The text, pictogram or numeric should contrast visually with the signboard. For example, white lettering on a dark grey sign with a LRV difference of 30% will provide visual contrast
  • Meeting room numbers or identifiers should be placed on the door and glazed areas avoided as it is difficult to apply contrast with frosted glass.

Full height glazed walls

Full height glazed walls can present a potential danger when mistaken for open doorways, while in enclosed office meeting rooms, privacy also needs to be considered. Therefore, the recommended range for full height glazed walls is 800mm-1600mm. Any markings should contrast visually with the background surfaces viewed through the door in both directions and in all lighting conditions. The use of two-tone markings often improves visibility. Signage used to identify the room should be clearly legible and contrast with a glass door. It is a requirement under the building code that the presence of glass is clearly highlighted so it does not present a significant hazard to building users.

NZS 4223:3:2016 Glazing in buildings - Building CodeHub

Doors

Visual contrast should be provided between a door, the wall and floor when the door is in a closed position. If there is not sufficient visual contrast between these elements, or if both elements are of a similar luminance, it will be difficult for visually impaired people to distinguish the difference. For door handles, a difference in the LRV of 15% between the handles and its door is recommended.

Loose furniture

Loose furniture can be moved around the office space to suit the environment such as breakout spaces, soft furniture and pods. It is recommended:

  • soft furniture is used to add colour and brightness and to the office environment
  • rounded edges on hard furniture to minimise the risk of injury
  • a variety of sizes of furniture, to accommodate a diverse range of staff needs
  • desks used for workstations are light coloured (LRV between 80-100%)
  • desk chairs are dark coloured (up to 30%).

Walls and floors

It is recommended a visual colour contrast of at least 30% LRV be applied between the wall and the floor areas to assist visually impaired people navigate spatial arrangements of the room. Patterns on walls should be limited to artworks or feature walls.

Floor finishes

Bold patterns or geometric designs on floors are not recommended as these can create visual stimulus overload for people with various impairments and make it more difficult to navigate the environment. Additionally, hard, shiny surfaces such as tiles can be difficult for workers who use crutches or walking sticks. When specifying two different floor finishes within one space, for example vinyl and carpet, reference should be made to the manufacturers written LRV rating to ensure both have an equal or similar rating. Visual contrast between adjoining or adjacent floors is not recommended as this can be perceived as a change in height or void in the flooring. Essentially two adjacent flooring types can be different colours but contain similar LRVs of +/-10%.

It is important to note that carpets with LRV results greater than 15% will need a correspondingly very high level of cleaning maintenance in an office environment. It is recommended that a carpet’s LRV does not exceed 15% and vinyl finishes do not exceed 25%.

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