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The Nuance of Neutrals

Neutrals give way for bolder colors to stand out, offering flexibility for any palette

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June 18, 2015 |

For this bank headquarters in Nebraska, LEO A DALY used color to support the design—"sparingly but purposely," says the firm.

Neutral colors—with names such as beige, tan, gray, and taupe—are often considered staples of design because they go with almost everything and give way for other colors to stand out as accents. Using them is deceptively simple, but there are a wide range of factors to consider in choosing which neutral hue to use, and how.

One of the working definitions for a color to be considered “neutral” is to describe it as not appearing on the color wheel. Variations of black, white, and gray are commonly considered neutrals, and most will also put brown and off-whites into the neutral category. All the neutral tints, shades, and hues available, along with the wide variety of applications for their use, mean choosing a neutral is not always easy.  Ruth Jansson, principal, director of interiors for LEO A DALY, says she finds neutrals “more difficult than anything else.” Here are three tips from experts like Jansson on how to choose the right neutral for your design:

1. Evaluate the lighting

Find out which type of light the paint will be exposed. Within neutrals are shades and hints of other colors, and whether the room has natural, incandescent, or fluorescent lighting could mean that the off-white shade on the wall winds up with a greenish tint. Jansson recommends designers evaluate their color choices in different lighting environments at different times of the day. “The hue differences in neutrals can show up at different times of the day when the light changes,” Jansson advises. “Strong colors are much more forgiving and less nuanced than neutrals.”  

2. Know who and what the space is used for

Kimberly Overton, associate, director of interiors at LEO A DALY, keeps the culture of the project in mind when choosing color palettes. For her recent healthcare projects, Overton focused on using colors and textures to give more of a spa-like feel rather than that of a traditional hospital institution. For the Zayed Military Hospital in Abu Dhabi, Overton knew that texture and patterns would be very important, so she chose sophisticated materials like marble and primarily used a creamy white hue, relying on bright-colored furniture to provide accents.

The demographic of intended occupants is also important because different age groups perceive and respond to colors differently. For an elementary school project, Overton not only considered how teachers would be decorating the room with different colors, but also that too many strong colors could over-stimulate a child.  For corporate environments or more established brands, sparse and muted colors can be employed to correct tone.

3. Think long-term

Be wary of choosing colors that are currently trending to pair with the timelessness of neutrals. In the time it takes to plan and implement projects, the accent color could lose its popularity. Patricia Miller, LEO A DALY’s corporate director of hospitality, places importance on picking colors with staying power because it is common not to remodel for another five years or more. 

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