Color and Color Psychology on Shipboard – Summer 1961

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Harry Sheid

Attractive color styled ships beam a hearty welcome-on-board to crew and passengers alike. Pleasant quarters, and safe, color- coded working conditions maintain high crew morale and boost alertness and efficiency. Besides, authoritative color styling increases the effectiveness of good lighting and seeing.

In the past, color has been used mainly on-board luxury liners. However, in the last few years a number of cargo ships have dressed up most attractively in the colors of the rainbow.

Today the color consciousness of the traveling public (paying as well as paid ones) has advanced to a stage where management of public carriers (and for our purpose this includes cargo ships) is compelled to give color a more prominent role in the decor of their ships, planes and trains. The result has been striking. People love the well-designed color styling of the vessels and vehicles, and travel in them in unheard of numbers to every corner of the globe.

Obviously, the terrific increase in travelers is due in considerable extent to greater comfort and more attractive accommodations that carriers offer today. This applies not only to the passengers, but to the crew as well.

In this jet age, the crew of a modern steamship, be it a transatlantic or lake ship, no more resembles the old-time deckhand, than a modern gas station attendant resembles the old “grease-monkey.” The modern crew — men and officers alike — expect and get comfortable quarters, friendly and cheerfully color styled, well lighted and spacious — at least visual spaciousness —achieved by scientifically and psychologically chosen colors.

Now, let us start with the ship’s quarters. Hardly need it be said that they should have an atmosphere of home-away-from-home. With due consideration to rank and work the quarters should be homey: soft pastel wall colors with pleasing accents in furniture and upholstery. The deference to rank should and does become apparent in location, type and size of the quarters in addition to special furnishings and decor.

5 people sitting at a table with coffee cups in wood paneled room

Modern (2015) passenger quarters

The color decor of living rooms, mess rooms, recreation rooms should be relaxing in character and conducive to pleasant camaraderie. On the other hand, corridors, passageways, storage spaces and similar areas should be as light as practical in order to prevent mishaps, yet, by no means need they be monotonous.

Engine rooms and machinery are the pride of every engineer — just as the captain is proud of his ship. On coal-fired ships the boiler and engine rooms were subject to much coal dust and smoke which made the use of attractive clean color impractical; and with generally poor lighting prevalent, the extensive use of high gloss white was all but mandatory.

We can readily imagine and practically feel the terrific eye-strain those engineers had to endure in looking all day long at two of the strongest contrasts — glossy white walls and dark deck and machines. And with no safety-color-coding whatsoever, the engineer’s job was a very hazardous one to boot.

Due to the modern streamlined ship installations, a most effective color styling of engine rooms can be accomplished today. There is no excuse any more for an engine room to be dingy, depressing and hazardous; it can be clean and smart looking, to put an up-to-date kitchen to shame, and with “Safety First” color-coding given first consideration.

The clinical white and dark grays have disappeared from the engine rooms as they have from hospital operating rooms. In the place of the stark gloss white, pleasing pastels in soft sheen have appeared on the walls and lively and deeper values of greens, blues, terra cotta and turquoise on machines are seen. Controls and handrails are accented with bright yellow, fire equipment in bright red, whereas first aid stations are marked by “safety green.”

Pipes of multiple sizes and colors in a semi-dark passageway

Engine Room

These “safety” colors dramatically placed, stress attention. With powerful insistence they impress upon the crew the location of safety devices so that his reach for them in cases of emergency will be instantaneous — regardless of where he may find himself or what he may be doing.

Pleasant color styling commands cleanliness, to the worker or crew there is no difference between his beautiful home and his clean and neat workshop. His sense of neatness and cleanliness is stimulated and he knows that he is expected to keep his equipment clean and in order and he takes pride in doing so, enjoying his work and shop all the more. This is a potent psychological influence of color.

The exterior colors must be practical for the purpose for which the vessel is being used — a nice clean white hull would hardly be suitable for an iron ore carrier or oil tanker. Dashing colors for this type of ship will have to be limited to parts of the superstructure. Hull colors should be, more or less, cover-ups, i.e., make spillage less visible, yet provide the best protection possible.

Now to a few facts vs. fancies about color styling. Fancy has it that “any color will do as long as it looks sharp and snappy,” be it kitchen gadget, giant drill press or ship. The fact is that a color to serve its purpose well should be chosen with painstaking care and consideration. And fancy has it also that any color is good to brighten things up and modernize with; the fact is that only a careful selection of colors —- based upon scientific and psychological principles — can work the beauty miracle expected of them in new creations or modernizations of old ones.

Finally, a few remarks about the psychology of color applied on shipboard. Naturally, the color decor of the interiors and color styling of the exterior should be in keeping with good design (proportion of color) and discriminating taste without going to such extremes as a Cartier or Tiffany color styling for bulk carriers.

What is more dreaded than fire on board ship, especially on the high seas? Therefore, RED — the international color and signal for danger and fire — is used only for the fire fighting equipment and fire station markings. It may be important to mention here that fire retardant paints that produce a dried film that will not support combustion are widely used and specified for interiors, not only for naval vessels but in commercial shipping as well.

To return to color, ORANGE, being the most aggressive hue, is used in industrial plants to spot dangerous moving parts of machinery that might cut, bruise or crush. On ship it is now being used on all life saving equipment and on the inside of lifeboats.

YELLOW, a sacred color in the Orient, is without question the gayest color of the spectrum; although no captain would want to see the yellow flag hoisted on his ship — it means quarantine, a contagious disease has broken out on board. However, a strong intense yellow is ideal for the controls of machinery in order to be seen and reached instantly from the corner of the eye; it is excellent to edge the treads of stairs to prevent stumbling; besides, it lends the equipment and interior areas a fresh, smart and spirited sparkle.

GREEN, the easiest color to use — perhaps because of our familiarity with it in grass and foliage — can be used anywhere in its various values of light, medium or dark; but its strongest use is reserved for first aid station and equipment markings — usually with a green cross.

BLUE, like green is cool and soothing in effect and when wisely used, can be exceedingly attractive and pleasing.

VIOLET is reserved in industry for atomic installations, or for identifying pipes with special or very valuable contents. RED-VIOLET, the color of pomp and state, in times past was the exclusive prerogative of kings and cardinals.

WHITE is ideal for certain corners to keep them clean and sanitary. Pure colors are powerful in effect and are very tiring when used on large areas; yet they are to an interior or exterior what costume jewelry is to a woman’s dress; they get attention, therefore, their immense value in “safety first” codes.

Shades or deep colors are “heavy”; they foreshorten a room and make an object appear heavier or more substantial than it is in reality. Being masculine in quality, men prefer them; they absorb heat and make an interior hotter.

Light colors, called also “tints” or “pastels,” have a reverse effect visually and psychologically; they make a room seem larger and more spacious and an object lighter than it is. Their delicate nature, generally speaking, appeals to women in particular; they reflect heat and make an interior cooler. This fact of physics is very much taken advantage of by the petroleum industry to cut down the evaporation in tanks storing volatile materials.

Blue/Green passenger vessel - Aquarama


No longer is it just theory, that colors have a most decided effect and influence in our lives — literally from the cradle to the grave. The experience an infant has had with a certain colored object — whether it was shock or joy — will stay with him all his life, subconsciously, to be sure. Certain color combinations can make an interior happy and easy to live in, others cause tension and ill will. It should be stressed that color styling for interiors where men work, eat and relax, always in close proximity to each other, is not only attractive and satisfying to the esthetic sense and the appreciation of beauty, but also that these same colors are psychologically sound and compatible.

There are safety and decorating colors; there are colors that neutralize and soothe; there are depressing colors and colors that excite; there are boring colors and stimulating colors; but all colors cause definite emotional, mental and spiritual reactions — yes, frequently even severe physical reactions.

Red freighter with white cabins on very blue water - Edmund Fitzgerald


Surely, this diverse influence of color can cause reactions on the passengers and crews of a ship as well as in people in stores, offices, homes or industrial plants.      The colors and color combinations should reflect the nature of a vessel — the Aquarama would be differently color styled than, say, an ore carrier like the Edmund Fitzgerald. Then too, it should and does reflect to a large extent the character of the shipowner. Color can mean light and life, or sickness and death. Color is the garment of nature and a mystery to man.


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About the Author: Mr. Harry Scheid, Color Consultant for the Sherwin-Williams Company, Cleveland, Ohio, read this paper as background for an illustrated lecture given before the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Great Lakes and Great Rivers Section, in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 19, 1961.

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