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Whether you're bringing LED fixtures into a previously unlit space, or you’re replacing older lighting technologies in an established luminous zone, picking out fresh lights that have just the right color glow can be a real pain in the bulb!
To get your interior vibes just right, before shopping around for your new lights, it’s crucial that you understand how color works in LED technology, which is precisely what we’ll be discussing here today.
LED Colors: Color Temperature & The Kelvin Scale
The whole idea of interior design is that we imbue space with personality, but I don’t think I’m alone in believing that spaces already have vague personalities.
In one subtle way or another, they guide you towards certain decisions. They’re unique before any human intervention takes place, and this means that they need tailored lighting that suits and enhances their natural appeal.
Color temperature and the Kelvin scale can help us achieve this.
In a nutshell, the kelvin scale is a measurement system used to measure color temperature, which is the spectrum of illuminative hue emitted by lights.
Even if you’ve never heard of the scale before, it’s likely that you’ve heard or seen it in action. Ever come across terms such as 2000K or 3000K when shopping around for lights in the past? They’re taken from the Kelvin scale.
So, where did this mysterious scale come from? Well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was the brainchild of someone named Kelvin, but surprisingly, you’d be dead wrong.
The Kelvin scale was invented by one Mr. William Thompson way back in 1848.
Thompson’s scale travels from 1000K at the lowest end of the spectrum, to 10,000K at the highest end of the spectrum. A low reading on the Kelvin scale insinuates a warmer tone — think soft red hues.
Higher readings on the Kelvin scale describe cooler colors with a bluish hint. In between these two poles, we have a typical white light.
As helpful as the Kelvin scale has been up to now, when it comes to LEDs, it’s only instrumental when the light in question is monochromatic.
In other words, the Kelvin scale only refers to the spectrum of white lights.
White lights, however, are only half the LED story, as you can also find LEDs that follow the RGB blueprint.
White Light LEDs Explained
As detailed above, the Kelvin scale can be used as a color guide when choosing the tone of white light you want in a space.
You can think of it like a color swatch spanning from red to blue, with orange, yellow, white, and pale blue hues in between.
To make the scale a little more intuitive, manufacturers will often ascribe sensory language to certain Kelvin stages.
These are by no means universal, especially when it comes to LEDs, but generally speaking, they look a little something like:
- Warm White — This is typically something to the tune of 2700–3000K. It’s a yellowish hue capable of creating a very cozy atmosphere. If you like the mood set by traditional incandescent bulbs, this is the terminology to look out for.
- Soft White — Soft white usually falls within the 3000–3500 zone on the Kelvin scale. It’s not as yellow as warm white, but neither is it crisp white. The vibe is a little more alert, but it’s by no means clinical in aesthetic.
- Cool White — If you see this term on a light, it means that it’s more or less crisp white. This is considered by most to be a tad too sanitized for a lot of residential applications, but if you like a very white light and enjoy seeing all the details of your surroundings, I wouldn’t rule it out.
- Daylight — If cool white didn’t go cool enough for your tastes, then daylight is the one for you. Settling somewhere between 5500–6500K, you’ll notice a distinct blue note to your lighting.
This is the widely available scope of the Kelvin scale in big box stores for both commercial and residential purposes.
For the most part, any lights that venture outside 2700K or 6500K aren’t very versatile and may only suit very niche applications, and thus, aren’t that common.
LED lights that win the popularity contest are definitely those with color temperatures between 2700K and 4500K, as they’re a lot more gentle on the eye than temperatures that venture beyond the 5000K center point.
Side Note — Color temperature isn’t the only aspect of LED lighting you’ll need to consider to create your perfect space. You’ll also need to consider the brightness of any chosen lights, measured in lumens.
The higher the lumens, the more luminous a light will be. Two LED lights can have the same color temperature but may be completely different in terms of brightness.
CRI (Color Rendering Index) is another thing to keep an eye on. CRI refers to the fidelity of colors within the spread of a light source.
For example, picture a red apple in bright daylight, then think of it under a low watt energy saver. In which does the redness of the apple seem more vibrant? Daylight, right?
A CRI rating of 90 or above is considered excellent, a CRI rating between 80 and 90 is considered so-so, and anything below the 80 threshold is considered poor.
RGB LEDs Explained
RGB stands for red, green, and blue. Essentially, these lights are the chameleons of the illumination industry. Using these three colors as a base, they can typically create over 16 million hues!
As well as the standard shades of red, green, and blue, you’ll get all the colors, including purples, oranges, teals, turquoises… you name it.
Simply put, they’re color changing bulbs that usually give you the power to fine tune the mood of your environment via a remote control or companion app.
Being that we’re dealing with multiple colors when talking about RGB LEDs, the Kelvin scale’s usefulness runs out. RGB color temperatures will just be referred to as the color name.
The Meaning Of Colors: The Language Of LEDs
We are a heavily sensory species. We delight in experiencing wonderful things through our ears, noses, skin, and, more to the point, our eyes.
Just as a pleasant smell can evoke emotions and memories, so can lighting. In fact, lighting has another dimension to it… physiological response.
This is why it’s so important to be picky with color when it comes to lighting.
Color Moods: White LEDs
We’ve already covered this area, but just to refresh your memory…
- Warm/Soft White — Cozy, calming, very warm and inviting
- Cool White — Fresh, crisp, clean, energetic
- Daylight — Sterility, detailed, focused, alert
Color Moods: RGB LEDs
- Yellows — Warmth, positivity, friendliness, creativity, happiness, perhaps even caution. This might be because it’s on the very periphery of the warmer colors.
- Oranges — Confidence, success, vibrancy, cheer, health
- Reds — Passion, anger, love, urgency, danger, stimulation, strength, energy, excitement. Yet, despite these high frequency moods, from a physiological standpoint, red is the color most conducive to a good night’s sleep, making it the best hue for after hours bedroom lighting.
- Greens — Tranquility, growth, healing & wellness, nature, freshness. Conversely to red, although green is thought of as a peaceful, relaxing color, from a physiological perspective, it’s not great if you’re trying to catch a few winks.
- Blues — Harmony, stability, loyalty, peace, dependability, trust, integrity. Lovely as these words sound, in terms of the body’s response to blue hues, they’re the absolute worst if you’re trying to find sleep. It’s the blue light from your computer and phone screens that keep the mind racing when all you want to do is drift off to dreamland.
- Purples — Luxury, wisdom, ambition, royalty, imagination, creativity, high fashion.
How To Implement Warm Cool And Daylight LEDs
As we’ve established, certain hues and color temperatures work best in very specific situations. For example, choosing blue shades in the bedroom isn’t wise, as they will keep you up. You also wouldn’t want to walk into your dentist’s office to a soft, warming, white light, as it’s not conducive to good dentistry.
Obviously, taste is subjective, and we all have our unique likes and dislikes, but here’s a color placement guide to get the creative juices flowing if you don’t know where to start.
Soft/Warm Light (2700K–3500K)
Soft or warm lights are best for cultivating a calm and inviting atmosphere. They have a yellow to mildly orange undertone, and they’re suitable for:
- Traditional kitchens
- Living rooms
- Residential outdoor areas
- Hospitality (restaurants, hotels, etc.)
- Reception zones
- Areas with complementary Earth tones.
Cool Light (4000–5000K)
Cool lights are ideal for active zones where you’ll be getting more hands on, such as:
- Modern kitchens
- Office spaces
- Educational environments
- Retail spaces
- Medical facilities
You won’t find many 5500 to 6500K LEDs in a residential setting, but they do have amazing CRI scores, making them suitable for…
- Medical facilities
- Retail spaces
- Display cases
- Industrial environments
- Office spaces
How To Implement RGB LED Lights
RGB lights can be used to great effect as little extras that augment an established white light primary network. They’re the perfect mood-making accents. They can be used for:
- Bars or restaurants
- TVs & computer monitors (as backlighting)
- Cabinetry & bookshelves
- Outdoor areas such as porches and patios
The Impact Of Surroundings On LED Color Choice
Okay, so we’ve talked plenty about how LEDs can influence their environment, but we’re yet to touch upon how the environment can influence choice of LEDs.
It’s essential to consider what people will be doing in any given space, and which areas of the space may be more suited to certain shades or help to emphasize their mood.
In many ways the surroundings and common tasks of a space dictate how well a color will go down.
It’s important to remember that what we’ve discussed here today are only guidelines, and if you want, you can ignore every suggestion I’ve made — no hard feelings.
The beauty of modern lighting is that we all get to express ourselves in previously nonexistent ways, so let your imagination run wild, and create your ideal space.
Just remember that, for health and safety reasons, certain environments need a very specific sort of light.
Excluding that, you’re free to implement color and color temperature as you deem fit — enjoy!