A University of British Columbia study that ran from 2007 to 2008 analyzed the effects of the colors red and blue on test subjects. It had long been theorized that the colors red and blue could increase cognitive performance. Interestingly, this study took things a bit further by looking at exactly what type of performance was improved by each color. Based on the results of 600 participants who were tested while executing six different tests it would appear that the color red improves analytical thinking and attention to detail, while the color blue improves creative thinking and imagination.
In an earlier article on the psychology of color I explored the associations that people have with different colors. To summarize, red is associated with danger, blood, war, and other subconscious symbols that motivate us to slow down and be careful. The color blue is often associated with the open sky or sea, and with spirituality, motivating us to "think outside the box" so to speak.
In this respect the optimum desktop background color can vary greatly based on what type of task you are trying to perform. An interesting extension on the British Columbia experiment would be to see if combining the colors red and blue would improve both analytical and creative output. Personally I would theorize that the nauseating combination, especially in a desktop background, would be more likely to have an adverse effect.
Follow up studies have suggested that it does not take large amounts of either color to improve performance. Perhaps a small swatch of red and blue on a neutral desktop background would provide both the analytical and creative benefits.
More information available from the New York Times.
As a web designer I have found first hand that a light medium gray is the best color for my computer background. Other background colors tend to affect the eye's perception of color. A light gray background that is roughly the color of the Mac OS X interface elements tends to fade away into the background without effecting the mental response to important sample colors and design tests.
The rods and cones in the human eye become fatigued when viewing the same color for long periods of time. For example, if you work with a red desktop background, then look at a white interface element you will see a light blue afterimage. This is irritating for a designer or someone who has to work with color. A light gray background color doesn't cause these irritating afterimages and also serves as a way of relaxing the eye between color analyzing sessions. Just like a perfume tester might use a jar of coffee beans to clear the scent sense between tests a designer might find it beneficial to clear the sight sense by minimizing all windows and looking at a light gray background from time to time.
Is Change Good?
From personal experiments I have found that changing the desktop background can be one way to give myself a jolt. Over time I become used to the desktop background until I almost don't see it anymore. If I change the background it seems to have temporary effects on my productivity, at least until I get used to it. For the sake of experimentation I decided to see how far this effect could go. I found a set of background images which covered each of the major colors of the rainbow, then set them to rotate every 30 minutes, cycling through the color spectrum. I found that after each change I experienced a short period of perceived productivity boost. Obviously this is hard to judge by quantitative measures, but I would say that I received perhaps a minute or two of benefit after each change.
Theoretically this effect could be easily explained by the Hawthorne effect, but I think that in this case it is possible that a desktop background change could actually boost productivity, especially depending on what color it is. I have still found that for programming, and especially web design, a light gray color is even more productive than a changing color scheme.
Personally I think that desktop background color is one of those computer tweaks which can really help a designer or programmer to improve their productivity. Of course I must also agree to some extent with Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror who writes, "If you're really using your computer, your desktop should almost never be visible. Your screen should be covered with information, with whatever data you're working on. I can't imagine why you'd willingly stare at a static background image—or even a background image covered with a sea of icons. Unless you consider your computer a really expensive digital picture frame, I suppose."
Personally I use a widescreen monitor and for web programming I have my browser open in the middle of the screen, pulled down to about 1000 pixels wide so that I can test my design on the narrowest likely screen. I also frequently pull the browser even thinner to test for float breaks and other liquid layout problems. Even when doing application programming I have my terminal semitransparent. So I end up seeing quite a bit of my desktop background and therefore like to experiment with different colors and styles to see what works best.
My personal findings are that photographs tend to distract. Even abstract images can also be irritating. The best desktop background to minimize distraction (not to mention system memory usage) is a solid color, and medium gray is the most neutral color I have found that works well for me.
What do you think? Does a desktop background really affect productivity? What background style/color do you find most effective?