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Designing Healthcare Spaces

Breaking the Rules


Updated August 28, 2012

Designing Healthcare Spaces
Periwinkle Design

I am an interior designer for health care. My designs are unlike most: colorful, cheerful, and might I even say "fun." Not exactly what you would call inside the box. Architects in senior living don't always get it. One architect mentioned that it was difficult to find designers to work with who understand gerontological design theories. My response was that while I understand the theories, I just don't agree with them! Eventually, I made believers out of these architects. Let's see what you can learn!

I was trained in the world of residential design; I knew nothing about design for health care, and I had never even been in a senior living facility of any kind. Then, a contractor friend of mine contacted me to assist him with the paint selections for a hospice project. I wasn't called upon for my expertise in hospice design, but rather because this contractor was familiar with my residential work. I visited the hospice and saw the drab mix of colors and paint specified and I immediately felt something was not right. To make sense of these color choices, I began to research articles on color theory, tour hospice facilities and question everyone. The more I learned, the more confused I got. I approached the dilemma by asking myself: Where would I want to spend the last days of my life? I knew what I had seen was not the answer.

I began to sketch out what I envisioned as my final environment. I wanted it to be as uplifting, encouraging, and cheerful as possible, and of course that meant lots of color. I ended up with drawings that were truly unlike anything I had seen in any of the hospices I had toured, but I ended up implementing those rough sketches - and I found new purpose. I gradually changed the focus of my career, did more hospice projects, and then a senior living facility.

By the time I read the rules I had already broken most of them! What I discovered was that generally old designs were unsupported by the general population of seniors, but had been put in play due to isolated incidents. This made sense because seniors are individuals, but to apply a design rule to them as a singular entity is to do a disservice to them as individual people.

When designing, you might like to think as I do:

  • Think about the amount of light in the space, which furnishings will be kept, and what is outdoors that can be mirrored inside.

What About Function Kathy?

Function is extremely important. But too much emphasis has been placed on function, and with that the design integrity of senior environments has been compromised. The need for additional function in health care design is a fact. It should be a hidden element that supports the design. Form and function can co-exist without sacrificing either. When I am tempted to use a product because of its extreme functionality, I ask myself: Would I have that in my house? If the answer is no, then I have to keep searching.

The Color Question

A color study done in 2007 specifically for senior living environments by the Coalition for Health Environments Research revealed:

  • Universal color-design guidelines are not supported by any strong evidence.
  • Specifying particular colors for healthcare environments to influence emotional states or mental and behavioral activities is simply unsubstantiated.
  • In spite of contradictory evidence, most people continue to associate red tones, for example, with stimulating activities and blue tones with passivity and tranquility.
  • Emotional responses to colors are caused by culturally learned associations and by a person's physiological and psychological makeup.
  • Most color guidelines for healthcare design are nothing more than affective value judgments whose direct applicability to the architecture and interior design of healthcare settings seems oddly inconclusive and nonspecific.

The authors of the color study advised against the creation of universal guidelines for appropriated colors in healthcare settings. The study of color in healthcare settings is challenging because it occurs in the context of meaningful settings and situations.

The best practice for facility design is to create unique interesting and varied spaces within a facility. These spaces need to be given careful thought in how they relate to one another to keep a cohesive flow throughout the community. Yet is important that each space has its own flavor to provide options for residents to have choices in common spaces where they will feel most comfortable. That is the essence of the culture change movement - choice and accessibility.

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