Thoughts on Waiting Room Design

In late August I posted about my garden hydrangeas. October 10th and they are still beautiful. Blues have morphed into regal purples.

I am now a diehard hydrangea lover. I wonder if my peonies are jealous?

Most of my work is residential, but with all the brouhaha on government shutdowns and health care, I thought I'd come clean. Yes, I do renovate the occasional private medical practice. 

Healthcare projects share some aspects of residential design, like the fun of client presentations. Here is the first color board of carpet, paint and fabrics for a recent Women's Health project.

Grays and silver look fabulous with purples. Although many people love the color, the actual word, purple, can be a culturally loaded term. Amethyst, Heather, Aubergine are easier hues to discuss; the images evoked are positive vs juvenile.

No one takes the first proposal. The client chose this warm gray carpet from Interface.

Tibetan clouds, fog banks and waves are the organic, somewhat zen look we were after. Cut and loop construction provides depth and texture. It has a good feel underfoot.

As we tailor a residential project to your aesthetics and lifestyle needs, healthcare projects are tailored to the specialty, demographics and culture of the practice. Clinical needs, staff workflow and the patient experience are critical design considerations. Achieving the right balance of these elements can minimize patient stress and increase staff satisfaction. 

design and photo by Linda Pakravan

The patient experience concept is relatively new but forward looking organizations recognize the benefits. One small piece of the patient experience is waiting room design. A safe and professional looking waiting room that creates no additional stress is a given. The real goal is a comfortable and pleasant environment with positive distractions.

A waiting room that truly de-stresses is the holy grail. I'm not sure it is attainable sans meds.

Positive distraction is more than what it sounds like. We want patients to focus on specific things which must be pleasant. Easy examples are properly displayed art, textured fabrics, plants, window treatments.

Planters and a sheer valance distract the eye from focusing on the parking lot and work as a pleasant, positive distraction.

Offering a variety of seating options and seating arrangements more akin to hospitality than hospitalization is another effective distraction. Or an unexpected element, like the white coffee table.

A caveat. Positive distractions only work when the whole room has cohesion. Everything, flooring, paint colors, finishes, fabrics, lighting, signage must work together to create a non-jarring backdrop for the distractions. When we have all that and the specific things we've selected are pleasant to look at, we achieve positive distraction.

Maybe the best way to illustrate good waiting room design is to contrast it with the all too common dodgy state of many waiting rooms, private practice or not, and its effect on patients. 

We walk in knowing we're in for an hour and a half of unpleasantness. We dread being crammed into one of 50 identical chairs next to an obviously ill person. We look down at the floor, the color of which instantly reminds us of puppy poo. 


Hanging crookedly on the wall directly in front of us is a Mondrian print in ochres (more puppy poo). We can't wait to leave and we've been here less than a minute.

OK, at least it coordinates with the floor.

Technically, both puppy poos qualify as distractions but hardly pleasant. They're solidly in the negative column. 

With all respect due Mondrian, field research confirms that abstract art 
is a hard sell in the waiting room. 
Psychiatric practices specializing in arty types excepted. 
People about to be poked and prodded are in no mood to figure out what it means.
More soothing is representational art or photography appropriate for the demographics of the specialty but it must work with the overall design. 

Back to the dodgy waiting room, unease gives way to noticing faults. The place needs a good cleaning. The furniture is so far past its prime the GoodWill may not want it. The upholstery fabrics? Let's just say they've sustained one too many biological spills and leave it at that. 

Personally, if I only have to deal with bad art choices and dirty upholstery it's not a completely bad visit.

However, experiencing the cascade of anxiety inducing thoughts due to over crowding is an 11 on the 1 to 10 scale of negative stress. The person next to me just coughed up what sounded like a lung. What if it's TB! Will they be insulted if I get up and move? Gah! It's too late and I've inhaled air borne droplets! Let's hope it is just DRTB and not MDRTB.

Once your appointment is over, and assuming you are an adult, a complete return to your normal, serene state is easily affected by an early cocktail hour.

my lovely sister introduced me to Manhattans, image via  

Or Valium. NEVER both.

Contrast dodgy with good waiting room design:

We walk in and our first impression is "what a nice place" (the cohesion of the whole room is at work), I love the orchids or the plants (something specific and pleasant catches our eye), I wonder if they are real (yes, they are, more pleasantness). A variety of seating options are available and we select a roomy chair upholstered in a textured fabric. We look down and think, nice carpet (so very hard for me to be objective about carpet). Stylish comes to mind as we glance across the room to the Mid Century coffee table, if we're a certain age. Nice print, if we like the art.

We have just been positively distracted.

For a few moments, maybe a few minutes, the anxiety of our imminent appointment is not uppermost in our mind. 

I have no delusions; I can influence almost nothing after this. The ultimate goal for my waiting rooms is for the patient to experience moments of positive, ideally pleasant as well, distractions. 

Yes, the success or failure of months of work is measured in moments or at best a few minutes. 

I'm still with you though. When I'm the patient I cannot wait to leave. Feel free to reward yourself with a cocktail regardless of how nice or not your doc's waiting room.

Can't find the right piece of art? Try a mirror.
This large seashell mirror placed over the console in the waiting room 
provides a reflective surface and the shells build on the organic theme.
So far we've had nothing but positive comments on it.
None of the male docs thought it was overtly feminine.

The challenges of designing for private practice? Mostly the same as residential. A biggie is working with several partners. They all get a vote. They all get a veto. And they are never, ever, all in the same place at the same time. 

Well, that was an unexpected topic. I don't suppose you'd like my take on exam rooms? No, neither do I.

What's your doctor's waiting room like?

Have a great weekend!

Thanks for reading,
Linda Pakravan


Please do. I love to know what you think!