Hospitals Invite Art to Help With the Healing


"I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way--things I had no words for."--Georgia O'Keeffe

"Nature always wears the colors of the spirit." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

My childhood recollections of doctors’ offices and hospitals might be summed up with words like “clean,” “sterile” and “white.” These spaces certainly gave the impression, understandably so, of being utilitarian, and in an intimidating sort of way. Though it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me (at the time) that hospitals and doctors’ offices should look like anything but what they did already, times have changed. In this day and age, children’s hospitals in particular utilize wayfinding and placemaking systems to create warm, friendly environments for spaces that might otherwise generate fear and anxiety.

Wayfinding and placemaking are sophisticated concepts. That is to say, they require a great deal of planning and organization, and even anthropological study, in order to determine human patterns of behavior. At the same time, taking a concerted, thoughtful approach to the design of spaces is not simply for grownups. The Rwanda Healing Project  is one instance of how the perspectives and experiences of children can play a significant role in defining sense of place. But there are many other examples, especially when it comes to addressing feelings of fear and anxiety that we associate with certain places, like hospitals.

A few months ago, Seattle Children’s unveiled a new wayfinding system  that “focuses on the patient and family experience” and helps visitors navigate the expanding campus; the hospital shifted its previous six-zone system into four zones broken down into themes based on geography: Forest, River, Ocean, Mountains.

The system is intended to create efficiency. Just as importantly, however, the zones “feature family-friendly art, including colorful murals and carved surfaces, which correspond with zone themes and support a healing environment intended to calm anxieties and offer discovery, amusement and positive distractions. The art complements other wayfinding elements like signs, symbols and colors.”

In other words, the Seattle Children's hospital wayfinding is not simply about navigation--it utilizes color, art and forms inspired by nature to bring a bit of the outside world inside. What a profound yet sensible idea.

This is yet another example to add to my ongoing list of the successful integration of art/design for both practical and seemingly not-so-practical purposes. Colorful, “family-friendly” art lining hospital walls may seem superfluous…until we consider the perspectives of children and their families.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, boasts similarly impressive graphics and art installations, complete with a magic forest and 6-acre park. These spaces may not be able to change the reality of why families are there in the first place; they aren’t meant to.

However, even as an adult, I can appreciate the appeal to the imaginative nature of human beings that can, even under strenuous circumstances, put us at ease and help us find some sense of peace in the midst of the challenges beyond our control. Art can help achieve this in a way that institutional spaces, however practical and functional, cannot.

One of the downsides of growing up is that we inevitably lose our creative instincts. Realistically speaking, the needs of children and the needs of adults may not always be the same. Yet, there is something that these whimsical environments, designed primarily for children, can teach us about appreciating the beauty of the visual places and spaces around us, regardless of age.