The building and interior spaces we create communicate with users through their architectural elements: walls, floor pattern, ceiling configuration, color, lighting, and materials. Collectively, these elements tell people where to look, where to pause, where to go next. They shape how people will feel throughout their journey. When this communication is clear and cohesive, the result is a healthy space, stress-free and easy to navigate. The key to success is this: Less is more. Say less, and say it with clarity.
Clarity begins with clear edges. Where are the boundaries that tell me how big and what shape the room is? Where are the cues that tell me where to go next? Psychological studies tell us that humans perceive rooms with simple, clean geometry better than those with compound shapes. Clearly defined spaces, linked together, provide easy wayfinding. A visitor should arrive at a destination “naturally,” using subtle architectural cues rather than signage, which poses issues for the visually impaired and those from different cultures.
An interior space should also refrain from saying too much. Visual clutter and sound chaos not only impede the clear reading of a space but also are major sources of stress in themselves. As designers, let’s restrain ourselves from introducing too many “design ideas” into our projects. On the stage of architectural simplicity, there can be only one main character at a time.
In the healthcare sector, similar principles can be applied to one special group of users — people with chronic pain. According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, approximately 76.2 million Americans, or one in four of us, have suffered from pain lasting longer than 24 hours, and many suffer from pain on an ongoing basis. The physical environment plays a huge role in how we cope with pain and how we heal. For instance, we know that natural light is good for healing, but too much is harmful. In our firm’s design of cancer hospitals, we take special care to arrange infusion bays so that patients have views to the outdoors but also have control over how much light is allowed in. Soothing interior colors, with low contrast, are also recommended.
Users of healthcare facilities include not only patients — suffering from pain and treatment side effects, and fearful about their future — but also family and friends who worry for their loved ones, the hearing and visually impaired, the aging, and non-English speakers who navigate unfamiliar environments with diminished or challenged senses and/or language barriers. Another group of users, medical professionals, do important and challenging work on short timelines with tremendous consequences. Healthcare facility architects and designers need to recognize the importance of design that soothes, comforts, and reduces stress for users.
It’s also important to acknowledge that healthcare facilities aren’t the only place where one finds the sick, the disabled, the stressed, and the overworked. At any time, we all can fit into these categories, and we visit and navigate buildings of all types. While there is a place for building spaces that are stimulating and invigorating, there is also a need for public buildings that allow simple and easy dialogue with users.
When it comes to communicating with building users through architecture, say less but say it with clarity and consistency. Less is healthy.