Designing for Health: Beyond the Building, Leveraging Art to Improve Health Outcomes

Sechelt Hospital Expansion and Renovation, Perkins+Will © Latreille Delage Photography

The relationship between the built environment and health has long been understood, but only recently prioritized, as a key consideration for both healthcare providers and designers. When the nature of healthcare delivery is considered, we immediately think of the individuals on the frontline: the practitioners, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Within the last several decades an emergence of research connecting health and design has lead to a greater acceptance of additional means to improving health. The notion of integrating environmental qualities into the design of a healthcare building in order to positively impact patient recovery has become widely accepted.

With that in mind, the next frontier may be the role of art in the healing process. Just as with healthcare design, this idea is supported by a growing body of research that reveals the physiologic processes taking place when a person is in contact with different forms of art. Some of these processes are related to the release of endorphins that can function as stress and pain relievers for the human body. Evidence-based artwork is the outcome of the analysis of the impact of specific types of art, such as landscape scenes, on patients and staff in healthcare environments. Hospitals and healthcare institutions have shown an understanding of the value of placing evidence-based artwork in their lobbies, hallways, grounds, and patient-care rooms. A 2009 survey by Americans for the Arts reported that stakeholders overwhelmingly agreed that there is a large investment return in creating an art-filled healthcare environment, including health benefits, improved perception of the facility by patients and staff, enhanced donor relations, and a greater connection to the public and community at large. The Creative Center at University Settlement encourages patients, family, and staff to turn to the creation of art as a positive distraction in healthcare environments.


ColumbiaDoctors Midtown, New York, New York. Photo Courtesy of Perkins+Will © Halkin Mason


Integrating art into the design process occurs at a range of scales. At one end of the spectrum is the most common approach of placing a framed painting on a wall or a sculpture on a pedestal. The ColumbiaDoctors Midtown facility employs this approach and includes significant artwork on permanent loan from the JP Morgan Chase collection. The next step up is the inclusion of site-specific artwork that is created with the project’s unique location in mind. The Johns Hopkins Hospital incorporates over 500 works of art, including many that have been produced specifically for the building itself. The Sechelt Hospital, Expansion and Renovation, designed with Farrow Partnership Architects, demonstrates a full integration of art and architecture. The very shape of the building itself is inspired by the cedar bent-box , which is unique to the individuals that the building serves. Large-scale wood murals in the lobby are visible from the exterior and serve to greet visitors with familiar cultural images. It’s important to note that the selection of art is far from a one-size-fits-all collection. For example, the art that most effectively reduces stress for patients in a low acuity health clinic waiting room may not be appropriate for an oncology patient in the midst of a long-term treatment process.

The majority of existing research in the field is based on a static relationship between patient and object; in other words, how a patient passively engages with art through sight or sound. Although the benefits of this arrangement are clear, there are limitations to this research. What is the impact of supporting an active learning engagement between patient and object? What happens when an oncology patient doesn’t simply look at an art object while receiving chemotherapy, but engages with it throughout their stay?

Design firms typically only play a role in the selection of the art program, with little understanding of the post-occupancy affect of the artworks. To answer these larger questions, engagement across both the design and occupancy phases of a project is needed, thus requiring a new type of collaboration model.

At the recent Healthcare Facilities Symposium in Chicago, we presented alongside Art Force’s Director of Healthcare and Art Services, Leslie Palmer-Ross, about a unique way for healthcare institutions to achieve a greater return on their art investments. By creating programming that integrates design and operations while using existing artworks, patients can become engaged in a variety of settings.

Artist in Residence Program, Photo Courtesy of The Creative Center


The presentation, Beyond the Built: Using Design to Develop Art Programming for Patients, featured a collection of artwork by professional artists who are living with illness.  The collection, entitled Still Life, features artists with an understanding of what will visually impact individuals in hospital beds and clinic corridors. Created through a partnership between The Creative Center, a non-profit organization since 1994, and for-profit Art Force, the collection aims to create a social enterprise that will help fund The Creative Center's Hospital Artist-In-Residence Programs.

Drawing from research on evolutionary response theory and biophilia, ­which claims that people in stressful situations prefer nature-driven art, this group of images offers both realism and abstraction in a variety of mediums including painting, drawing, and photography. From the whimsical and humorous to the contemplative and serene, the artworks are available in both large-scale formats–as ‘art on the walls’–and personal-sized images on greeting cards. The images are also used on small-sized prints as incentives for patients, gifts at the check-in or checkout, or as part of the "rate your hospital" package.

In the recently completed Minneapolis Creative Economic Development Study, the importance of art in influencing employee and patient attitudes was acknowledged. Respondents indicated that they would place a high value on artwork created by individuals with health challenges that provides a social benefit through a non-profit and for-profit partnership.


Artist in Residence Program, Photo Courtesy of The Creative Center

With over 20 years of experience in using the creation of artwork as a positive distraction in healthcare environments, The Creative Center at University Settlement provides patients, family, and staff with the technical and aesthetic skills necessary to appreciate art during waiting, treatment, and recovery. Who could better understand what will be visually impactful for these individuals than artists who are, or have been, patients themselves? "I live to paint. After my injury, art became my therapy in both a psychological and physical sense. I stretch and move my hands and body in needed movements while I enjoy the act of creation," says artist Cliff Enright. "Painting transition in landscape is a metaphor for the possibility of swift and positive change. Through art, I define myself as human, not as one who suffers. Art is hope," states artist Aleta Wynn Yarrow

These projects bridge the intentions of the design team and the end users–patients, family and staff members–by using positive distractions to harvest an impact through the creative process.

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