Applying Design and Color to Healing
Theories of design and color and their effect on healing have been circulating for centuries. The challenge of putting these theories into practice today lies in gathering disparate pieces of information to reach a design solution that exceeds patient, provider, and facility owner expectations. Couple that with the fact that the healthcare industry has tended to lag behind when it comes to innovative design, and the challenge becomes even greater. Recently, though, some visionaries have made it their mission to create designs that integrate into healing environments, rather than simply decorating them.
As an example, Cliff Goldman, president of Carnegie, a textiles manufacturer, has been working hard to meld textile design philosophy into the overall healing environment. He has been assisted by a number of expert resources, among them design consultant Louise Russell and NBBJ design principal Rysia Suchecka. Both have studied the role of design and color in healing and have given the concept a great deal of thought, factoring into their own designs elements of history, geography, and patient/caregiver response.
To these experts, the healing properties of design and color are hardly a new concept. According to Russell, who is also a textile designer and a registered, practicing color therapist, the concept dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, when rooms in temples were constructed for the purposeful dissemination of the color spectrum. “It is believed,” she notes, “that the sick were color-diagnosed and then put into one of the rooms surrounding the temple that radiated the particular color prescribed.”
In 1810, Goethe, the German scientist, playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist, elaborated on Newton's theories of color and light when he published The Theory of Color. According to Russell, Goethe's work is highly regarded to this day for its exploration of the psychological and soulful implications of color. Goethe stated that how we experience an object depends on a combination of the object itself, its lighting, and our perceptions of these.
Russell also notes that Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner created a movement at the turn of the 20th century called Anthroposophy, which asserted that everything within our surroundings—from architecture to color, sound, and movement—is instrumental to our well-being.
This history has important modern implications. According to Goldman, the coming generations of healthcare patients are much more design-savvy than in the past, and they want more sophistication in their treatment environments. He says, “They want to feel that the facility is high-quality, focused on healing in all ways, and not institutionally overwhelming.”
Suchecka, a space planner, designer, and architect, seeks to make all wellness experiences more familiar. She says, “When patients pass through hospital doors, they enter a ‘foreign land,’ in which the customs and landscape are unfamiliar.” The role of today's healthcare environment is to put them at ease by providing familiarity and comfort. In essence, healthcare must address more than the physical; the emotional and spiritual aspects of being must be nourished, as well. Understanding that there are psychological and physiological effects to color, as the ancients and classical philosophers did, is an important step toward achieving this, Suchecka notes. She cites as an example preliminary scientific studies showing that red radiation is more likely to produce epileptic seizures than blue light. “When blood pressure, respiration, heart rate, and eye-blink frequency are measured, the color red results in the highest frequency, white lower, and blue lowest,” she reports.
Cultural and social factors also relate importantly to color, Suchecka says. She notes, “For instance, white is the color for weddings in Western societies but for funerals in traditional Chinese culture. Red is associated with rage in the United States, but with happiness in China.” Suchecka adds that healthcare designers need to be color-sensitive specifically in relation to the physical appearance of patients and physicians’ ability to examine them accurately.
In pursuing such findings these days, it would appear that responsibility lies largely with the healthcare designer, who, fortunately, has helpful resources available on a national and international scale. The newly created Academy of Neuroscience of Architecture explores the relationship between the brain and the built environment. The International Association of Colour in the United Kingdom supports the use of color in healing throughout European institutions. A number of recent conferences on the health impacts of light and sound have taken place in the last two years in Chicago, Cambridge, Seattle, and Antwerp.
Moving such healthcare design elements beyond decoration and toward integration into the process of healing is what companies like Carnegie are now seeking to do. According to Goldman, “It is our hope that, through textile design, the term ‘healing environment’ may invoke more meaning to occupants.” The company and its design team have started by exploring light, space, dimension, texture, and color to create environments designed to embrace wellness.
One result of this has been the company's Philosophy fabrics. Initiated, in part, by Russell—a proponent of the mind/body connection in healing—the collection addresses three specific concepts: light, visual therapy, and color, as well as the effect of soft colors in suggesting tranquility and calm. In a pattern, for instance, called “Affirmation,” an inspirational poem, “Desiderata,” by Max Ehrmann, was attractively arranged on the textile. In another pattern from the collection, called “Essence,” Russell uses life-size images of healing plants such as eucalyptus, silver dollar, bamboo, and jasmine. To capture the true “essence” of these plant forms in a way hand renderings cannot, she applied a photo-paint process called “cyanotype.” Using ferric iron salts in a solution that is applied to paper in a darkroom, one places an image or object on this paper and exposes it to the sun to create an image for photocopying. This process allowed her to achieve a realistic image that could then be scanned into a computer and arranged in a repeat pattern. Once weave structures were selected, highlighting the detail and clarity of line and image, true impressions of these plants were made part of the fabric. The result is a fabric that is natural feeling yet graphically sophisticated, and the definition of a “healing fabric.” (Other Russell-designed patterns include “Tranquility,” “Awakening,” and “Illumination.”)
Suchecka, who integrates her design vision with her understanding of space, color, and a healthcare facility's unique local qualities (e.g., temperature, lighting, noise, smells, and tactile sensations), is developing her own new direction in fabrics. She draws her inspiration from views at 30,000 feet, from which the topography reveals itself in patterns of fields, roads, and mountains that give way to the gridded matrices of cities. She sees the aerial view as the ideal vantage point from which to gain perspective and insight across the vast scale of land and life. “Increasing the scale of patterns in fabrics opens up spaces and allows patients to take in more of the fabric's design,” Suchecka says. “It opens up the room, bringing larger fields of pattern and color in.” Her contributions to Carnegie's collection of fabrics are “Freefall,” “Between the Light,” and “Frameless.”
The evolution of healthcare design as of today requires that providers and facility owners consider such questions as: What makes a person happy in a space? From what in the environment do people draw their sense of well-being? How does the environment influence healthcare outcomes? Designers like Russell and Suchecka are helping to blaze the trail in finding answers through use of patterns and color. HD
Robin Angell Carroll founded her communications firm, Angell Ink, Ltd., after her tenure as director of public relations for the Chicago Merchandise Mart. She has served as editor of Perspective, the International Interior Designers Association (IIDA) journal, for three years.