What Price, Fame?

May 15, 2014

Of the architects and designers who read Healthcare Design, many (most? all?) have worked in other disciplines outside the healthcare space. Residential, hospitality, retail, education… they’ve dipped their toes in a variety of waters, and many of them still do. I’ve immersed myself in a range of design disciplines over my journalism career, as well, from packaging design to retail and hospitality interiors and now, of course, healthcare architecture and environments for aging.

Bringing to life a building or a room can be influenced by any and all design disciplines, and it should be, as research, technology, and human preferences evolve. But we all know that healthcare facility design is a pretty distinct animal, with strict parameters, unique challenges and constraints, and high stakes for the building’s inhabitants.  

Maybe that’s why our industry—more than others I’ve covered—seems to have a fairly strong undercurrent of resentment when “starchitects” and capital-D Designers get into the healthcare game. Michael Graves has been getting lots of mainstream press recently, some of it offering him up as a modern-day messiah of hospital design. Not to take anything away from Graves’ legacy, his sincere motivations, and his talent as a designer—but for those of you who’ve been not only preaching, but delivering, patient-centered healthcare spaces for years, the annoyance is easy to understand. It’s not just Graves who has architects grumbling, either; I’ve seen the eye-rolling and heard the scoffs when the subject of other projects “designed” by marquee names comes up. I get it.

On the other hand, I spoke with well-known residential and hospitality designer Clodagh last year at the Healthcare Design Conference, where she presented a line of textiles she’d created for CF Stinton on the exhibit hall floor. At the Environments for Aging Conference earlier this month, there was a lot of interest in a new Michael Graves-designed line of linear shower drains for Quick Drain USA. There’s an undeniable draw to fame and celebrity, and in a lot of cases (dare I say it), the designs themselves live up to the hype.

But there’s a difference between product design and facility design, isn’t there? It’s easier to make a single object both beautiful and functional than it is to do the same for an entire building—again, one in which “functionality” may mean the difference between life and death.

I don’t mean to oversimplify an admittedly nuanced topic, but I would love to get reader perspectives on this. No name-calling, please—but is there room at the healthcare design table for architects and designers of all kinds, or is there a baseline of specific healthcare experience necessary just to get into the door? If so, what is that baseline?



Architecture and Design

I've had the privilege of working with two starchitects on two nationally known and renowned healthcare projects in the US. I learned a tremendous amount from both. I also learned that "Healthcare Designers" come with a lot of code and practice based baggage, thinking they "know something" only because it is convention, code or recommendation by some health enabled group and cost effective. As a medical planner, it was thrilling to be asked "Why?" over and over again by the starchitects and their design team members. Having to defend (professionally) and explain to one leadership group of our profession, why we do healthcare architecture, who and what it enables and cares for is a career making opportunity and experience. Both these projects were very successful, why? Mutual respect, inquisitiveness, adherence to a vision/concept and the ultimate goal of a truly designed experience is all aspects and respects. Team well, qualified designers always welcome, star or not.


Kristin, I firmly believe that most designers work in this space because of the opportunities for authentic human impact that it affords. True, some of us have devoted large swaths of our careers to healthcare - but that doesn't mean that designers new to the space should somehow be marginalized.

The folks harrumphing in presentations should look at their practices and ask how they can work more effectively, either with the superstar at the podium or other design firms. No one firm has all the answers.

Collaboration is the key to a future for healthcare facilities that house a more complete, proactive, stress-free and healthy patient experience. I say, the more the merrier!


I think collaboration benefits everyone. As I think about it more, I wonder how much of the resentment is a matter of giving credit where credit is due--and that while star designers may indeed be bringing a valuable "outside" perspective to the table, they may (in some cases) be getting more credit for the whole project than they deserve.