In 2004, after decades of operating from a site in central Denver, The Children's Hospital in central Denver announced it was moving to the new Fitzsimmons complex in Aurora, Colorado. Denver-based Arthouse Design was commissioned to create a signage and wayfinding program for the new, 1.44 million-square-foot Children's Hospital complex and surrounding site.

“Our job was to work with management and employees to develop a wayfinding program for the new complex that was both colorful and functional. In fact, Children's Hospital management repeatedly told us, ‘You cannot make our color palette bright enough’,” says Marty Gregg, Arthouse Design principal and founder.

In addition, the Arthouse Design team's wayfinding program needed to complement the architecture, which had a “regional nature” theme. “Obviously, when you're doing a nature theme in Colorado, you don't use dolphins and pelicans,” says Gregg. “You use icons like buffalo, trout, and pronghorn deer, and you hitch a ride on what exists in the region.”

The team also worked closely with Children's Hospital management on what not to do. “Children's Hospital has done lots of testing with kids about what feels good, and we incorporated that information into our designs,” notes Gregg. “For example, we learned early on to never design anything with clouds and stars because terminally ill kids associate those images with heaven. It sends a shiver up your spine when you hear that.”

Total wayfinding program

Arthouse Design developed wayfinding and signage for the exterior site, parking garage, building interiors, and a donor-recognition signage system. The main design challenges were three-fold.

First, Children's Hospital signage needed to honor the adjacent University Hospital signage program, yet communicate the Children's Hospital personality.

Second, because the hospital complex is situated right on Colfax Avenue (a state highway), signs could not be located any closer than 60 feet to Colfax Avenue, and had to conform to size limitations.

Third, the location of the Children's Hospital Emergency room posed challenges. “If you are coming from the west, you have to turn in before you get to the ER, or you have to drive past the ER and turn in, and head back toward it. That could not be changed,” says Gregg. The solution was to meet with the design review board and get special permission to put red emergency room information on the current signs located near Colfax Avenue.

Arthouse also found a way to provide a huge visual cue to frantic parents rushing a child to Children's Hospital emergency services. Since the facility was not allowed to locate signage right near Colfax Avenue and had to observe size limitations, the firm obtained approval to put the Children's Hospital signature logo-a child holding a bunch of balloons-high up on the side of the main hospital building. The “Children's Hospital Child” logo was crafted into a three-dimensional, 18-foot-high, illuminated sculpture that's attached to the building five stories up.

Once it was fabricated, the sculpture was hooked through pre-drilled glass to the fifth floor structural supports. Then, conduit was run through the fifth floor supports to provide wiring for the illumination.

Exterior signage

Arthouse Design created exterior monolith signage in two basic versions: One with a sandstone-slab base topped with aluminum accents, and the other with brightly colored, curved rectangular boxes with three-dimensional lettering. Building entrance monoliths feature a brick base blended with vertical aluminum frames with inset glass and three-dimensional lettering.

The playful street signs have proved to be one of the more popular elements of the signage program. They feature a sandstone-slab base with a “cap” that encloses and structurally supports a 13-foot-tall aluminum pole with brightly colored directional signs indicating specific areas such as administration, emergency, and more. These street signs are topped with a three-dimensional version of the Children's Hospital logo of the child holding a bunch of balloons, positioned on a gimble so that the logo moves in the wind.

Signage depicting specific outdoor areas located within the complex feature bright yellow pyramid bases, with aluminum poles extending up from the center of the pyramid, and aluminum struts with dimensional steel type inserted within a metal frame and attached to the pole, plus colorful vertical murals and the Children's Hospital logo in gold topping the poles.

Interior signage

The interior signage program incorporates the basic tenets of wayfinding, according to Gregg. “Basically, you designate areas in three ways: by number, by color, and by icon. In doing this, you're hitting visitors with various levels of information, and they are going to remember at least one of them.”

First- and second-floor signage helps visitors make decisions about which way to go, as well as find first-floor amenities such as cafes and stores. Beyond the first two floors, the wayfinding helps visitors locate patient rooms and specialty areas, such as the Cardiac Unit. The color palette includes purple, blue, green, yellow, pink, and orange, and is used as a visual code to identify various floors of the hospital. Floor identification is accomplished with big, square suspended signs featuring that floor's color, a large dimensional floor number, and an animal icon (butterfly, horse, frog, bird, bear, moose, and Rocky Mountain sheep).

In the reception areas of the outpatient pavilion, glass murals that incorporate the ultra-bright color palette and animal images, as well as signs fastened to the walls up near the ceiling, help direct families and their children to specific exam or treatment rooms-by color, by image, and/or by huge letters that are highly visible from a distance.

Donor recognition

Throughout its history, philanthropic support from individuals, foundations, corporations, and associations has played a critical role in providing the resources needed for The Children's Hospital to fulfill its mission. “The new complex required the largest campaign in The Children's Hospital's history,” says Holly Anderson, donor relations director of The Children's Hospital Foundation. “We initiated a formal donor recognition program to honor the community's support and generosity.”

From Anderson's perspective, the donor recognition program at the new complex has a unique quality. “Much of the donor recognition around the hospital involves pieces of art rather than simple lists of names. We have received accolades and inquiries from our colleagues around the nation about our recognition program and the Arthouse designs supporting it.”

The Endowed Chairs donor wall gets some of the biggest “wows,” according to Anderson. Endowed Chairs are established with a single gift or combination of gifts totaling $2 million that provide perpetual support for a physician caregiver in the hospital. To honor donors of these gifts, Arthouse Design developed wall-mounted shadowboxes that recognize the endowed chairs, their donor(s), and chairholder. For an added touch of whimsy, these shadowboxes hold miniature versions of designer chairs created by notable designers such as Frank Gehry and Jasper Morrison.

Another donor-recognition highlight is a massive, 35-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling, modular mural with photos of benefit events, patient ambassadors, and sponsors that all come together in a giant “scrapbook.”

When the donor recognition signs were completed, Anderson (and others) were stunned. “We had all seen the drawings, but we had no idea that when the pieces were fabricated that they would be as remarkable as they are. Everything exceeded our expectations,” she says. “Each donor recognition piece has its own story and includes an element that's hand-made. For example, the Charles C. Gates Society donor wall is a hand-stained leather frame featuring laser-engraving and brushed silver spur. Its craftsmanship is incredible.”

The culmination of years of work

The new Children's Hospital opened with great fanfare after years of design and construction. “This was a huge, long-term, and extremely satisfying project for our staff,” notes Gregg. “The nature of Children's Hospital allowed us to create signage that's fun, colorful, inviting, and interactive, as well as providing the key function of directing people through a large complex-often during medical emergencies.” HD

K. Courtney DeWinter, of DeWinterComm, is a magazine writer based in Denver, Colorado.

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Healthcare Design 2009 September;9(9):34-40