An interior space with a distinct theme is common practice in restaurant and hotel design. But in recent years, more healthcare organizations, particularly children’s hospitals, have begun adopting themed designs—and with good reason. Fierce competition is one market factor fueling this trend. A memorable interior is one way a hospital can stand out among its peers. At the same time, users—patients, families, and staff—have become accustomed to more refined and sophisticated designs in retail and hospitality spaces and expect the same from healthcare buildings.

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Many healthcare architects and designers, however, blanch at the thought of theming, fearing cartoonish or Las Vegas-style execution. But a thorough understanding of the benefits and hazards of theming, combined with a disciplined process and a well-developed concept, can ease those concerns and result in spaces that not only meet complex functional and stringent technical requirements, but also benefit clients and delight users.

Recently, my firm incorporated a “Passport to Discovery” theme at the newly opened University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis (See Showcase here). Our experience yielded best practices that can help in theming any healthcare environment.


What is a theme?

There is a fine distinction between an interior design concept and an interior design theme. Both act as a framework from which further design language can be developed. While a concept deals with the basic planning diagram and defines the relationship among different design elements, a theme is an overlay to a concept that helps tie all of the various spaces together.

At Amplatz Children’s Hospital, the interior design concept was to maximize daylight, aid wayfinding, and enhance the user experience by introducing “light zones” at various points throughout the building. The “Passport to Discovery” theme takes that idea further, designating each floor as a unique habitat and assigning each clinical area (sometimes multiple spaces on one floor) a storyteller that is an animal from that habitat. Each patient is issued a “passport” at check-in; as they travel through the hospital, they receive stamps on their passport.


To theme or not to theme

Amplatz Children’s Hospital did not start with a theme. Our team first proposed an interior concept that incorporated animal footprints and other natural elements from Minnesota’s Northwoods to aid in wayfinding. We called this interior experience “A Walk in the Woods.” The University of Minnesota team toured several children’s hospitals around the country before design began and was impressed by the way memorable themes from those benchmarks distinguished their respective facilities and aided in wayfinding. When they saw “A Walk in the Woods,” they immediately realized that they wanted more. They wanted a true interior theme—one that wasn’t limited to Minnesota and the Northwoods but rather related to Amplatz Children’s Hospital as an institution and to the world as a whole.


The client: your best design partner

When you are developing and executing a theme, your client should be your best partner. To begin, an interior theme should not be pulled out of your hat. It should come from a thorough understanding of your client and their enterprise. How do they see themselves among their competitors? What makes them stand out? What do they take pride in? Understand the culture of the organization and get a feel for the climate, location, and historical heritage of the place.

After the initial “A Walk in the Woods” concept was rejected, we went back to the drawing board, conducting several design charrettes among our internal team and with our clients. From these sessions, we determined that Amplatz Children’s Hospital distinguished itself through cutting-edge research, that it took pride in the “firsts” it has achieved in children’s medical care, and that its user population comes from all over the country, with diverse ethnic backgrounds. When we presented the “Passport to Discovery” theme, it was an instant winner.

As we began developing our ideas, we decided to pursue a theme that would provide many layers of information. Amplatz Children’s Hospital treats patients ranging in age from infants to young adults in their 20s, whose stays can vary from a few days to a few months. For patients with lengthy hospitalizations, we wanted to ensure that the theme would keep them engaged.

Since our goal was to create architecture and not a museum display, we wanted a theme that could be easily incorporated into architectural spaces. Our theme would be imbedded in walls, ceilings, floor patterns, lighting fixtures, signage, and furniture. It would inform the color scheme: yellow for the grassland floor, orange for the desert floor, and so on. We envisioned the theming “clues” in the various architectural and graphic elements being combined to create a “treasure hunt” that would encourage ambulatory patients to move about their floor, helping to relieve the boredom of a long hospital stay while providing information about natural habitats and the diverse cultures that reside in them.

Though the key colors were determined by the theme, the final color palette was developed with direct input from Amplatz patients and their families. We prepared three color studies showing different levels of color saturation and value—“Light and Subtle,” “Light and Cheerful,” and “Bold”—and displayed them on large boards at existing family lounges, where our client representative conducted presentations and collected feedback. Smal
ler versions of the boards were made into laminated mats (for easy disinfection) and circulated among patients. Based on the childrens’ preferences, we created a color palette drawn from the “Light and Cheerful” scheme.

Because we worked closely with the Amplatz Children’s Hospital team throughout the design process, our client became the strongest advocate of the “Passport to Discovery” theme. They made sure that their garage consultant used the correct accent color for each parking level; they coordinated with their various vendors and made sure the storytellers were incorporated on the covers of the wall-mounted CPU units and on the hundreds of clocks throughout the hospital. The result is a space that is integrated down to the last detail.


Reaping the benefits of an interior theme

Interior theming offers several benefits to healthcare facilities. It can instill a unique character, and fuse many functions and uses into a cohesive environment. A children’s hospital often is a hospital within a general adult facility. The building may include an array of departments, such as patient-care units, an emergency department, imaging facilities, and other services that should at once be recognized as integral parts of the children’s hospital and maintain their own identities. Theming allows for that balance of unity and distinction. At Amplatz, “Passport to Discovery” provides unity, and the habitats and storytellers for each patient floor and clinical department express individuality.

An interior theme can aid significantly in wayfinding. The terrazzo floor in the main lobby of Amplatz Children’s Hospital features a compass pattern laid at magnetic north; a child with an actual compass could use it to find his destination within the hospital. The storyteller for each floor is incorporated in all signage. In each elevator lobby, recessed wall lighting fixtures and a backlit image of the storyteller’s environment make up the main wall elevation.

Theming also can introduce warmth, comfort, and whimsy; offer opportunities for diversion from anxiety and tedium; convey useful knowledge; and establish an effective fundraising platform. An unscripted moment at the Amplatz Children’s Hospital open house event illustrates how a successful theme can engage users: After touring the hospital, a young boy turned excitedly to his mother and asked, “Mommy, when can I get sick?”


Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Don’t be too abstract. Look for a theme general enough to cover many topics and be accessible to people of different interests, ages, and education levels. Make sure your theme can be communicated through a minimum of gestures.
  2. Be aware of the ages, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds of all users. A children’s hospital may serve children up to 18 years, with both long- and short-term stays. Parents and staff are users, too. Be sensitive to cultural taboos.
  3. Avoid an unsophisticated or cartoonish approach. Walk a fine line between abstraction and too-literal imitation. Don’t hesitate to consider the “real thing.” Real birch tree chunks (infection control permitted) may be better than plywood tree cutouts with plastic leaves.
  4. Don’t let your theme upstage the architecture. Create a beautiful space that is memorable to users even if they don’t “get” the theme. It helps to start with an architecturally strong design concept. Then, apply the theme as an overlay. Incorporate the theme into the interior architecture thoroughly, through finishes, floor patterns, and lighting fixtures. Integrate the graphic design and signage seamlessly into walls, ceilings, and floors.


A successful themed hospital interior demands a high level of creativity and self-discipline from interior designers and intense collaboration among different design trades. But the hard work comes with rewards—beautiful spaces for people at their most vulnerable times. HCD


Chu Foxlin is an Associate with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For more information, please visit