Imagine stepping into the most welcoming space you can picture. Does it have crisp white walls, tasteful art, and stream-lined couches? Or maybe your idea of a perfect space has deeper tones, book shelves, heavy furniture and soft lighting? Then again, maybe it feels like your grandmother’s living room with floral print furniture and arm doilies or like a beach-front cottage, a woodsy log cabin or an airy city penthouse.
That’s the thing about decorating a therapy office – what seems welcoming and safe for one person may feel quite the opposite for another. One person’s shelves of homey Knick knacks can be another person’s oppressive clutter.
If our judgment of a space is influenced by our own tastes and experiences, how can one therapist create an office to suit all patients?
Maybe he can’t. And maybe that’s not so bad. Just as a therapeutic relationship is informed by the personalities involved, a therapist’s office will speak to different clients in different ways. And, if the office is somewhat of a reflection of the therapist, maybe that can help a client to find the right person for her.
That does not mean that a therapist should not follow some best practice guidelines when choosing furnishings and decor. Pictures of garish clowns or whimsical sketches of goblins may make you chuckle, but it does not follow that you should hang those things in your office.
Advice Offered for Designing a Therapy Space
Luckily, there are some guidelines and advice out there for designing a therapy space.
According to environmental psychologist Ann S. Devlin, Ph.D, general guidelines of design include basic advice like ensuring there is a nearby restroom, providing clear signage, and having lighting that can be adjusted both with various fixtures and by drawing shades to cut down on the intensity of direct sunlight.
Devlin is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College who co-authored a 2012 study on impressions of psychologists’ offices.
“Flexibility is an important principle,” she said. “Natural sunlight is good but you may want to use lamps also so that you can change the lighting as it gets darker and to avoid the glare of overhead lighting.”
One item came up again and again in her studies where clients and therapists looked at photos of therapy offices and rated their impressions— the degree to which the space was organized.
“The office needs to be neat and tidy,” she said, “This one turned out to be pretty important in patients’ views, but [oddly] therapists saw it as less important.”
Her research in this area has also pointed to the importance of views of nature. If a choice of one or more windows is not possible, however, artwork would be the next stand-in.
“It does not have to be expensive artwork” she added, “as long as the photographs are good quality.”
Furnishings, and the choice of art work, rugs, throw pillows, and drapes are a lot more personal. Keep comfort levels of furniture, varied seating arrangements to offer choice, and not overdoing decor in mind.
Chairs should be heavy enough not to throw, supportive and wide enough for all sizes to utilize and provide safe seating for the elderly with high arms to assist in standing.
Art work displaying scenes from around the world can help people with varied backgrounds feel more of a connection. One therapist commented that fabric tapestries can bring in a worldly feel all while helping to provide a sound barrier.
With color, some experts recommend staying with warm, neutral tones while others leave it more open to taste. One thing that most agree, Devlin said, is to stay on the lighter side of colors and avoid high saturations.
Research does show that displaying diplomas and certificates can boost confidence in the therapist, Devlin said. Likewise, some design experts suggest that shelves of books add a professional tone to an office.
All of this planning and deep thought about furniture and wall hangings may seem like a lot of trouble and, for some professionals, as not that important in the big picture of setting up a practice. But, while it may be secondary to actual therapy, that does not mean it doesn’t matter at all.
“At the end of the day, the relationship between the therapist and client has to work,” Devlin said, “but there is no reason the office has to work against you. If you are going to buy furniture, hang things on the walls, etc. why not use what we know about that?”