Designing Treatment-Friendly Waiting Rooms

waiting room designPutting some time, money and creativity into how you decorate and arrange your waiting room isn’t an “extra.”

Studies have shown that potential clients make judgments about the competence and caring of therapists within the first five seconds of walking in the door! That impression sets the tone for your therapeutic relationship and for the treatment to follow.

If the initial judgment is negative, it’s more difficult than you might imagine to get past it. You may be unknowingly losing clients because the set-up of your waiting room put them off.

Design Elements

A well-planned waiting room can mitigate client anxiety and set in motion a positive attitude toward you and your work. You don’t need to spend a lot of money but you do need to give it considerable thought. Effective use of the following design elements contributes to making a treatment-friendly waiting environment.

Color: Designers generally recommend soothing colors like light purples and quiet greens. If you simply must have some bright color for your own taste, consider painting just one wall with an intense accent color. Clients can then choose how to orient themselves to see calming or energizing color.

Lighting: Avoid fluorescent lighting and CFLs (Compact Fluorescent) bulbs. The flicker in such lights can trigger nervous system distress in people with traumatic brain injury, seizure disorders or autism spectrum disorders.

Take advantage of natural sunlight whenever you can. If you must use artificial light, lamps with old fashioned incandescent bulbs are the least stimulating to the nervous system of light-sensitive clients.

Seating: Think carefully about how many seats you need. If you see large families or groups, you don’t want anyone to have to wait while leaning against a wall, getting more irritated by the minute.

Because people come in different sizes, your furniture should too. A bench or two is a creative solution for accommodating larger people and for allowing parents to read to their children. Chairs are preferable to a couch as they allow more personal space between those waiting.

Arrangement of seating: This factor is probably the most important consideration when in a group practice or if you see families whose members are in conflict with each other.

People in emotional distress need a sense of personal space. Don’t cluster seating as you would in a living room. Instead, arrange chairs so people aren’t in each other’s line of sight. Strategically place a tall plant, floor lamp or a table between seats.

Place some chairs against the wall for those clients who get anxious if people walk behind them. Arrange seating so people don’t have to intrude on others when they are invited into your private office.

Décor: Pictures of landscapes and seascapes are least likely to activate people and have the added advantage of evoking the calming effect of nature. If your waiting room is windowless, use pictures of windows with a view to open up the space. A framed diploma or license certificate on the wall is reassuring to those who need evidence of your expertise.

Plants can be soothing and lovely but only if you have the time and interest to care for them. Fortunately there are some fabulous fakes out there for those of us who chronically forget to water the real thing.

Although a few personal items can help introduce you to new clients, do bear in mind what they communicate. Also consider what you are willing to lose. It’s not unusual for a distressed client to take an object home – either for comfort or as a hostile statement.

In a group practice, stick to neutral decor so clients don’t judge you each on the basis of colleagues’ interests.

Anxiety relievers: People are less anxious when waiting if they have something to do. If you decide to provide magazines, make sure they are current and that there is always a variety of titles available. Clients find it irritating to be limited to reading material that is three-years-old, tattered and dedicated to a topic that doesn’t interest them in the least. It makes little sense to subscribe to news magazines as they are outdated by the time the week is over.

Better yet, forget about magazines and purchase a selection of large coffee-table books. They are available in a wide range of topics from cartoons to fine art to fashion to travel. People of all ages enjoy them. They don’t get outdated. And they are large enough that they don’t generally “walk.”

Make available a basket of tavern puzzles, stress balls and other stress reliever toys to occupy restless folks. Some practices offer dispensers of hand sanitizers and lotions for self-soothing.

Coffee? Some therapists feel that offering free self-serve coffee and tea helps clients feel cared for and transitions them into the therapy session.

Others say that stocking a mini-fridge with small bottles of water serves the same purpose without the maintenance issues of a coffee machine.

Still others think holding a cup or bottle distracts people from dealing with their issues. There is no data available as yet to help you decide what to do. Good manners, however, dictates that if you’re going to drink something in front of a client, that you offer your client the same.

If you don’t have a receptionist to monitor the situation, do think about whether you can count on children’s parents to keep them safe from hot spills if you provide a coffee set up.

Children’s Corner: If you are a child or family therapist, you will need a children’s corner. Child sized bean bag chairs and a low bookshelf (screwed to the wall to prevent toppling) stocked with kids’ books and a few toys will draw the children to it.

This setup is particularly important in a group practice as you want to be sure other therapists’ clients are minimally disrupted by children’s energy.

Anxious parents aren’t necessarily good supervisors. Your toy shelf should therefore not include “chuck-ables” (things that could seriously hurt someone if thrown) or “choke-ables” (small parts). A dozen colorful foam blocks, a basket of rubber ducks of different colors and sizes, a large rubber jigsaw puzzle and books that appeal to different ages will keep most children occupied for the short time they are waiting.

Cleanliness: Not so finally – It doesn’t matter how thoughtfully you’ve set up your waiting room if it isn’t neat and clean. Although some clients are comforted by a cluttered “lived in” look, most will see it as an indication that you aren’t professional or respectful.

Keeping the toy corner clean goes a long way toward reassuring parents that you care about their kids. Commit to thoroughly sanitizing children’s toys and books on at least a daily basis with disinfectant wipes.

If a child has a cold or seems ill, immediately remove any toys they’ve played with until you’ve had a chance to wipe them down.

Adults get sick too. Those stacks of waiting room magazines in doctors’ offices are germ factories. To maintain a healthy environment, take a few moments every day to wipe off your office reading material as well as those anti-stress toys.

Waiting room photo available from Shutterstock

Designing Treatment-Friendly Waiting Rooms

Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. is an author, licensed psychologist, and a marriage and family therapist who has been in practice for more than 35 years. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central and one of the therapists who answer questions at Ask the Therapist.


APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2016). Designing Treatment-Friendly Waiting Rooms. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Mar 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Mar 2016
Published on All rights reserved.