hospital design, healthcare art

Abstract Art in Hospitals?

It is said that “a picture says a thousand words.” That is the magic of art that it can trigger a feeling, release an emotion or conjure a thought. But if that thought is, “wow, that’s really lame,” or “man, that’s some of the worst art I’ve ever seen,” then it should not be in a healing environment. Unfortunately, abstracts generally fall into that category. I say generally, because there are abstracts that could be considered uplifting and I say unfortunately, because I have an abstract painting in my office that a friend painted that I absolutely adore. The fact is, that much of what you see in terms of abstract paintings are not well suited for the hospital environment.
One reason is that they don’t give you what you need when you’re in a hospital. Here’s an example. I sat in this ER waiting room with a friend who was suffering and waiting to be seen. This print was the only thing on the wall so I let myself go into it as a visitor waiting with my friend trying to comfort him any way I could. Instead of just riding out the experience and staying in the moment, I found my thoughts judging the hospital. I thought to myself, “Is this the best they could do? Really?” “What is this suppose to do for either of us?” “If it were engaging, I could maybe drift off immersed in it.” “If it were interesting, I could just sit and admire the talent that created it and feel inspired by it.” “If it was related in any way to my having a pleasant experience while I sit here I could have positive thoughts about the hospital and quietly feel a sense of confidence that my friend is in good hands. After all, if they have such a considerate sense of those waiting, they surely must be thoughtful in their treatment as well.” But no, instead I’ve developed a skepticism about whether they care at all based on this print that I cannot attribute any value to.
hospital art, the patient experience, compassion in healthcare environments
art for hospital environments
But, not wanting to go down the road of having a negative experience, I made some excuse for the hospital to justify this as their choice for the waiting area. Of course the jury was still out until I saw what other art they had inside the Unit. So we were called and were led through the doors into the unit and BAM! this is the first painting directly in front of us.
hospital art, healthcare design
I’m sure my face made some kind of unpleasant grimace when I saw this. Having created so much art over the years for hospitals and focusing on critical “first impression” areas, I was taken back by this one. A dead tree that looks like something you’d find on the cover of “The Occult in America” was my first thought. Hey, I might actually enjoy this painting if I were in a museum or a Goth Beauty Salon. But I’m just thinking, “Missed the mark here once again.” My impression was, “wow, this hospital has no clue who its users are at all.” But still being the optimist I didn’t give up. Surely the hallway would reveal more thoughtful art as we head to the exam room. But, alas, it was not to be. More artwork that said, “We were not thinking of you at all when we decided to put art on the walls that have no message that would call forth confidence, reassurance, compassion, trust or caring. Here are pictures of some of them.
the patient experience
hospital art, healthcare design
healthcare design, hospital art
healthcare design, patient satisfaction
And what is this weird design on the floor? Is it a Celtic symbol or some kind of branding? They were everywhere. Is this supposed to be some kind of wayfinding directive? It just made all the abstracts seem more odd.
Abstract forms in a hospital do not add anything positive to the experience. This is a time when you want everything to be clear and concise. What is going to happen to me here? Can I trust that I will be given the best care? Do the nurses and doctors really care about people here?
Abstract art uses shapes, form and lines in a non-objective, non-representational manner. From my tenure in a psychiatric hospital working with art therapy, I discovered that everyone views abstract art based on their conditioning and beliefs just as any other kind of art such as a landscape. The difference with abstract art is that it tends to conjure more negative responses from its vague, often confusing and busy makeup. If there is no frame of reference in the mind for the shapes and patterns, the mind will make something up based more often on their skepticism of what it is supposed to be. They may even feel shame that they can’t identify it as something concrete or that they maybe can’t “feel” anything in regards to it.
That being said, children would have an easier time with an abstract because they haven’t refined their opinions about the world yet and they live with a lot of uncertainty about the world around them. Often a child will take just one shape and make sense of it or see a picture in it because their imagination has not yet been squelched. Adults, on the other hand can get frustrated looking at an abstract because the mind wants to make sense of it – put it in a category or nail it down to an explainable representation.
Best rule is to steer clear of abstracts for the hospital environment. If it doesn’t have a clear message that results in a calm, relaxed experience for both staff and patients, it’s not a good choice. Healing art contains color, themes and that are recognizable in terms of what a person can collate without much thought. The idea is that patients should instantly get a sense of your intentions, your benevolence and the level of care they can expect to receive. Can design and artwork lend a hand in this? Definitely yes.

If you would like a free copy of “The 10 Common Mistakes Made in Purchasing Hospital Art,” or want more information on how to bring compassion into the healthcare environment click here.

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