As humans, we’re hardwired to know what’s good for us, says David Webster, partner, Ideo (San Francisco). For instance, our intuition tells us that rotten food is not good to eat. But when it comes to knowing what helps us heal in the built environment, we’re falling short, he says.

“Why don’t we value aesthetics enough in healthcare?” Webster asked the audience during his opening keynote speech at IIDEX Canada in Toronto last week. “It’s a huge missed opportunity.”

As an example, Webster pointed to a hospital facility that replaced traditional door signs with fabric-covered ones that incorporated a nature-inspired graphic. “It feels softer and more soothing.”

These small touches, that are too few and far between, play a role in supporting the healing process, he says.

It’s a theme that came up several times during the two-day show, in keynote presentations, educational seminars, and new product introductions.

During the session “Design Prescriptions for Better Health,” panelists Susan Black, Perkins Eastman Black Associates (Toronto), and Julie Sless, Herman Miller, talked about how infusing welcoming touches, such as comfortable furniture, live plants, and artwork, into waiting areas can become a positive distraction for patients and families. “It makes it more pleasant,” Sless says.

Yes, there’s a cost associated with these aesthetics, but as more evidence supports the value of these elements in the healthcare environment, it’s important that they retain a place in the design conversation—even as the emphasis on cost and efficiency becomes greater.

To help inspire ideas and attributes that are more meaningful and personal, Webster offered some ideas:

1. Be an unexpert: Approaching a project or setting through the eyes of the user can help designers and architects uncover what matters to people and what’s so obvious that it’s missing. “People are surprisingly willing to share and listen to their social networks,” he says.  “What opportunities are there?”

2. Make one to try: Prototyping is important, especially early on in the design process, before ideas get too precious and the stakes too high. “Prototype with reckless abandon,” he says.

3. Co-create: Webster advises making everyone involved and a designer. “Everyone has something to contribute.”

Do you agree that aesthetics are a missed opportunity or are they well-valued in healthcare design? As the marketplace evolves, is this thinking changing? Share your thoughts below or send me a note at