Sight and touch are the senses most obviously affected by the built environment, and in a healthcare setting, what you hear and smell are also important factors that can’t be ignored. Masking efforts are one way to go. In some case, you can take a more active approach.

“In emotional design, the most senses reached in a project, the more effective the experience will be,” says Vanessa Zaffari, a partner at Brazilian design firm Smile Co. In April 2012, the company began working with Mãe de Deus Hospital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, as part of an effort to enhance the 34-year-old facility’s patient experience and minimize the perception of hospitals as being cold and empty. Specifically, the project addressed the main lobby, elevators, main circulation and waiting area, traumatology entrance, cafeteria, and radiotherapy center.

For this project, a combination of soothing sights and smells became the focus. “An emotional design approach, including aromatherapy, matches with our vision of constantly enhancing the human experience,” says Nestor Zimmerman, chief engineer, Mãe de Deus Hospital.

Starting with the main circulation paths, large-scale graphics of nature scenes lead patients and visitors from a new entrance and parking elevators to the hospital. To further enrich the experience, an aromatherapy scent with a lemongrass base is distrib­uted via diffusers. Zaffari says the scent was chosen for its familiar and fresh character­istics, which are credited with reducing mental tension.

The diffusers are concealed in boxes and strategically placed around the facility, in­cluding near trash cans, says Angela Pinto, partner at Smile Co. Three different box con­figurations were created with a total of 10 units used to cover more than 12,000 square feet within the hospital.

In the visitor waiting area, four 10-foot-long panels with outdoor scenes create a park-like environment, where aromatherapy is also used. Health regulations restrict the use of aroma diffusers in procedure areas, so designers introduced the concept of biophilia in the radiotherapy center, with large, illuminated graphics of flowering trees on the walls and ceiling, which are designed to help minimize anxiety.

Zimmerman says feedback from families has been strong and the hospital plans to incor­porate emotional design into its ICU and pediatric ICU, as well. “We feel a general improve­ment in patient outcomes and increasing family and staff satisfaction,” he says.