Art has taken on many forms and functions in healthcare design. When used effectively, art has a profound potential to change how patients, visitors, and staff perceive, interpret, and react to the spaces around them. 

We already know through evidence-based design studies that art can have a positive impact on patient outcomes. Empirical data shows that, physiologically, patients respond positively to specific types of art. That data has informed the design of many recent projects.  

What evidence-based principles do not (yet) tell us is that art can do more for a healing space than just reduce stress. 

Before you read further, stop and ask yourself, “What is art?” Defining the word is an inherently elusive task due to the subjective nature of art. Look “art” up in the dictionary and you will find something to the effect that art is “the quality, production, or expression of what is, according to aesthetic principles, beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance.” (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition). By definition, art can be more than just eye candy. 

In today’s healthcare environments, art can be much more than merely a “positive distraction” in a complex atmosphere. It can help engage and garner support from the local community, enhance our understanding and interaction with a space, and help us process life-changing events. 


Art and the community

AtlantiCare Health System is an institution that believes in the healing power of art. They created their “Healing Arts Program” in 2004, when planning the addition of the Center for Childbirth on their Mainland Campus in Pomona, New Jersey. 

The program offers a progressive approach to art procurement. Rather than limiting art selection to the art consultant and a few key stakeholders from the C-suite, the program opens up art selection to members of the community. The program supports local artists and allows community members to become stakeholders in the mission of their regional healthcare facility.

Since its inception, the Healing Arts Program has focused on procuring art created by local artists and selected by a diverse group of community members to all of AtlantiCare’s campuses.  

When AtlantiCare set out to create a nine-story bed tower addition on their Atlantic City campus in 2005, architects and designers worked with the Healing Arts Program to incorporate principles of evidence-based design. The goal was to create a healing environment that is connected to nature through views, organic forms, and textures.

The art selection committee procured art to support the design of the space. The art depicts landscapes and natural elements that are tangible and soothing to patrons, contributing to the healing process. The result was the installation of over 500 pieces of local art that not only supports AtlantiCare’s mission but irrevocably ties the building to its community.


Art as wayfinding

Geisinger Health System’s Critical Care Building is a state-of-the-art addition to the mountainside Wyoming Valley campus. The 24/7 nature of the facility inspired the designers to conceive of an art piece that would create a knowable place on the campus for patients, visitors, and staff, from the inside and outside, during both day or night.  

Collaboration between the designers and a regional artist led to the design of a 108-foot-long mural in the main perimeter corridor on the ground floor. The venetian plaster mural is a gradation of color that softens the “high-tech” quality of the building with the “high-touch” of traditional artisan craftsmanship. 

During the day, the gentle transition of luminescent color guides circulation through the building. At night, the warm glow emanating from the mural orients visitors on the campus and give families a sense of direction while seamlessly integrating into the architectural layers of the building. 


Art as architecture

Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey, is expanding to include a 120-bed children’s hospital accessed through a new main lobby. A top priority in the design process was to use the lobby to create a space to  welcome children and their families. 

The children’s waiting area draws visitors from the main entry with a suspended translucent mobile backed by a glowing LED wall. The form of these sculptural, illuminated art pieces shape the architecture and their size and modulation help bring the two-story space to a scale that is accessible to children. 

The mobile is comprised of translucent cubes that combine to create a globe, an allusion to the diversity of the local community. Natural light from clerestory windows reflects and refracts through the slowly oscillating cubes to create an interesting play of colored light on the surrounding surfaces. The LED wall gradually changes color in response to daylight, while at night the color shifts take on a life of their own.

The result is an environmental effect that transforms with the change from natural to artificial lighting, engaging and soothing visitors. The art and architecture are completely interconnected, simultaneously shaping and responding to each other. 


Art as an experience
When expanding and renovating the Maternity Center at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania, the goal was to give patients and family a rejuvenating, holistic experience during their stay. Through the use of indirect lighting, materials that reference earth and water, and a high-tech multimedia, multi-sensory art installation, the waiting and reception area sets the tone for achieving that goal. 

Upon arriving in the unit, mothers and visitors are greeted by a digital nature photography montage that is choreographed between motion stills and video across three screens. The visuals are accompanied by soft music, composed specifically for the imagery and its transitions. The photography is comprised of regional landscapes including waterfalls, rolling hillsides, and forests.

The montage cycles gradually through the seasons, from landscape imagery to detail shots, evoking a sense of life-changing journeys. Combining sight and sound, the art represents the cyclical nature of life and provides a contemplative environment for family and friends as they await the arrival of a new loved one.



As these examples show, art in healthcare environments can influence us in more ways than we realize. It can hold many functions: It can tie us with our community, help us find our way, connect us to physical space, and provide a welcoming, relaxing atmosphere.

As our understanding of what we perceive art to be evolves, so does the potential for what it can contribute to the healing process. So, the next time you approach a project, stop and explore “what art is” and what it can do for your healing environment. HCD