Years ago, lobbies were small areas where people got the information they needed before quickly moving on to different parts of a healthcare facility. Today, lobbies are destinations where people can spend significant amounts of time thanks to the addition of lots of open spaces and amenities. Designed as a visitor’s first point of contact with a facility, a lobby must send the message, “Welcome. We’re glad you’re here.”

The first impression

Used to greet patients and visitors, offer information and directions, provide a meeting space for visitors, and/or serve as a waiting space before transferring patients to another part of a facility, lobbies support a variety of functions. To make a good first impression, consider whether the space provides a gracious arrival experience, clear guidance, and an inviting environment.

Michael Bedner, chairman and CEO of Hirsch Bedner Associates, says, “Lobbies have the power to charm, dazzle, and entice you. Guests’ impressions of what they are about to experience both start and end with the lobby. That’s why lobby design—the visual images, the total sensory experience—is so important.”

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One important feature of an effective lobby is the ability of visitors to orient themselves to the building and easily navigate through the space. This can be accomplished through visual cues in the interior design. For most visitors, it’s easier to remember a piece of art, a sculpture, or an interesting floor pattern than detailed signage.

For example, Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo, Mich., creates memorable spaces by hanging large sculptural leaves from the atrium ceiling and placing carved colored leaves in glass at the information desk. The carpet pattern and upholstery fabrics continue the nature theme, while a grass-patterned floor tile accents certain areas.

The power of the brand

Be sure to consider a facility’s brand as a design element. Use the interior lobby space to speak to the community and share a brand story that’s authentic, relevant, and cohesive. It’s also a great place to communicate how an organization differentiates itself from the competition. This can be accomplished through the use of color, style, shapes, artwork, and even signage.

The brand story is also an important design tool if a system has multiple locations. A lobby at any satellite site should be consistent with the aesthetic of the main location. Even within a specific facility, there needs to be a connection between the design of the lobby and the rest of the facility. “It would be detrimental if the lobby … raises hopes that the rest of the facility does not keep,” author Frank Mahnke writes in his book, “Color, Environment, and Human Response.”  For example, if the lobby is luxurious but the patient rooms are cold and institutional, patients are going to feel a disconnect. Use interior materials to contribute to a cohesive message and environment.

A holistic approach

Assembling a group of staff members to brainstorm what’s important to them can help shape a holistic approach to lobby design. Gathering feedback from patients and guests through surveys and questionnaires should also be considered. Safety and security are important; so is comfort. What will technology’s role be in the space, if any? Site visits to other hospitals and even hotels can also help target best practices and gain an idea of what to avoid.

To focus on the look and feel of the space, consider that the “look” relates to color, proportion, and scale, while the “feel” is the emotion. Early 20th-century artist Paul Klee said, “One eye sees. The other feels.” Certain design elements can help foster positive feelings, such as a fireplace/hearth to bring a sense of warmth and comfort to a space, while a water feature can add a sense of calming. Access to daylight, views to the outside, and greenery add life.

Varying lighting levels can also be used to create bright and cheery spaces in some areas and more soothing and relaxing places in others. For example, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, in Grand Rapids, Mich., includes dramatic ceiling elements that help guide visitors to the bright red information desk. The space blends color and lighting to create an uplifting feeling.

Giving visitors a variety of seating choices—such as lounge chairs, sofas, benches, and bariatric pieces—can also help them feel more comfortable and in control over one component of their environment. Movable seating, for example, enables visitors to make spontaneous connections—whether they’re talking with people they’ve just met or meeting family members or friends. Placing dividers in other areas of the lobby can help accommodate private conversations or create secluded areas for writing or reading email.

The desired outcome

By allowing your lobby to provide a positive first impression that’s backed with a strong brand, well-planned design, and a friendly environment, you’re paving the way for a better experience for your visitors.

Mary Bamborough, IIDA, is a senior client relations consultant at Haworth Inc. (Holland, Mich.) and is president of the IIDA Michigan Chapter. She can be reached at