Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments, Part 1: Integrating Art and Wayfinding

Integrating Art and Wayfinding: Seattle Children’s Hospital

For Seattle Children’s Hospital, art is part of a formula that promotes wellbeing through architecture and interiors, green space and wayfinding. When the hospital opened a new wing in 2013, it was critical to provide a wayfinding system that would help patients, families, visitors and staff find their way through the 1.2 million-sq.-ft. main campus complex, including the new wing and older parts of the building. They already had an established history of using art to create welcoming and reassuring spaces. And when they worked with Studio SC (Seattle) on new, simplified wayfinding for the hospital, they wanted artwork to be integral to the system.

Art, wayfinding, brand

“Thematic art has long been part of our clinical and public spaces, but we felt it was time to move beyond our collection of framed artworks,” says Lisa Reitzes, facility design project manager for Seattle Children’s. “It’s important to understand that hospital environments are places where people live. So we asked, How can we use art in a different way to create environments that promote healing as well as offer calming and imaginative experiences for everyone who spends time at Children’s?”

For Mark Sanders, Studio SC project director, the mission was multi-faceted: developing art that would not only provide moments of hope and positive distraction for patients and their families, but also reinforce the wayfinding program and reflect the Seattle Children’s brand.

Hospital staff wanted the artwork to reflect the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, including its geographic features and animal and plant life. Initially the hospital suggested that Studio SC include animals on the signs themselves to “warm them up,” but Sanders convinced them otherwise. “They agreed that in this complex space, where stress can potentially be high, the wayfinding signage needed to be very clear with no distractions from the information.”

But art still plays a huge role in the wayfinding system. Studio SC recommended reorganizing the space from six to four wayfinding zones, theming them around natural environments of the Pacific Northwest: Forest, River, Mountains and Ocean. Each zone has a specific color and icon to reflect the geographic region the hospital serves. Floor-to-ceiling murals at key landmark moments show indigenous animals being active in the environment, from a bear and its cubs playing in the forest to a family of otters swimming in the ocean. The zone murals reflect the hospital’s mission of compassionate care through the pairing and interaction of the animals in healing environments. They also reinforce the zone identity, providing reassurance that people are headed in the right direction. And they offer a soothing sense of the outdoors for patients and families that may be cooped up inside the hospital for weeks, months or even years.

Finding the right visual voice

The hospital’s art planning team—which included representation from ZGF Architects and hospital facility design and marketing communications along with Reitzes and Studio SC—reviewed the work of many artists before deciding on Lab Partners (San Francisco) for the public and circulation spaces.  Lab Partners’ illustration style is characteristically fresh and playful, while at the same time sophisticated. The art planning team conferred with patients, families and clinical and administrative staff to ensure the artwork captured the right spirit and was consistent with Seattle Children’s brand attributes. They posted mock-ups of the murals along the corridors to test how patients and their families would react to them. “We asked them questions such as, ‘Is that bear too scary?’ and ‘How does this forest scene make you feel?’” says Reitzes.

While she recognizes that images of nature bring the therapeutic effects of the outdoor world inside for patients and families, says Reitzes, “Finding the right visual voice for patients whose ages range from infants to young adults, along with a wide range of families and visitors—is key.”

“We wanted the artwork to be evocative of the natural world without being too detailed or too cartoon-like. There needed to be a level of simplicity and familiarity, and also the right materials, colors and textures to be consistent with the architecture. Finding the right balance was very intense and gratifying work.” Also important, she adds, is art that rewards repeated looking. “It’s great to hear from patients and staff that there’s always something new to see, no matter how many times you’ve looked at it.”

While the hospital considered implementing the art and wayfinding program only in the new wing, ultimately it expanded the program to older parts of the hospital, using it as a way to unify the entire building, says Todd Johnson, Vice President Facilities and Supply Chain.

“Before this project we had a wayfinding system in place that didn’t work very well, but it was elaborate and there was lots of art,” he explains. “We debated just adding another zone name and a set of graphics for the new building, but we chose to re-do the entire system instead. When we approach the system holistically, we create a cumulative effect of recognition. That’s reassuring and comforting, and that’s what we want for our families.” 


Client: Seattle Children’s Hospital

Location: Seattle

Design: Studio SC

Design Team: Mark Sanders (project director); Billy Chen (design director); Cynthia Hall, Faith Berry, Cory Binau (designers)

Architect: ZGF Architects

Fabrication: Tube Art Group

Illustrations: Lab Partners

Photos: Lara Swimmer Photography

The Seattle Children’s Hospital Art and Wayfinding Program was a Merit Award winner in the 2015 SEGD Global Design Awards. For more award-winning projects, see SEGD's Design Awards archive.

More in the series Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments:


Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments, Part 2:  Community and Storytelling.

Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments Part 3: Empathy and Engagement.

Find more great content in your areas of interest in SEGD's Xplore Experiential Graphic Design index!

New Member Offer

Click to access the 2020 "Never been an SEGD member before" $185 sign up offer

Upcoming SEGD Events

2023 Careers in Experiential Design
2023 Wayfinding and Placemaking
2023 Experience Washington D.C.