Empathy by Design at Planned Parenthood of NYC

Focused on reaching the widest, most diverse audience possible with a message of welcome and safety, Calori & Vanden-Eynden (New York) designed a complete signage system, including a welcome wall, murals, and donor recognition for Planned Parenthood of New York City’s new, state-of-the-art reproductive health and education center in Queens. The result is beautiful, economical and so effective it has become the North Star for other similar centers across the country, guiding and inspiring their own re-imagining and wayfinding systems.

Working in close collaboration with the architecture firm of Stephen Yablon Architecture and Planned Parenthood staff, C&VE Principal and SEGD Fellow David Vanden-Eynden and Lead Environmental Graphic Designer Jessica Schrader effectively overturned a decades-old approach to what the interior of a healthcare clinic should look like. Together, the project team established an entirely new personality and appearance for the clinic that includes re-thought nomenclature, warm and cheerful colors, and soft lines as well as a separation of client-facing zones from potentially off-putting medical service areas.

Vanden-Eynden and Schrader undertook the project with a good understanding of the reproductive health care, education and advocacy services Planned Parenthood provides. Tours of other Planned Parenthood of New York City facilities and many discussions with staff strengthened their empathy for the thousands of women and men who use PPNYC services and brought insight to the challenges they and the staff face. Working within a small budget, C&VE would create signage that counters existing political and personal impressions, helps to mitigate the often stressful effects of necessary security or the nature of a client's visit, and presents a positive and reassuring environment for PPNYC clients coming from the diverse population of Queens, where there are over 140 languages spoken with English commonly a second language.   

With the fresh perspective of outsiders, the designers first tackled what to them was the obvious problem of nomenclature. “Clients are always accompanied by staff as they move through the facility,” says Vanden-Eynden, “so the need for labeling was greatly reduced. This gave us the freedom to minimize words and focus on symbols, colors and numbers—things that most users, regardless of language, could recognize. We eliminated intimidating or dispiriting medical terminology, such as Procedure Room, to further de-institutionalize the facility.” Losing words in the identification system was a different concept for the PPNYC staff, where assigning a label to every room was the norm. The team was pleased with the space, simplicity and clarity it afforded. Without words and the need for multiple language translations the signs could be smaller and cleaner in their message. They did use words derived from Planned Parenthood's core values statement translated into eleven of the most commonly spoken languages on non-wayfinding signs; these provide an overwhelming message of support, safety and welcome to users of all backgrounds.

Supporting a positive emotional state among PPNYC clients—and staff—was first and foremost in the thoughts of the designers, who with SYA implemented a cheerful color palette and clean simple shapes to counter any gloomy outlook and soften the overall appearance. “The colors reinforce the notion of friendly and approachable; they are saturated but not intimidating,” says Schrader. “For example, we decided early on not to use red or black.” Color plays a defining communications role in wayfinding too, where a strategy proposed by SYA used colors to aid in circulation with the “green” stair linking reception, check-in and community areas and “blue” stair providing access to healthcare and interaction with PPNYC personnel. Core service areas were distinguished using LED lighting and a variety of cheerful colors and where sign colors correspond to accent walls inside of rooms and offices. Rooms that had to be labeled for fire and safety or health and welfare were kept intentionally out of the client's view. So, the spatial organization used color to reflect the clustering of activities.

“We used the circle extensively, paired with simple lines,” says Schrader. “In the stairwells and at key locations, we placed circular signs that we called bubbles. They are primarily decorative and fun, but inspirational too. They're covered with translations of words like ‘care’ and ‘empowerment.’ They're not necessarily meant to be read; the notion was to reinforce that this is a place where people can feel cared for and that it's full of compassion and understanding. 

Circles were used in the donor recognition program, too, where disks of the same size but differing thicknesses, distinguish donor categories and dollar amounts and color creates some visual variety without a lot of expense. The donor wall is a perfect example of how the project used simple forms, inexpensive materials and well-orchestrated fabrication techniques to keep costs down while maximizing visual impact. Names were etched onto 1/8-in. aluminum disks that had been cut in stacks and laminated to acrylic discs of various thicknesses, which were similarly produced in batches. Adding or updating names is very easy. Etched aluminum and digitally printed acrylic are the two dominant materials, both products that last a long time and deliver good value for their cost.

“It was a very fast project,” says Vanden-Eynden, “we started in early December and went to bid mid-February”. Once with the fabricator, the team had about two months of submittal review and fabrication and then a few weeks to ship and install. C&VE worked closely with the fabricator to assure everything was finished and installed (discs were a challenge to install plumb) in time to meet the May 2015 ribbon-cutting.

From the beginning, everybody involved was extremely dedicated to the project, rallying around the cause and ultimately delivering a simple, relaxed and inviting environment that welcomes clients into a safe and friendly space for their healthcare. “The design process was a labor of love for C&VE and for me personally,” says Schrader, adding that “PPNYC has gained tremendous positive recognition for this facility. The simplicity of the signage design solution allows it to be replicated at low cost in other Planned Parenthood facilities.”


Project Name: Planned Parenthood of New York City

Client: Planned Parenthood of New York City & Stephen Yablon Architecture

Location: Queens, N.Y.

Open Date: June 2015

Project Area: 14,400 sq. ft.

Wayfinding/Environmental Graphic Design: Calori & Vanden-Eynden/Design Consultants

Fabrication/Digital Integration: Archetype

Collaborators: Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design

Architect: Stephen Yablon Architects

Photos by: John Bartelstone

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