A bout with a nasty flu sent me to the hospital for a chest x-ray last week, which, beyond the x-ray itself, involved nearly six hours spent alone in a small waiting room. As a working mother of two small children, it is rare that I spend any time alone, so the irony of this brief exercise in imposed isolation was not lost on me. Shelter magazines, long expired, did little to appease my boredom, and so, as my fever pitched and my delirium increased, I was left to ponder things like life and death (my own) and, of course, design which in the case of the examination room in which I now found myself, evidenced itself in the paucity of anything even remotely resembling design.
I have had several hospital experiences over the past decade, and each has impressed upon me the scarcity of good design in the interest of public health. When my first child was born, I spent the early post-partum hours in a typical recovery room, with other new mothers. Exhausted and semi-conscious, my peripheral awareness of a sort of beige abyss was occasionally punctuated by explosions of extreme color. Later, I realized I'd been sharing my room with an Indian woman, whose aunties clad in colorful saris had drifted in and out of the room while I was slowly regaining consciousness. But this was nothing compared to the visual excess I experienced a day later, when I was moved to The Christie Brinkley Room: yes, the supermodel's birth experience at this particular hospital had been so positive, that she'd sent her decorator to re-do one of the rooms on the maternity ward, complete with ceiling frescoes, chintz curtains and a host of matching upholstery variations.
Several years later, I spent 33 days in an intensive care unit of a major metropolitan hospital with my mother who was, at the time, fighting for her life. I emerged from this vigil a little more conscious, and certainly more appreciative, of the heroic efforts of medical professionals and the technologies that serve them. But a part of me the part that survived Christie Brinkley and sat waiting for those x-ray results last week was surprised, even shocked at the lack of organization, the complete absence of a kind of coordinated visual context for such activity.
Hospital rooms are architectural oddities: they're all function with no form. To the extent that, in matters of critical care, timing is everything, why should it matter? Then again, why shouldn't it?
On a very basic level, hospitals are partial to monochromatic colors, which is itself hardly cause for alarm. But what can be said about the randomness of equipment, its placement, its relationship to the physician, to the patient, to the space itself? In my temporary confinement last week, I counted no less than nineteen different pieces of equipment, each serving its own designated purpose yet with no apparent regard for the other eighteen components sharing its six-by-six foot cell. From the electrocardiogram machine to the latex glove dispensers to the hanging stethoscopes to the signage, it was a study in visual chaos.
It is not hospital beautification that concerns me, but rather, the randomness with which the hospital examination room, as a microcosm of the hospital itself, seems destined to treat its patients. And as hospitals grow technologically, this problem repeats itself interminably. Computers are manufactured by different suppliers and rarely, it seems, based on any kind of consensus-based visual vocabulary. Simply put, this means that a physician entering a hospital room might be faced with as many as half a dozen different monitors, each displaying critical information in what is, effectively, a host of different languages. Blood pressure. Blood oxygen. Heart rate. Body temperature. The list is a lengthy one, and yet not only does each monitor read differently, each piece of hardware is configured differently, making for a series of visual displays that are, by their very nature, exceedingly complex. To the degree that design can simplify, or at least clarify, this seems like a no-brainer: where are the design teams working with hospital suppliers and administrators? Maybe they're out there, but from my brief encounters with hospitals, I've yet to see evidence suggesting design has a role of any such consequence in a hospital setting.
In closing, a disclaimer: I am not now nor have I ever been a medical professional. My comments are those of an occasional patient, a discriminating consumer, and a visual critic. It occurs to me that human beings have an uncanny ability to adjust to pretty much anything, even (and especially) poor design conditions. Moreover, the human psyche possesses a remarkable ability to overcome such conditions, as I noted only yesterday while I watched my son the same child who spent his newborn hours surrounded by chintz playing a video game in a local theatre lobby. He'd never played it, yet rose to the challenge with an innate sense of timing and button-pushing that resulted in serious bonus points. How did he know what to do, where to look, when to click? "Mommy," he replied with no shortage of exasperation, "I know video games." I suppose this is how doctors must feel when they enter a room with eighteen different monitors: after all, they know medicine, and besides, there is nothing in the Hippocratic oath that requires them to know design.
Designers, on the other hand, have no such oath. And frankly, no such excuse.