Waiting rooms are often the very first experience a patient has with a healthcare provider. The waiting room sets the tone for the entire visit, so designing a supportive, attractive, and functional waiting room is crucial to patient satisfaction and retention. 

Imagine you’re a parent with small children, arriving at the doctor’s office for an appointment or to visit a loved one. You’re anxious, of course, and it’s been raining, which doesn’t help. You stand at the front door, looking around, trying to figure out where to check in, where to put your umbrella, and where your kids can play while not bothering others. 

If the waiting area is well-designed, you barely hesitate at the door. The space feels calm, and you know exactly where to go, where to stow your things, and where your kids can safely play. If it’s not designed with intention, however, you may feel even more stress, impacting your impression of the provider and your own health. 

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Image of Ortho NC, courtesy of High5 Productions

There are four design tips that can drastically improve any waiting room experience: designing subliminal wayfinding into the space, providing appropriate areas for everyone, specifying appropriate and calming materials, and paying attention to the little details. 


The first step of wayfinding is knowing where you are—then you need to know where you’re going, and how to get there. Healthcare facilities can be overwhelming, especially if they’re located within a larger institutional facility. Adding some subtle touches like the floor number, a unique art wall to serve as a landmark, and subliminal cues about where the front desk is can make the difference between feeling lost and feeling composed. 

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Image of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, courtesy of High5 Productions

Areas for Everyone

Not every waiting room needs an area specifically for children. But the designer should consider who is likely to use the space and provide accommodations for those users. If the primary users are an older population, then ensuring that most of the seating are chairs with sturdy arms is important, as generous and secure chair-arms assist with sitting down and standing up. 

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Image of Ortho NC, courtesy of High5 Productions

If the space is a multi-doctor clinic, then ample seating to support a large number of users is important—most people prefer not to sit immediately next to strangers, especially in the post-covid era. Likewise, a medical spa may need a more intimate and less clinical waiting area. An emergency room in a hospital should have an area dedicated to children, especially since the waiting times can be unpredictable. Providing extra-wide seating options allows both larger people and parents with small children a space to comfortably sit. 

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Image of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, courtesy of High5 Productions


All healthcare spaces, regardless of function, should be designed with appropriate materials. Finishes should be cleanable and easy to maintain, consistent, and aesthetically pleasing. Select calming colors, as loud bright colors can agitate and excite. Incorporating biophilic materials such as wood and stone—or even materials that look like wood or stone—can reduce stress and subconsciously calm users. Indoor plants can improve air quality and mental health; incorporating nature-themed art is also a low-maintenance way to include biophilic elements in a space. 

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A little visual variety in a space is also important—give the user something to look at, but without overwhelming them. For more information on material selection in healthcare setting, click here.

The Details

The mark of a good design is attention to detail. Thinking through potential needs users may have the in the space can take a waiting room from good to great. Consider the story at the beginning—where should you put your umbrella? Hang your coat? Can you plug your phone into a convenience outlet located in the furniture? Are reading materials provided? Is the overhead lighting abrasive and off-putting, or are there lamps provided to layer the light? 

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When designing healthcare waiting rooms, it’s important to be intentional. After all, the users may not be the patients—many families and caregivers spend more time in the waiting room than the patients do, so ensuring that the space is supportive everyone can make the time spent in the room less stressful. 

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For more information on design solutions for healthcare spaces or to be connected to Interior Elements, click here.

About the Author

First Impressions: Four Ways to Improve a Healthcare Waiting Room

Anna Ruth Gatlin, PhD, is an award-winning interior designer and design researcher. Currently an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at Auburn University, she transitioned to full-time academia after a career practicing institutional, commercial, healthcare, and educational design.