Physicians Practice Pearls: Just Say No to Bad Art

July 15, 2007

How to select appropriate office artwork. (Yes, it matters.)


Many practices pack in 40-plus patients a day just to break even. That doesn’t leave much time to focus on “superfluous” details, such as interior décor. Understood and appreciated. But patients do partly judge a medical practice by the way it looks, so as busy as you are, a modicum of attention here is in order.

Often, what passes for waiting-room décor is repurposed furniture “cleverly” appointed with a dusty, dried-flower arrangement and old motivational posters slapped on the wall. Or these examples, all from real practices, unfortunately:

  • Multiple shots of you with your expensive custom cars, which you race on the weekends.

  • A reproduction of a moody adolescent by a well-known expressionist: The girl is in every way isolated, peering at the viewer from outside a decrepit, vine-encrusted window. Creepy.

  • Oil paintings by a local artist (good), with the high price tags prominently displayed (bad).

  • Tiny stickers scattered over an expanse of wall - cheap, easy, and disturbingly common in both adult and pediatric practices. Less loathsome in the latter, but still very unappealing.

The inadvertent, telegraphed message? Cut-rate, self-important, and far from patient-centered. You can do much better - without breaking the bank.

Could you craft the artwork yourself? Possibly. What your friends won’t tell you, though: Hobbyists risk coming across as pompous if their work isn’t really up to show standards. But whatever the source, always consider a work’s subject matter before nailing it up for all to see. One well-known physician-author advises such exam room art as M.C. Escher prints, which can engage patients’ minds. Could be good, but ponder the context in which these works will be viewed. Will following endlessly twisting, illogical staircases be a pleasant distraction for a patient facing a cancer diagnosis? Unlikely. She’s already feeling confused and panicky without a framed print amplifying her fears. Likewise for that picturesque watercolor barn: What says “serenity” to you could in fact say “loss” for someone with a sick relative or a serious illness of his own. Even aggressively abstract images can be mentally unsettling in certain surroundings.

Don’t over analyze, but do try to see art through your patients’ eyes. My recommendation? Keep it simple, positive, and heart-felt:

  • Local artists. You need not accept every piece offered. They could even be discreetly on consignment. Insert a card into the frame, referring interested patrons directly to the artist in lieu of a crass price tag.

  • Children. Give them a theme and supplies, and watch the masterpieces roll in. Their work can be quite engaging when smartly matted and framed. Case in point: a colorful crayon drawing of a dinosaur with the caption, “The T-Rex cried for nothing - the flu shot didn’t hurt a bit!”

Stuck for ideas? Check out “Improving Healthcare with Better Building Design,” a book edited by Sara Marberry. Find it online at the

American College of Healthcare Executives.


Laurie Hyland Robertson

is senior editor for

Physicians Practice

. She regularly conducts practice makeovers for journal readers. She can be reached at lchrobertson@physicianspractice.com.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of

Physicians Practice.