Evaluating an Innovative Use of Color and Graphics for Improving Wayfinding in a Mental Healthcare Facility

Presented by: Dr. Saleh Kalantari, Robin Snell

Background and Research Goals As part of its ongoing evidence-based design initiative, [architectural company eliminated for the purpose of blind review] developed a standardized post-occupancy evaluation (POE) process. The firm’s goal in implementing POEs was to provide hard empirical data to inform the design of future projects, to assess the implementation of client-focused design innovations, and to verify the contribution of the design to the quality of the interior environment. This paper reports the implementation of the POE process for evaluating an innovative new wayfinding strategy that the firm’s designers created for a mental healthcare facility in the province of Ontario, Canada. By sharing the process and results of this evaluation, the researchers hope to promote and inform similar efforts to improve the effectiveness of interior design through the use of POEs. Design Innovation The primary goal in the design innovation considered here was to assist with patient and visitor wayfinding in a mental-healthcare facility. By assisting with easy and intuitive movement for those who may have cognitive or information-processing difficulties, the designers hoped to contribute to lowering patient stress and decreasing the potential for patient injury. For this purpose, a distinct color scheme was used for each patient unit, combined with “super-graphic” pictograms and recognizable icons indicating paths to key destinations. This design innovation was based on previous research suggesting that difficulties in wayfinding are a major source of stress for psychiatric and general-healthcare patients (Ulrich et al., 2008) as well as a significant drain on staff resources and operational efficiency (Peponis, Zimring, & Choi, 1990). An additional goal in this design was to experiment with the considered use of vibrant colors in mental healthcare facilities. For many years there has been a stereotype that muted colors and textures are more appropriate for mental healthcare environments, but recent research has challenged this assumption (Dalke et al., 2006; Tofle et al., 2004). The design team relied on this research when carefully selecting color schemes for various parts of the facility, using a diverse palette to reinforce the specific therapeutic goals of various residential and treatment areas. Research Methods The POE study employed a multi-method approach, making use of both qualitative and quantitative research methods. The qualitative component (focused interviews with senior-level staff and designers) allowed for a more exploratory and in-depth examination of the research questions, while the quantitative component (surveys) allowed for more exacting measurements of specific hypotheses among a large sample of the facility staff. The interviews and surveys collected detailed data about staff perceptions of the effectiveness of the new designs, in comparison with the previous facility in which they had worked. Outcomes This study demonstrates the value of post-occupancy evaluation and provides a model for its implementation, while also contributing to our overall body of knowledge in effective mental healthcare design. The results supported the effectiveness of using color and “super-graphics” to help patients and visitors navigate their way through the facility, and provided specific, detailed conclusions about the implementation of these design innovations.


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  • Tofle, R. B., Schwarz, B., Yoon, S. Y., Max-Royale, A., & Des, M. E. (2004). Color in healthcare environments: A research report. San Francisco: Coalition for Health Environments Research. Retrieved from http://www.healthdesign.org/sites/default/files/color_in_hc_environ.pdf
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