Sometimes when I can no longer picture the finish line to my degree, when self-doubt starts having me question my competency, and the days of balancing school, work, and family start feeling too long, I picture my future office.
I imagine the décor, the location, every small, seemingly superficial detail, and it helps me feel better. And even though the exercise of imagining an ideal reality based in a hypothetical future is largely about pressing the “like” button on Pinterest so I can symbolically shop for furniture I can’t afford, it’s also about something more.
When I first contemplated writing an article about office décor I was worried that it may come across as trivial. However, upon deeper exploration I considered how key a role the environments we occupy play in the work that we do. Our clients spend as much time in the space that we share with them, as they do with us. In fact, I would argue, that in some ways, the space we share, be it a private office, a clinical setting, or work in the community, should be seen as a component of our therapeutic interventions. Whether or not we want to accept it, the spaces we practice in operate as an extension of ourselves.
In research by Nasar and Devlin (2011), studies were used to assess client responses to a series of photographs featuring therapy offices. The research focused on what aspects of an office attracted individuals to hire a therapist, and how individuals appraise therapist competency based on office design and style. The findings suggest that clients are strongly drawn to organized offices with soft touches that expressed both personal and professional style. One of the most important components of design was found to be comfort, in particular chair comfort, something I’m sure most therapists would agree with.
How else can we convey comfort to our clients?
One of the best “bangs for your buck” so to speak, when it comes to decorating, is paint. In my experience paint can make or break a room. When choosing paint, keep in mind the emotion that color can convey. It brings to mind a past agency I worked for which had painted the walls of every suite in the building an institutional green (a borderline mint hue that conjures up memories of gauze and sterilizing solution for anyone who has had the displeasure of spending time on a hospital unit). Not only did the color trigger memories of my childhood tonsillectomy, it was generally depressing. My best advice is to choose a neutral wall color and stay away from extreme trends. Most reputable paint stores have experienced staff that can help you with color consults and good quality paint will stand the test of time, which is important in high use areas.
Other ways to convey comfort to clients is the management of the wait space. My favorite professional offices offer something in the way of both cold and warm beverages in the wait space. A small tea station with access to drinking water is nice. And although we live in day and age where most people have phones or other media devices with them at all times, a waiting space with up to date reading material is a must for me. I emphasize the words “up to date.” No one wants to read a ripped copy of Chatelaine from 1986 for tips on how to feather your bangs. Furthermore, bulletin boards and pamphlet stations should be regularly monitored to ensure that they appear well organized, current, and in good repair.
Finally, a word about art. The tricky thing about art is finding the balance between personal interest and professional image. My personal preference leans toward nature inspired work, but I have been in offices with abstract pieces that felt inviting and moving. Art gives you the opportunity to express an appreciation for diversity, a connection to community, and a glimpse into your own values. Inspirational quotes are fine, but can be kept to a minimum; it’s an office wall not a Facebook wall. If you love art, but can’t afford a significant investment, look to local artists and photographers. You’d be amazed at the talent you can find by visiting local vocational schools and community colleges. Keep in mind the populations you serve and the function of the room you hang your pieces in. For example whimsical works with bright colors and geometric designs work great in a play therapy space.
A therapist’s office is a sacred healing space and acts as a container for the energy exchange between therapist and client. A great space can communicate respect, thoughtfulness, knowledge, emotional safety, and attention to the overall health and well-being of the people who share it. That being said, creating a space involves a willingness to be vulnerable and can often feel outside the scope of our own knowledge. If you find the task of decorating your space daunting, talk to friends whose taste you trust, mindfully study other offices you visit, or ask for client feedback via a private forum such as Survey Monkey. Just like any relationship, the relationship with our surroundings is an important one to examine. When was the last time you thought about yours?
Written by Jeanette Bodnar
Nasar, J. L., & Devlin, A. S. (January 01, 2011). Impressions of psychotherapists’ offices. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 3, 310-20.