It's the first time you've gone for counseling. You're nervous. (Is this the right address?) You walk up to . . . An office building? . . . a home office? You open the door and cross the threshold, stepping into this new place and relationship. What do you see? An incredible space where design and the therapeutic process seem perfectly attuned or a ‘shrinking' office where décor plays only a bit part in nurturing/healing?
In fact, every therapist's space provides the backdrop against which clients' personal dramas will be revealed. Yet, psychologists typically receive little, if any, training about how to set an effective stage for the client-practitioner interplay. As a design psychologist, I believe that it's crucial for every healthcare professional to be keenly aware of the messages and mood conveyed by their therapeutic environment. Thus, they can consciously create a space with positive (even therapeutic) benefits for their patients.
Inevitably, for example, every counselor's office has two main vantage points: the therapist looks towards the patient; the patient looks toward the therapist. With this in mind, care should be given to choose a layout, style, colors, furniture, window treatments and office artwork/special objects as experienced from these two very different visual perspectives.
When working with a patient, for instance, Freud explained that he placed his chair to the side of his famous couch where patients couldn't see him. It is said that he commented, "I could not let myself be stared at for eight hours daily."(1) Another theory suggests that it was his hearing problem later in life that caused him to place himself right behind his patient's head.(2) Yet another theory suggests that a "patient had tried to make advances to the doctor," thus he was careful to maintain appropriate boundaries (3), keeping himself out of the patient's line of sight.
Back at his desk, Freud sat in a chair that appeared more like a Henry Moore sculpture than a conventional seat. Freud's son, an architect, had a friend custom-design it to accommodate Freud's penchant for swinging his legs over the chair's arm and leaning back sideways.
From that perch, Freud could look out of the huge doors/windows to the lovely English garden in his backyard, a place that provided him with great pleasure. If he looked straight ahead, beyond his inspirational collection of antiquities and above his legendary couch, he could see a lithograph of French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893). (4) It depicted Charcot demonstrating his technique of hypnosis to a group of doctors. Perhaps this print (that became famous in its day) proved inspirational to Freud, as it represented the increasing curiosity about and public acceptance of the science of the mind.
Since most patients today no longer lie down a couch with their eyes closed, therapists can consider these Design Psychology TIPS when designing their office space:
1. The Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens: A Guide to the Freud Museum London. (London: The Freud Museum, 1998), p. 54.
2. Fuss, Diana, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them. (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 93.
3. The Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens: A Guide to the Freud Museum London, p. 54.
5. Constance Forrest, Ph.D.
6. The Ken Hamilton Caregiver Center, Northern Westchester Hospital, Mt. Kisco, N.Y.
7. Therapist Julie Wald.
Copyright Toby Israel, 2010.