The Healing Power of Interior Design

Design students take on the challenge of designing not just ‘chairs,’ but objects that will support cancer patients physically and emotionally.

Students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design — Yang Yu (left), Eric Zhang (2nd right), and Asa Xiao (right) — with Associate Professor Christian Blyt (2nd left), on seating they designed for BC Cancer. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design — Yang Yu (left), Eric Zhang (2nd right), and Asa Xiao (right) — with Professor Christian Blyt (2nd left), on seating they designed for BC Cancer. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

A cancer patient, anxious and in pain, walks through the main entrance of a cancer treatment facility. He sits in a stiff, cold, metal-framed chair, fluorescent lights glaring overhead. His wrist hurts as he rests it on the arm of his chair to hold his mother’s reassuring hand.

Here’s a different story. A young man with cancer, anxious and in pain, walks through the front door of a treatment centre. He sinks into a comfortable chair, his weary body finding solace in its embrace. His fear melts away a little in the warm atmosphere, and the presence of his mother by his side gives him courage.

The discomfort embedded in the design of a waiting room can affect a patient in so many ways.

A person’s environment can greatly impact his or her health, an ancient understanding (think feng shui) supported by modern research. Even the wording — for example, the difference between “main entrance” and “front door” — can contribute to the comfort of a space.

“Do we want people to feel like they’re going in the ‘main entrance’ of a sterile, drab health facility while they’re feeling like a sick person entering a big institution?” says Lisa McCune, director of the Patient Experience Program at BC Cancer. “Or is there a way to make this a safe and cozy, warm and comfortable ‘front door,’ where people feel supported and maybe even loved when they enter?”

Is there a way to make this a safe and cozy, warm and comfortable ‘front door,’ where people feel supported and maybe even loved when they enter? –Lisa McCune, BC Cancer

These are the kinds of changes BC Cancer is starting to make. Its first project is to replace the chairs it has in its waiting rooms and other spaces with specially designed seating to evoke a homey feeling, to suit the ergonomic needs of cancer patients, and even to make it more comfortable for them to sit in close proximity to their loved ones for support.

This design project is not only affecting the patients, it is also meaningful to the designers. A group of 18 students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design have met the challenge of designing chairs that aren’t just chairs. They are support objects for cancer patients.

Left to right: Aaron Jang, Professor Christian Blyt, Kyra Tapp, and Reinout Scheepers, at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

“It brings an emotional level into it,” says David Youngson, a cancer survivor and designer. He is the one who started the project.

A survivor seeks to change ‘cancer culture’

Youngson was diagnosed with throat cancer at the age of 61, in 2015. He had lost his brother to non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma several years earlier. After 35 days of radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy, and after losing a third of his body weight, Youngson is cancer-free.

David Youngson, a cancer survivor who started a design collaboration between BC Cancer and Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of David Youngson)

But you never really recover from cancer, he says. “I was pronounced free and clear of it, but it’s always there. Once you’ve gotten it and gotten rid of it, you realize you’re capable of having it [again].”

Now that he is irrevocably a part of “cancer culture,” Youngson says, he volunteers at BC Cancer. When Youngson first visited the centre as a volunteer, his doctor told him that most patients who recover leave and never look back — and understandably so.. Youngson told the doctor “I’m just here to tell you that — I’m here. Thank you.”

With a background in design, and a particular focus on how people experience a space, Youngson naturally became an advocate for a welcoming decor.

When he approached BC Cancer with his idea to revamp the seating, the administration was very receptive.

BC Cancer: the research, the feedback, the hopes

McCune gathers feedback from BC Cancer patients regarding their experience during treatment, through surveys, interviews, and other means. She helps patients and their families to have a say in BC Cancer’s decision-making by including them on advisory committees.

She was aware through this feedback, as well as through published research on cancer-patient experiences, that physical comfort and the involvement of family and friends are some of the most important things to patients.

“We had read the research and we knew theoretically that physical space and design can impact people’s health, but David really helped us make that connection. He put the patient voice into it,” she says.

Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

BC Cancer’s CEO, Sarah Roth, says this project can have a great effect even beyond improved patient experience. “It’s not only for the patients and their families, it’s also for the staff,” she says. “There are people who come in every day to work… [and] it’s very intense clinical care to deliver.”

The many employees at BC Cancer’s six sites across the province will feel more uplifted in an environment with bright colours and beautifully designed seating, she says. That can, in turn, help them be even more supportive and uplifting for the patients.

Roth hopes the seating project will be just the first of more design projects at BC Cancer, and that these ideas can spread to all kinds of other health facilities. “This is really a pioneering project,” she says.

Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Seating designed for BC Cancer by students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

One of the obstacles to getting something like this started has been funding. Public health dollars go towards the important basics of cancer treatment, but less “essential” design projects depend on philanthropy, Roth says.

Our sister media, Taste of Life, is helping raise funds for the construction of the chair prototypes, through ticket sales for the opening night event of Taste of Life’s Luxury Home & Design Show in Vancouver, June 21, 2018.

Design challenges

Another challenge is the regulations for furniture design in a medical setting. The students had to make sure their designs adhered to an 80-page infection-control manual.

For example, the chair surfaces have to be wipeable, ruling out a lot of the fabrics usually used for comfortable upholstery. They used hospital-grade upholstery, but in bright colours.

Students' concept sketches for the BC Cancer seating design project. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Students’ concept sketches for the BC Cancer seating design project. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Students' concept sketches for the BC Cancer seating design project. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Students’ concept sketches for the BC Cancer seating design project. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

As for the frame, “There is research that people have a much different response [to wood] than, say, to metal or to other synthetic materials,” says Christian Blyt, an associate professor at Emily Carr. It can have a soothing effect.

The students used an antiseptic, heat-treated local birch. All the sugars are burned out of it, so it’s a lot harder for bacteria to culture in it.

The heat-treating posed some design challenges because it changed the properties of the wood, such as its density and flexibility. But it was a suitable challenge for the Emily Carr class, which is specifically a wood-products class.

The wood used to build seating for BC Cancer is heat-treated to make it antiseptic. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
The wood used to build seating for BC Cancer is heat-treated to make it antiseptic. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
(Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
(Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

Blyt divided his class into three groups, each coming up with different designs. On April 16, the students presented their designs for a final critique.

Left to right:  Nicolas Cyr-Morton, Alex Bott, and  Asal Rashad, Emily Carr University students who helped design seating for BC Cancer. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)
Left to right: Nicolas Cyr-Morton, Alex Bott, and Asal Rashad, Emily Carr University students who helped design seating for BC Cancer. (Photo courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

Some of the designs include features that allow for a variety of arrangements. The seating can be rearranged depending on the space available or the needs of the patients.

“Sometimes you want to be alone, sometimes you want to be very close to somebody,” Blyt says. “We tried to also think of those different types of proximity, how much distance between people.”

The students took into consideration the comfort of proximity in terms of the size and shape of armrests between chairs, for example. They also did a lot of research into the best heights and angles for patients with a variety of body shapes, sizes, and ailments, to sit comfortably.

Blyt says, “We’re creating a situation where we’re supporting the patients both physically, like elevating them off the ground, and also mentally and psychologically.”

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