What a Girl Wants – Designing Spaces That Appeal to Females

Updated on August 28, 2023

Tami Greene_head shot copyBy Tami Greene, AIA, NCARB

Shaping My Design Perspective Through Experience

I have had the dehumanizing experience of sitting in a public corridor with male and female patients and numerous hospital staff walking just past my rubberized grip clad booties, as I sat in a loosely fitted robe anxiously waiting to get my mammogram.

I have also aimlessly walked around a hospital floor for many hours in labor with no natural light, vistas nor distracting elements to focus on during the intense moments of pain. In retrospect, when I revisit these events and put my architect lenses on, I see how each space that I had these uniquely female experiences within, had let me down by compromising my rights for privacy and integrity, or simply neglecting to understand what I needed in order to provide a positive patient experience.

As an architect at IKM Incorporated, I have designed a number of healthcare spaces for both male and female patients. After having these personal experiences, I began to approach the design for gender specific facilities with a different perspective.    We never lose focus on the design goals that address excellent patient care: putting the patient first, creating efficient flows for patients, staff and material, accommodating complex medical technologies and infrastructure, and designing aesthetic solutions that support the needs of multiple stakeholders.  When a client would ask for a Breast Center that reduced the stress the patient was experiencing to the greatest degree possible, I was forced to overlay those goals with the question “what causes and reduces the stress of these patients?”  As an architect, I cannot alter the circumstances that bring patients to a facility or the results of their testing or procedure being conveyed, but I can create a built environment which helps them to feel more comfortable, respected and connected.

A fundamental precept of healthcare delivery is showing understanding and respect for the patient. Designers of facilities focusing on women’s health, and the administrators hiring them, must try their best to understand “what a girl wants”.  While many men might consider this the unanswerable question on the surface, scientific research has made answering this question much easier.

Good Design of a Women’s Health Facility Must Consider How Women Perceive Their Environment

In the past 15 years through advances in MRI technology, we can now see notable differences between the female and male brain.  Sensory stimulation is processed differently between women and men. Understanding these noted differences can inform the design of facilities built primarily for female patients.

One finding notes that women can process and understand up to seven audio sources while a man can only detect one at a time.  This means that in a waiting room full of men focusing on a television or music from a speaker, the likelihood of those male patients or family members hearing the private conversation between staff and a patient at the front counter is very limited.  However, in a waiting room comprised mainly of female patients or family members, this conversation more likely would be understood if heard.

It is for this reason, that our design for the St Clair Hospital Breast Center incorporates a water feature to provide sound masking between the open registration counter and waiting room. In addition this design element greatly contributes to the spa like feel of the suite.

Another interesting difference between the female and male brain is that there is seven times less gray matter in the female brain, which accounts for processing spatial orientation. This grey matter, scientist have concluded, gives males the greater advantage of looking  at a plan or map in two- dimensions and imagining it in three-dimension with little effort. By understanding this difference we can provide a building design that helps female patients navigate more easily through a space. Directories should be in three- dimension and have symbols that correlate with points of reference within a building.  Women give and interpret directions with milestones  such as “go straight until you come to the second light, then turn right at the McDonalds,”  while men typically give and interpret directions with distances and references to direction such as “ three miles west, then turn east and continue six miles…” If these visual clues assist the female cognitive process and orientation within three dimensional space, does it not then make perfect sense to have general visual clues throughout a Women’s Center to assist in way-finding?  Sculptures, feature walls, and strong accent colors in a select few locations can be points to focus on as a patient is given directions and then circulates through the space.

This is supported by a number of studies referenced in Gender, Design and Marketing  by Gloria Moss, where it is noted that a majority of females prefer rounded lines and shapes, many and brighter colors, high levels of detail, and stationary objects, while males visually prefer, straight lines, fewer and darker colors, less detail, and moving objects.

Dr. Sherri Chafin, vice chairman, Department of Medical Imaging/ Director of Breast Imaging at St. Clair Hospital, had a vision of what the St. Clair Hospital Breast Center should be and stated “I felt the finishes needed to inspire serenity more than anything.” It was my responsibility as a designer to understand what conveys serenity with the female patients and staff. The layout of the center maintained patient privacy with a secluded gowned waiting room and offset corridors to prevent any view from public areas as gowned patients circulate the suite. The interior finishes include patterned wall covering in ceiling and wall coffers that surround crystal embellished light fixtures, a color palette of light colored wood and saturated shades of blue, countertops and wall tiles with depth and the sparkle of glass. Dr. Chafin commented that “(IKM) understood my vision and knew how much sparkle to add with the chandeliers and glass tiles to be just enough.”

Our design for the Forbes Regional Breast Center pays close attention to the female preferences noted above.  This includes plaster relief panels in the shape of flowers lit from below on the waiting room wall, curved walls and ceiling bulkheads, translucent eggplant colored resin shelves, iridescent mosaic tile and vibrant wall colors in shades of purple.  Franca DeFelice, Forbes Regional Hospital, Radiology Director commented, “The comments I have received from patients are that the Center reminds them of a Spa….the décor is calming and they love the color scheme…..’comfortable and classy’ was what the one patient stated….streamlined, comprehensive and state of the art…”

Designing an environment in which a female patient feels comfortable requires an in depth understanding of how their mind works and what feels natural to the patient. The design of the space should be easy to process and appealing to the female senses.  It is not a splash of floral here and hints of mauve there, but rather a subtle and natural response to “what a girl wants.”  Success is achieved when it just feels right to the patients within.

For more information, visit www.ikminc.com.


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