Environment Of Psychotherapists' Offices May Affect Client Attitudes

October 01, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Dead plants, bad lighting and sagging couches are probably the last things clients should encounter in their therapists' offices, according to University of Illinois architecture professor Kathryn Anthony.

"The physical environment of therapists' offices may well significantly influence the attitudes and behavior of clients, but at this point we really don't know how," Anthony told members of the American Psychological Association at the group's annual conference in San Francisco last August. In her presentation, titled "Designing Psychotherapists' Offices: Reflections of an Environment-Behavior Researcher," Anthony challenged researchers, architects and therapists to collaborate to further investigate relationships between office design and successful therapist-client interactions.

The U. of I. researcher said she became interested in the topic after searching several national research databases and finding "hardly anything at all." Although she located 23 citations for office design and 3,358 for psychotherapy in Wilson Social Sciences Abstracts, "none linked the two concepts." And of two citations in Periodical Abstracts, only one -- a reference to a gas-filled mattress designed as a therapeutic aid and personal relaxation/entertainment system -- even came close.

In the absence of hard data, Anthony undertook an informal survey of Division 12 APA members, posting a query on its electronic bulletin board. She also sought anecdotal information from therapist-acquaintances. She then combined the responses with her own reflections as an architectural researcher to identify design factors that could play a role in enhancing the experience of therapists and their clients. Among the factors and corresponding relationships that emerged:

-- Location. "If the office is right off a busy freeway intersection, the stress of traffic can predispose one to an even more stressful session with the psychotherapist."

-- Placement and number of entrances and exits. "One therapist said that in seeking out new office space she was concerned that the client could leave her office without traveling through the waiting room, thus minimizing the need to interact or be seen in a state of emotional fragility."

-- Seating arrangements and seating comfort. "Is the therapist face-to-face with clients, or side-by-side? Which is the most/least intimidating?" Regarding comfort, "If it's too comfortable, do you feel like you are sinking into oblivion? Or do some types of furniture actually help clients feel better?"

-- Lighting. "Bright lights may seem cheerful to some clients, but glaring or overwhelming to others."

-- Windows. "Being able to see out widens your view of the world, and could have a healing effect. By contrast, being in an enclosed environment could make you feel as if the whole world is caving in on you."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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