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Healing graphics

January 1st, 2011 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Digitally printed fabrics in health care settings create soothing surroundings that aid the healing process.

As Florence Nightingale recognized and environmental psychology studies have borne out, people feel better in aesthetically pleasing settings than when surrounded by a flat, featureless background.

That’s a particularly important concept for hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities where patients and visitors are ill and anxious before they walk in the door. Thanks to increasing focus on “patient-centered care,” the health care industry has begun embracing the use of digitally printed fabrics to enhance public areas, counter feelings of stress and fear, guide visitors through their buildings and even tell their stories.

“We are giving the patient who may be going through a trauma an environment that is so much better psychologically than a room with white walls,” says Jason Kraning, owner and president of Optika Scenicworks Inc. of Greenville, S.C. “Frame-stretched fabric is one of the biggest things.” Optika has used this technique, for example, in a spinning sculpture with fabric panels that represent sea, land and sky installed in an atrium at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia, S.C.

“No one in a medical facility is going to ask for fire,” Kraning says. “They want calming, soothing.” They also want changeability, and Optika recently provided just that for Self Regional Healthcare in Greenwood, S.C.

“They have a long hallway that tells the story of the hospital system in Plexiglass panels, each 10 feet by 7 feet. It’s impossible for them to change those panels without a crew, and it’s expensive,” Kraning says. His company replaced them with framed fabric panels that can be backlit and offer flexibility in other ways. “If it’s a cancer awareness month, they can have the janitor come in, peel the fabric out and put in Cancer Awareness Month panels in literally three minutes,” Kraning says. “It’s lightweight and collapsible and can be stored in a box.”

BWBR Architects in St. Paul, Minn., has used printed fabric in a similar manner at many hospitals, including Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul and University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. “We use them as feature elements in lobbies, way-finding graphics in corridors and for history and donor walls,” says Don Thomas, principal of design. “It’s cost effective and a nice way to make these areas look good. Plus it’s fast—faster than custom-printed displays mounted on board or carved into wood.” In a tunnel system at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, BWBR installed floor-to-ceiling panoramic images of what a visitor would find above ground.

A natural progression

Ernie Rodriguez was enjoying the beauty of California’s majestic redwoods after having visited a hospitalized friend when he thought, “‘Why on earth don’t hospitals feel like this—like you’re taken care of?’ I have always found hospitals incredibly depressing,” he says. “They seem to be the antithesis of what they are attempting to achieve.”

Rodriguez, a resident of Catalina Island, has pursued art and photography for 22 years. Trained as a psychologist, he began looking into hospital design and guided imagery.

“When you view nature, it lowers blood pressure and anxiety levels and you need less pain medication,” he says. “Over 1,000 research articles say the same thing: Viewing images of nature has therapeutic value.” Many such studies are referenced in a Sept. 2004 report to The Center for Health Design titled “The Role of the Physical Environment in the Hospital of the 21st Century: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity.”

Rodriguez came up with the idea of putting his images of nature on hospital privacy curtains. Through serendipity, he got connected to Jain Malkin, a San Diego-based designer who promotes the concept of healing environments in books, lectures and courses (including at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design). Malkin helped Rodriguez refine his digitally printed fabric curtains for the mass market.

Founded in 2002, Sereneview has expanded its product line to include scenic overheads, wall treatments and window coverings. “We are in over 500 hospitals,” Rodriguez says, adding that locations include Australia, Spain and Italy. In November 2009, he addressed digital printers at the Viscom trade show in Milan, specifically encouraging them to bring their craft into health care environments. Sereneview’s growth has been aided by its partnership with Planetree, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that facilitates efforts to create patient-centered care in healing surroundings.

Changing environments

“There was a time when 95 percent of our business was the hospitality industry,” says John Dill, owner and president of Suntex Printing in Woodruff, S.C. “Around 2001, everybody started going to China [to source fabric], and that market for us went from 100,000 yards a week to 10,000 yards a week. So as a matter of survival, I had to come up with something new.”

He did so shortly after he found himself sitting in a campground with his laptop reading about the health care market. “I started thinking, ‘What could I offer the health care industry?’” he recalls.

According to Dill, the requirements for fabrics in hospitals and nursing homes were becoming stricter in response to the discovery of carcinogens leaching into the environment. Dill decided to develop a fabric that was safer and would reduce the carbon footprint. He worked with a company in North Carolina to develop nanotechnology-based chemistry that imparts antimicrobial, anti-stain and liquid-repellent properties to polyester. Eighteen months ago he began digitally printing on the fabric with aqueous ink.

Suntex prints patterns for contractors’ catalogs on three types of fabric: shadow fabric to block sunlight; a lightweight fabric for such products as cubicle curtains and bedspreads; and a textured, woven upholstery fabric with zero liquid absorption. “Most of these we print double-sided, with a solid or slight texture on one side and a design on the other,” Dill says.

For his early prototypes, Rodriguez used his paintings for images. Malkin told him the images needed to be “razor sharp” or they could increase patients’ anxiety. So he switched to using his photographs. He offers a variety of outdoor scenes, but hospitals can provide their own images (West Park Hospital in Cody, Wyo., for example, wanted scenes of the surrounding area).

Sereneview curtains are printed by CAD Fabulous in Los Angeles on 100-percent polyester triple-weave fabric. The curtains meet all national and California Title 19 ratings for hospitals and are treated with the AEGIS Microbe Shield® system. Rodriguez says he is transitioning to water-based inks and recycled content in the fabric.

“We don’t use a lot of vinyl, because it’s too rigid,” Kraning says. “The fabrics we use are typically smooth, not plasticky, very soft.

“The technology in fabrics changes dramatically,” he notes. “Every few years, you get new fabrics that can do different things. When you go from poplin and start printing on a fabric you can see through, that dual-level fabric image opens up new doors for different applications. And when you integrate control lighting, the colors broadcast on the fabric can make the image change.”

In a world of make believe

If anyone is going to respond to visual stimuli, it’s children. That’s why children’s hospitals/clinics and pediatricians’ offices, in particular, incorporate colorful graphics in their designs.

The nonprofit Child Life Council, whose mission is “to reduce the negative impact of stressful or traumatic life events and situations that affect the development, health and well-being of infants, children, youth and families,” has established Standards of Clinical Practice that include a call for normalization of environments and orientation to the setting where care will occur.

“One of the concepts of child life studies is to empower kids to find their own way,” Thomas says. “Then they feel in more control and are less stressed in the hospital or clinic.”

BWBR used large graphics on vinyl wall coverings for “positive distraction,” as well as for way finders to help children navigate Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minn.

Kraning agrees that children’s areas are ripe for graphic treatments and “digital playgrounds.”

“We can use a printed fabric and project video applications onto it so your fabric becomes an interactive viewing situation,” Kraning says. “We call it the ‘crown jewel,’ because it’s part of the draw for the room.” An LCD screen over a fireplace, a vase on a table, even a light switch and air vent printed on fabric take on a 3-D effect.

Optika also is using plug-and-play interactive video projection to develop a large-scale marketing tool for a hospital that can be used on- and off-site. The projection reacts to the touchless movement of hands to provide information about the hospital and its services. Bullet points are printed directly on the fabric using solvent-based, low-VOC ink and 120-inch-wide dye-sublimation printers. “We can set up an architectural framework and customize the content in the fabric based on the client,” Kraning says. “You brand an environment for where you go.”

Now Optika is testing body-heat-sensitive fabric that changes color when touched. “Integrating that into any kind of environment in a hospital is cool, because it’s beginning to engage in tactile marketing,” Kraning says. “Our goal is to print an embedded logo into a heat-sensitive fabric and, as it changes, you see the logo appear.”

As these experts suggest, developing concepts for health care environments can become a springboard into even more markets.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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