Making the Right Impression for your Patients With your Office Design

Dentistry Today


Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, first century bc, was a Roman scholar and architect who was the author of the celebrated treatise “De architectura,” based on earlier Greek works and his own experience.1 This treatise continued to have great influence on the Renaissance. He said, “There are three key qualities necessary for good architecture: structure, commodity, and delight.”2

It is this last quality—delight—to which we are focusing our attention. What is it that ”delights” your specific patient population?
In the practice of dentistry, young and veteran practitioners alike share one common goal: providing unsurpassed care to patients. But this involves more than simply providing superior dental care. Your patients carry with them a variety of conscious and unconscious needs. And to best serve your patients, you must acknowledge and address these needs. You must focus on creating “delight” for your patients.
This article focuses on the impact your office design has on your patients. If you are a young practitioner, you may not yet know enough about your patients to determine what their conscious and unconscious needs are. This article will give you insight into how to determine your central demographic and psychographic models. Additionally, this article will show you why it is important to understand the market you are servicing and, ultimately, how this information impacts your office design.
If you are a veteran practitioner with a mature practice, you may be very aware of who your patients are, and you may have well-developed central demographic and psychographic models. But are you using this information to make your decisions about office design? This article will show you how to be more cognizant of the impact your design choices have on your patients. 
Ideally, dental practitioners of all skill levels should proactively determine which market they want to service by recognizing a need, then filling it. This is how entrepreneurs think. This article will aid you in becoming more entrepreneurial in your approach to the practice of dentistry.


Figure 1.1. Gratification modes by occupation
Figure 1.2. Purchase preference by occupation

Office design has traditionally focused on the quality of care for the patient, the comfort and functionality of the work environment for the doctor and staff, the image statement for the practice, and how the design serves as a tool for economic success.3 These are all basic concepts that are important to a practice. However, if the focus is on a generic patient without regard to the demographics, psychographics, and socioeconomic and cultural influences, your design will not help to create a bond with your patients. This bond stems from what their conscious and unconscious needs are and the ability of your practice to accommodate these needs. If you don’t strive to create this bond, you might alienate your patients, causing them to find a provider that better understands them and their needs and preferences.

A comfortable and functional work environment for the doctor and staff is important, but the same qualities of comfort and function should apply to the patients. What instills a sense of comfort for the doctor and staff (ie, sterile, accessible equipment and simple and unembellished décor) may be different for patients.
The image statement of the office should delve into the central psychographic model of the patients. Doctors may want a certain theme in their offices, but if the patients’ likes and dislikes derive from a different perspective, then a decision has to be made. Having a museum of hunting trophies in a practice that has a majority of female patients with no interest in hunting or who are animal rights activists would be counterproductive. Similarly, designing an office with Martha Stewart-like pictures all over the walls, but with a patient base consisting of young male laborers, would again be counterproductive. 
Designing the office as a tool for economic success makes financial sense only if the purchase preference, gratification mode, emotional associations, drives, and perceptions of the patient are considered. Looking at only how to stack as many patients as possible into a specific number of square feet, how to escalator them in, or how to express-exit them out when they are finished is counterproductive.
The good news is that understanding your patients is easy as long as you know what kind of information is important and how to collect it.


To understand what your patients want, you must first find out who your patients are. A great place to start is by determining your central demographic model (CDM)—your ideal patient. This includes information such as your patient’s age, gender, occupation, income, employment status, education, marital status, family status, ethnicity, and physical characteristics. This also includes information such as where your patients come from; ie, your trading area. All of this information can be collected very easily using the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau, the Internet, the Chamber of Commerce, state and local governments, local newspapers, library reference sections, etc. You may also elect to collect this information yourself in the form of questionnaires, raffles, and through your patient records.

Once you have described your CDM, you now need to consider the psychological needs of your patients. What are your patients’ likes and dislikes? What are the potential positive and negative effects of your design on your patients? As you start to ask these questions, your central psychographic model (CPM) will emerge. Your CPM consists of the following: (1) your patients’ self-perceptions, such as their personal image and values; (2) your patients’ external perceptions, such as their view of the world, their expectations of other people, and their understanding of what motivates other people; (3) your patients’ drives, such as their functional needs and internal/emotional needs; (4) your patients’ emotional associations, such as their positive and negative associations; (5) your patients’ gratification mode, whether they are interpersonal (ie, their gratification comes through working with other people), objective (ie, their gratification comes through interacting with data), or introverted (ie, their gratification comes through interacting with ideas). See Figure 1 for a sampling of gratification modes by occupation; and (6) your patients’ purchase preference, such as whether they are experimental (ie, seek services that are new and revolutionary), performance-oriented (ie, seek reliable services with proven quality), or value-oriented (ie, seek services that have the best price).4 See Figure 2 for a sampling of purchase preferences by occupation.


Your office design includes elements of look, touch, and feel. It’s the way your patients experience your business and your services. So, now that you have a better understanding of who your patients are, now that you have more clarity about your CDM and CPM, it’s important that you design your office to appeal to the needs and preferences of these patients. Consider the following when designing your office.

Figure 1.3. Color and shape guide (US culture only)

The Location and Surrounding Area
The location of your facility can have a significant impact on your office design. Your patients, depending on which market you are servicing, will have location preferences. Some might prefer a rural setting; others a more urban setting. Some useful things to consider when evaluating your current location, or when considering another location, are the following: Is your office easy to see? What does your sign look like? Is parking easy to find? What is the neighborhood like?

The Facility and Its Environment
Your facility includes your waiting room, treatment rooms, reception desk, and restrooms—all areas in your facility that your patients (and your employees) come in contact with. Some useful things to consider when evaluating your current facility, or when considering another facility, are the following: Is the temperature comfortable? What does your facility smell like—have you considered the impact of aromatherapy? What does your office sound like? Is your office neat and clean? What is the lighting like? What color are the walls? Is there art? If so, what kind of art?4 Have you considered “play theory” (in a pediatric office) as a means of focusing activity during a child’s stay?5,6

The Impact of Shapes and Colors
The impact of shapes and colors can have an important influence on the mental state and overt behavior of your patients.7,8 Different shapes and colors have a different impact on your patients’ perceptions. There are 4 characteristics that you must consider when choosing shapes and colors for your practice: (1) Visibility. Some shapes and colors are more easily noticed, more easily catch someone’s attention; (2) Retention. Certain shapes and colors are more easily remembered than others; (3) Preference. Research shows that some shapes and colors are more appealing than others; and (4) Association. Every shape and color has the potential to stimulate the conscious or unconscious mind of your patients. Patients can have both positive and negative associations with shapes and colors.4 (See Figure 3 for a sampling of colors and shapes.)

The success of your practice depends on your ability to incorporate your patients’ CDM or CPM into your office design as well as in all other areas of your practice. We have provided you with some tools that will help you determine the perceptions, behavior, likes, and dislikes of your patients, and to successfully translate all of this information into a compelling office design that addresses the unique needs of your patients.

Your success as a dentist is entwined with your ability to serve your patients in a world-class way. There are lots of pieces that contribute to creating a world-class dental practice. Start implementing some of the concepts contained in this article, and you will be off to a good start in reinventing your practice and making it all that you ever hoped it could be! 
You now have a good foundation for your efforts to create an office that will truly “delight” your patients. And, as Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote, “Delight is a key quality to good architecture.”



  1. Webster’s Dictionary. Encyclopedia Edition. New York, NY: Lexicon Publications; 1987:1101.
  2. Conversation with Mitchell Goldstein, AIA, Design for Health, Santa Cruz, Calif, Sept. 10, 2002.
  3. Marvin C, Smith R. Orthodontic Office Design: A Guide to Successful Design of the Orthodontic Office. St. Louis, Mo: American Association of Orthodontics; 1996:13.
  4. The E-Myth Mastery Program, a comprehensive business consulting program developed by E-Myth Worldwide, Santa Rosa, Calif.
  5. Conversation with Lance Crannell, M. Arch, associate professor, Department of Technology, San Jose State University College of Engineering, Calif, Nov. 7, 2002.
  6. Sutton-Smith B. The spirit of play. In: Fein G, Rivkin M, eds. The Young Child at Play: Reviews of Research. Vol 4. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; 1991.
  7. Wexner LB. The degree to which colors (hues) are associated with mood tones. J Applied Technology. 1954;
  8. Sinofsky ER, Knirk FG. Choose the right color for your learning style. instructional Innovation Journal. 1981;March:17-19.

Dr. Ligh is a practicing pediatric dentist in San Jose, Calif. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry and a special consultant with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. He can be reached at (408) 286-2940.

Ms. Gerber is senior editor at E-Myth Worldwide. With 25,000 clients, it has been the nation’s preeminent provider of small business development services for over 25 years. She has conducted targeted market research, participated in business conventions across the United States, and has consulted with business owners about their needs and frustrations. She can be reached at (707) 569-5651, via e-mail at, or on the Internet at