Answering the Office Design Questions You Should Be Asking

by Kathryn Gaysinsky, De Style Design Inc.

What’s a frequent request you try to stray dental clients away from?

The first step in looking at any dental office layout is examining the flow and ergonomics of a given unit. It is important during this first step to identify what each practice needs in order to best accommodate their patients and staff. To effectively determine this, we ask our clients what demographics they are looking to cater to: Are there many young families with children, or perhaps older established households that are in the area? Is there a track record of having family members accompany patients for a procedure?

Once we narrow down and determine who the target patient is, we look towards eliminating some big space wasting elements, which were popular in run-of-the-mill dental offices during years past.

Two examples of these are: Coat closets in the reception area and kids’ counters.

These elements usually take a lot of space from reception areas, compromising the amount of waiting chairs that can be accommodated, as well as creating potential for clutter, resulting in overhead for maintenance of same. Introducing a coat closet in the reception area may result in a segmented, closed off space which gets underutilized, as more and more patients prefer to take their belongings to the treatment rooms. For that purpose, we recommend installing coat hooks in each individual room, as well as a small vanity shelf for small personal belongings. This eliminates the need for a bulky reception closet.

As far as kids’ counters are concerned – if your practice is geared towards young patients it makes sense to invest in a unique dedicated kids’ area. However, in a general practice, or even a smaller unit it may not be the optimal solution. Providing a kids’ counter may create a space that will be underutilized, with toys and books that need to be organized on a constant basis. Moreover, by designing a fixed millwork counter, you are limiting the age group that this set up may accommodate, as an age group of two to four may need different dimensions from six- to 12-year-olds. For some practices, it may make sense to install a wall, or floor-mounted, electronic gaming device that could accommodate all age groups, or perhaps handing out iPads. For example, if the iPad is in an anti-tamper enclosure, parents and kids may use in regular reception seating. This allows for a more flexible use of space.

What’s the most common design mistake made in dental offices?

We find that the most commonly overlooked element in the design of dental offices is the lack of consideration for storage. The best approach to any start up dental office, or refurbishment of existing practices, is to try and forecast the needs of the practice in two to five years. Storage plays a key role in efficient work flow in the practice, as well as may have significant impact on overhead costs. Many times we see the concept of organization of supplies forgotten by the practitioner until after the infrastructure is set and there are tweaks required.

It is important to remember that even if your practice is digital, there is still a need to have adequate place for records, forms, receipts and office supplies. For dental supplies, it is important to analyze how you will handle the stock of daily supplies. Two popular approaches are: handling storage of supplies within each treatment room, which results in the need for more cabinetry to house these supplies and ordering larger quantities upfront; or you may prefer to have centralized storage and distribute only the items you need for the day into the treatment rooms. What our clients found is that tracking supplies is a lot easier when there is a centralized storage location, as this decreases the need for extensive cabinetry in each room (reducing start up costs) and minimizes the chance to double up orders of items, which you may have in one of the rooms but failed to locate when needed.

There is an overall trend for more compact units – treatment room footprints becoming smaller and an increased need for multipurpose spaces – so considering how you handle your storage needs becomes an important consideration which can be appropriately addressed in the early design stages and may have profound implications on operating costs.

Colour scheme: If an office wants to go outside the ‘blue’ box, what colours do you recommend?

Over the years, we have completed many dental offices and used diverse color palettes for the spaces. Despite blues being the staple of the dental industry for many years, I believe that a colour scheme should be appropriate to the branding image the dentist is trying to create for the practice. In fact, to do so successfully, the better move may be to step away from the generic blues and examine the location, any adjacent attractions or landmarks, the name of the practice, as well as the logo design. All of these elements should converge in order to deliver an efficient and memorable experience to your patients – from online interaction, to signage, all the way through to the stationary in the office.

Therefore, do not be shy of different colours. With the help of a qualified professional, you will be able to attain the correct impression with the colours that fit the feel you would like to create and, of course, your personality.

When choosing finishes, it is important to consider not only the marketing strategy, but also the level of comfort you experience in the space. I daresay for most of our dental clients, the new office becomes a space where they spend between eight and ten hours daily, so it better be a space that generates positive emotions!

What design element often gets overlooked by the practice owner/manager?

The biggest learning curve our clients go through when building a dental practice or refurbishing an existing space is learning the importance of proper illumination.

Lighting design is an element that becomes transparent when done properly – it just works. However, when illumination is not given due consideration, it can have adverse effects on the appearance of the office, and the well-being of staff and patients alike. Electrical is considered one of the major costs in any construction project – and for good reason! When our dental clients look at a cost breakdown, it may be tempting to replace the lighting with a basic grade fixture to generate big cost savings, however, at that stage they should get the advice of a qualified professional in order to understand the implications for their decisions.

General purpose lighting should be of sufficient brightness, the correct colour (colour temperature – measured in Kelvin) as well as to have the proper floor coverage, as it pertains to eliminating or minimizing “hot spots” on the floor and walls. In treatment rooms specifically, having the proper balance between general illumination in the room and the dental light is paramount for the comfort of the patient and the practitioner. Lighting is a very technical and diverse industry and it is easy to become overwhelmed with the choices of products. Therefore, it is recommended to get the proper advice before making these decisions.

How involved do most practice owners get compared to how involved they should be?

The best approach you can take with your upcoming construction project is to do your due diligence in understanding the process. Do your research on reputable companies, speak with your peers who have gone through this process in the past, and gain as much understanding as you can from professionals that are related to the field. You can ask real estate agents, interior designers, general contractors, or dental equipment suppliers about each of their respective disciplines and potential areas of involvement in your project.

You will quickly find out that you will have to be quite involved, but it is important to be involved in the right places. What I mean by that is that you must be diligent in providing the right information that professionals you are dealing with request of you, but also know when to step back and let them do their work.

It is important you pick your construction team very carefully. As we know, we are only as good as our weakest link, so make sure you have experienced team members on your side.

Here are some areas of a typical construction process that you will be expected to be involved in:

  • Coming up with a business plan/model for your practice
  • Researching and interviewing dental equipment, design, and construction firms
  • Obtaining funding for your project
  • Coming up with the practice name, or involving a marketing company to help you
  • Communicating with the design team to let them know how you want your practice to function
  • You may have your designer or contractor coordinate the Permit application to the city, or you may gather all the required drawings and apply yourself
  • Interview and select an IT consulting and security company
  • Attend review meetings, as requested by the design team, to review finishes and detail drawings for your space
  • You may want to have your designer handle the tender process (obtaining pricing from contractors), or you may choose to do it yourself
  • You will need to attend site review meetings and review progress of work on site with general contractor. This is the item with the most variation from a hands-on to a hands-free client approach, as you make the decision at which times to attend. My advice would be that you should make a minimum weekly appearance on site to discuss any questions or give direction to the contractor with respect to ongoing work
  • At the tail end of the project: coordinate with IT and security companies; coordinate with your designer to select the furniture and finishing touches for the space; coordinate with your dental supplier to stock up on what you need in order to open the practice; as well as interviewing staff

To summarize, any construction project will require a significant effort on your end, unless you are willing to hire a dedicated consultant to help you from A-to-Z. Expect to be quite occupied for the entire duration of a the project that is ahead of you.

How often to you recommend a “refresh” to a practice’s design?

In order to define the type of refresh required, you may need to answer the following questions.

  • Is the life expectancy of materials in your practice nearing the end of its lifecycle?
  • Is the reception desk laminate chipping, paint in need of refresh, flooring and furniture looking tired?
  • Have there been a changes in your marketing strategy or business model?
  • Are you looking to attract a different type of patient base?
  • Have there been any significant development or changes happening in your neighbourhood?
  • Are you looking to bring in an associate or perhaps stage the practice for sale?

Those are all very good reasons to refresh and examine how your existing practice looks and functions and it may not necessarily be predicated on a specific timeline.

When we approach a refurbishment project, it is always a bit of a surgical intervention. We define which elements to tackle depending on our clients’ budget, assess finishes or elements that date the office (classic example of this would be a glass block wall), and then come up with a scope of work for the client to review and contractor to price.

In general, the life expectancy of most finishes may outlive your desire to have them in the space. Since fashion and style is cyclical in nature, we observe that some practices decide to refurbish in seven to 10 years, whereas others wait 12-15 years before they decide to undergo a major renovation.

Practice exteriors: Do you recommend keeping them simple or add some flash?

We firmly believe a patient impression starts with the outside of your practice, therefore it is important to address the exterior as an integrated part of the overall design of the space.

In this area, however, there are often limitations that you may need to consider.

  • Are there any design criteria restrictions imposed by the plaza management or condominium corporation?
  • What are the physical limitations of the space (surface area allowed for coverage)?
  • What is next door? Are there any strong facade colors or adjacent signage that you have to compete with?
  • What is the visibility and exposure to the main thoroughfare like?

All these factors play a key role in coming up with the design for the facade and signage.

It is very important to project the image of your dental practice as far out into the surrounding area as you can or are allowed to do. Of course, this does not mean we need to have flickering neon lights – the signage still needs to be “on brand” and reflect the sensibility and aesthetics of your clinic interior.

About the Author
Kathryn Gaysinsky – Principal, De Style Design Inc. Possessing over a decade of experience in the field of Healthcare and Hospitality, Interior Design and Project Management, Kathryn translates unique concepts into viable, technically sound and effective Design Solutions. Always considering the client perspective, Kathryn applies her expertise to provide unique insights and guide her clients for a successful project. For questions regarding your upcoming project, Kathryn may be contacted at: or (905) 669-5550.