The first optometry office I went to—as a kid in the 1970s—was in the converted basement of my friend Isaac’s house. It had, yes, the infamous shag carpeting and wood-paneled walls of that era. Depending on the time of your appointment, you may very well have been able to hear Isaac’s mom making dinner upstairs. The whole place was cozy and disheveled and informal, just like my friend’s dad, the OD of the practice.

That vibe prevailed at lots of optometry offices in the ’70s, and surely well into the ’80s too at many locations. But as the optometry profession migrated more and more toward mainstream medical care in the intervening years, the aesthetic of most practices came along with it. White coats, clean spaces, salaried staff (instead of family members) and increasingly more high-tech equipment all became the standard look and feel.

Fair or not, presentation matters at least to some extent in what the public thinks and expects, especially of the professionals they turn to for the frequently sensitive work of discussing their bodies and lives. So, I was encouraged to see the impressive array of entries in our biennial office design contest, the results of which are showcased this month on page 38. 

Again and again we saw, in the essays that contestants sent in, how much these doctors prioritize the “feel” of being at their practices instead of merely the results. 

“The aesthetics of the office is often the highlight of the overall experience,” said one practice owner in the contest. “Patients who are passing by the office often take a moment to come inside just to take photos.” Imagine wanting to go to a doctor’s office even if you don’t need to. Can you say that about the physicians you see? Me neither.

Typical redesign goals cited by most of this year’s contestants included open floorplans, upscale décor, accommodations for special needs, quiet and uncluttered waiting rooms, high-quality lighting and other fixtures, social media–friendly spaces… the list goes on and on. I won’t spoil the fun but there’s definitely also some real personality shining through in at least one of the entries this year.

None of this means that you absolutely need to plow hundreds of thousands of dollars into a splashy office design to succeed in this profession. For many practices, that’s just not on the table, especially these days as we collectively are still trying to rebound from a pandemic-induced downturn.

So, pick your battles. Not everyone needs an espresso bar and an Instagram wall and other niceties. Maybe your physical space limitations preclude the airy layouts that others can achieve. But it’s still worth putting yourself in your patients’ shoes once in a while to see how moving through the office, station by station, makes you feel. 

Most practices have already done an overhaul to accommodate COVID safety protocols. The addition of PPE has already imbued your practice with a more medical feel if that had been lacking. That’s great—just don’t overlook whatever comforts, physical or emotional, you can create, too.

And if your design philosophy is retro kitsch, I know where you can get a good deal on vintage shag.