Stepping into a Book to Visit the Dentist

by Byron Kuth and Ophelia Wilkins

Going to the dentist can be a scary experience for children. For the Division of Pediatric Dentistry at the University of California, San Francisco, providing affordable services to the children of the city’s low-income families is about investing in the community. So when it came time to renovate the clinic’s home base at the Parnassus Campus, our clients asked us to transform the space so it could offer a private practice–quality experience, both for the comfort of patients and pride of staff and students—despite some difficult constraints the existing building posed.

The 900-square-foot clinic occupied the middle of the ground floor of a four-story concrete building built in the 1970s. The ceilings were low. And the clinic was split into two dental suites, each with four enclosed operatory rooms. We couldn’t add windows or expand. What we could do was take down the walls and create one dental suite with an open floor plan, so instead of eight enclosed operatories, we have eight U-shaped operatories that open to the circulation path. Each operatory contains a patient chair and a cabinet deck customized to provide exactly the tools, storage, and surfaces the dentists and assistants need within an ergonomic range of motion, without anything superfluous. Partial-height partitions made of translucent resin material separate each operatory, preserving a sense of spaciousness while offering privacy.

To offer patients the pleasant, engaging environment of a private dental clinic, we came up with the idea of having each partition panel feature colorful, kid-friendly imagery. We brought in several source material options for our clients to consider. They chose M. Šašek’s This is San Francisco, a well-known children’s book first published in 1962, and the Miroslav Šašek Foundation kindly gave us permission to use artwork from the book at no cost.

We considered several ideas for incorporating the imagery into the panels. A simple square frame didn’t seem to integrate into the rest of the design. Then we angled the panel to match the angle of the seats, and that brought everything together. As an unexpected bonus, the angle in the seven panels reference the seven hills of San Francisco. Many of the kids who come in will be familiar with the iconic San Francisco landmarks Šašek depicted—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cliff House, Chinatown—and the images can start conversations between staff members and patients, helping build rapport and trust.

Our clients were so enthused about the work that they also asked us to use illustrations from the book in murals on the walls outside the clinic, offering a friendly welcome and a clear sense of arrival for patients and their families who have navigated a long corridor to reach the clinic. The hallway graphics include a photograph of the artist as well as a short biography.

Our clients saw this project as a chance to make a statement that the children of this city, regardless of their family’s income level, are all valuable and deserving of high-quality care. With the help of Šašek’s beautiful images, we were able to make a special place that patients can look forward to seeing the next time they visit.

In most pediatric care settings, the waiting room offers children’s books as a way for patients to while away the time before the appointment. In this clinic, seeing the dentist is like walking into the pages of a children’s book—literally.

Photography by Bruce Damonte


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