From High School Hub to Hospitals, Empathy Guides the Designs of HKS’ Lisa Adams

HKS Principal and designer Lisa Adams grew up with a pencil in her hand and her head in the clouds, sketching figments of her imagination on notebooks while her teachers droned on in class.

But it was a trip to the hospital that sparked her prolific design career. 

Adams was 3-years-old when she spent about a week at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics recovering from eye surgery. She would drift into a sun-drenched playroom and rummage through a closet with costumes for kids to dress up.

“I still remember,” she said. “It made that whole experience less scary.”

That childhood hospital stay — blanketed in warm colors and princess dresses — made such an impression on Adams that it led her to a career in health care interiors, a particularly demanding area for interior designers. They must create and furnish spaces that prevent the spread of infection, withstand harsh cleaning chemicals and protect patient privacy — restrictions that limit their options for materials and space planning.

For Adams, the Director of Citizen HKS & Sustainable Design Leader in the HKS Chicago office, empathy for the people who will use a space is just as important as the rules directing the design. Her compassionate, innovative approach has drawn praise from her peers. Interior Design magazine named Adams a “design leader for the greater good” at the 2019 HiP Awards at the NeoCon exposition in Chicago. 

Interior design entails far more than making spaces beautiful, Adams said. Thoughtful designers create offices that let colleagues work together with ease, airports that travelers can navigate smoothly and hospitals that soothe patients in stressful situations.

“There’s a common thread of your role as an interior designer to influence compassion in the environments that you’re designing,” she said. 

Over the span of nearly three decades, Adams has reimagined clinics and hospitals to make more room for caregivers, spruced up the facilities of cash-strapped nonprofits and helped create a therapeutic space for students with sensory disorders at a public high school. 

Dreamer Turned Designer

Adams’ search for a creative outlet led her to the University of Wisconsin ‒ Madison, where she majored in interior design. She also majored in journalism after a stint as a features editor at her high school newspaper. And she wanted to tack on a third major in fashion design, another passion since she was a little girl obsessing over her school outfits.

“The college counselor was like, no,” Adams recalled with a laugh.

After graduating during the economic recession of the early 1990s, she moved to Japan, where she designed corporate spaces. Adams eventually returned to the U.S. with an eye on design firms that had robust health care portfolios. She landed at HKS in 2011, when the company acquired Maregatti Interiors. The prominent Indiana-based firm had previously teamed up with HKS on several hospitals.

Ana Pinto-Alexander, founder of Maregatti and now HKS’ director of health interiors, said clients trust Adams because of her talent, knowledge and the commitment she shows to improving their spaces and outcomes.

“She is passionate about educating and guiding the client to make smart decisions resulting in unique and healthy environments,” Pinto-Alexander said. 

Challenging the Norm

Adams’ experience designing corporate spaces that made it easier for people to work together spurred her to do the same in health care settings.

She points to HKS’ work on an outpatient building for UW Health, the health system of the University of Wisconsin, Adams’ alma mater. In addition to the standard care team stations for nurses, HKS’ design includes a separate area for supportive caregivers such as social workers and nutritionists. Those professionals often don’t have their own spaces to huddle or collaborate in traditional clinics.

“The old model didn’t really give that much thought to the care team station,” Adams said. “It kind of just piled everybody in. …Conversations would happen in corridors, where you weren’t necessarily giving a lot of thought to patient privacy.”

Because UW Health is an academic health system, Adams and her colleagues also proposed adding nooks for debriefing sessions between attending physicians and residents after patient interactions. 

“If we’re not thinking about that as designers, those moments don’t improve,” Adams said. 

Designs for Dignity

Thoughtful design can be just as impactful beyond clinics and hospitals. 

Adams partnered with a charity called Designs for Dignity in 2008 to renovate the underused common areas of a residential high-rise for seniors called Hollywood House. 

“There are so many studies that show how people that live in communities where they come together, that feel like they have a support network, tend to have a better quality of life, live longer,” Adams said.

The project was personal for Adams. As a girl, she had spent many weekends at the Chicago complex visiting a cousin. 

She helped transform a drab series of rooms on the ground floor into a community hub. One space became a library and computer lab. Another was outfitted with rearrangeable furniture that could be used for games or movie nights.

And the lobby eschewed the customary look of couches facing a hallway, instead featuring small furniture arrangements throughout: seating near a window for the people watchers, more seating around tables for the coffee drinkers and a pairing of chairs for residents craving one-on-one conversations.

“It was a game-changer,” Adams said, recounting how residents began to gather in spaces they had previously avoided.

Other clients included an AIDS clinic and an LGBT youth center. Adams and other designers studied the nonprofits’ needs, solicited financial donations and went showroom to showroom begging for free furniture.

The Big Problems 

At HKS, Adams and a group of colleagues discussed how the company should continue participating in an industry challenge to dedicate at least one percent of a firm’s annual working hours to pro bono service.

The result was Citizen HKS, an initiative launched five years ago that channels financial donations and designers’ expertise into high-impact public interest design projects.

“This is when we started having conversations with [CEO] Dan Noble and said, OK, no more are we going to use these resources to do small-scale, one-off solutions,” Adams said. “We’re going to look at bigger problems.” 

That ambition drove Citizen HKS’ partnership with Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago. The school wanted a sensory room — a dedicated space where students with developmental disabilities could retreat to recover from situations that overwhelmed their senses. But HKS advised against building a whole new room.

“Anytime you start to build hard construction, you bring this whole host of other issues, which then makes that type of solution not affordable, or just not feasible,” Adams said. 

Adams and HKS’ research team, led by Dr. Upali Nanda, came up with an alternative: a “sensory well-being hub” placed within a classroom and made up of removable partition walls.

The hub’s three areas — an active zone, a respite zone and a tent-like “cocoon” — offer different interventions depending on students’ needs. Elements such as an interactive sound wall, a panel with colored pegs and a bean bag with a weighted blanket can be added or replaced based on users’ preferences, and the overall structure can shrink, expand or be replicated elsewhere because of its movable parts. 

The project attracted national attention and acclaim. Fast Company named the HKS sensory well-being hub a finalist in its 2018 Innovation by Design awards, and the hub was on display at the 2019 SXSW EDU conference in Austin.

But not all of Adams’ extracurriculars require her design savvy. Once a week, through a program called Chicago Lights, she takes the train to a church where she helps an 8-year-old boy named Matthew with his homework.

“For as ridiculously busy as our lives are, there’s always just a little bit more time in there — a little bit more time — to make the world a better place,” Adams said. “We go through our lives thinking that our choices and our decisions don’t matter, but nothing could be further from the truth.”