This Quirky Health Clinic Is Designed To Break Down Sexual Taboos

Penis-shaped mobiles? Cat and rooster decals? Could a dose of humor improve health care compliance in young people?

Imagine a typical community health clinic. Odds are it has scuffed beige walls, unforgiving fluorescent lighting, plastic plaques with directions for the restroom, and a coffee pot with Styrofoam Dixie cups. Now pretend you’re a 17-year-old kid who needs condoms, or a young woman who suspects she’s pregnant, sitting in said waiting room–it’s not a comforting scene.


Southwark and Lambeth, two of London’s central boroughs, have some of the United Kingdom’s highest rates for sexually transmitted Infections and unwanted pregnancies, and studies show that the problem is most pronounced among the under-18 population–exactly the demographic that might shy away from seeking access to health care. So it follows suit that when the National Health Service in England staged a design competition for a new health clinic in Southwark, the goal was to break down social taboos around seeking education and health care.

“From the choice of site to the tone of voice, the intention of the project was to create a sexual health center totally different to a typical hospital or clinic,” says Caroline Keppel-Palmer, managing director of Urban Salon, the winning design firm. “The design maximizes natural light and positions the waiting area at the front of the building, creating a café-like informal space with free coffee and Wi-Fi.”

The Urban Salon team identified spaces that are often institutionalized–such as clinical consultation rooms and claustrophobic corridors–and reimagined them, to the point where the Burrell Street Sexual Health Center is more visually akin to some hip startup company’s office than a medical center. But instead of quippy “Keep Calm” posters, Urban Salon commissioned local artists to create cheeky, pop-hued art like hanging mobiles shaped as sexual organs, or a giant decal of cat and rooster duo (those analogies should speak for themselves) to spruce up the place.

Other efforts to warm up hospital spaces include using more organic building materials, or even including patient-accessible gardens. Burrell Street’s main tactic for fighting social stigmas might also be their riskiest: high visibility. “One of the key challenges was how to balance the brief’s aspirations for a more open and visible clinic with the needs of users for privacy,” Keppel-Palmer says. Ceiling-high windows on the storefront both maximize the waiting room’s exposure to natural light and promote visibility inside. From the inside, treatment room walls include glazed windows at the top, so that the space is visually connected (but it does include sound-proofed and insulated walls for acoustic privacy).

It’s a roll of the dice to use exposure as a tool for upping compliance when it could just deter nervous patients. But the decals and graphic prints might be spot-on. As we’ve seen many times–such as in this food-centric video on porn sex versus real sex, or on the packaging for these coy sex toys–a dash of humor is often the great equalizer.


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.