Make a difference with lighting

April 1, 2010
We are often asked what key design element sets one dental office apart from others.

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: dental office design, dental office lighting, Dr. Jeff Carter, Pat Carter.

We are often asked what key design element sets one dental office apart from others. One immediate response is optimized function. Patients perceive better function in your office over another when it isn’t cluttered and spaces appear well organized.

Another distinction is the well-conceived esthetics of your interior, promoting patient comfort and confidence in your dentistry over a sparse, “unattended” interior of another office. However, this question recently prompted another, perhaps surprising response — lighting.

Given two offices that function well and present an inviting interior, the one that will stand out is the one that takes advantage of lighting. This has become more apparent to us as remodeling offices has become a greater part of our work.

Necessary functional improvements often drive clients to us initially, but they also want an outcome that helps them stand out from surrounding practices — a worthy objective. One quick glance at their tired acoustical tile ceiling and fluorescent lighting in every space has convinced us this key design element is not contributing and, in fact, is rarely considered.

While the multitude of lighting types and detail options make lighting an exciting design tool, deciding what is best to use in any given area can be daunting. There are some simple considerations, however, to take advantage of the difference lighting can make in your office:

1) Segregate your lighting by “function.”

An effective dental office is achieved by separating disparate functions (e.g., lab vs. patient reception area). Your lighting should do the same. There are two basic functions that lighting can address: task and effect.

Task lighting is appropriate for areas that require good light to perform a task — such as your dental lab or the business area. Lighting for effect is designed to create an experience, such as your reception area or patient corridor. Some areas might require or benefit from both, such as a consultation area. This means that one lighting type isn’t optimum for your entire office if you want to distinguish your office.

2) Dental office lighting should include both high light and shadows.

Think about a space you really enjoy. We would bet it does not include a 2 x 4 fluorescent light fixture over your head. And that is our point. While fluorescent lighting in your operatory is appropriate, this type of lighting is not designed to create ambience.

Yet it is used in all spaces of most dental offices. It has become a design solution not because it delivers to a design expectation, but because it is inexpensive and “that’s what we do.” More likely, it just does not get considered as the meritorious design tool it is.

No matter the reason, our experience says patients are attracted to spaces that offer changes in light level. This includes the high light where your dental work is performed, a piece of art is illuminated, or to bring attention to a wall finish in contrast to the shadow areas of lighting “relief” which promote a sense of well-being. It is this play of high light and shadow that is key to effective lighting design.

3) Be selective — watch your lamps.

Without argument, the dramatic effect of great lighting can make even a simple space feel sensational. It can also make it expensive, exceed energy code requirements for “medical specialty,” and frustrate you with purchasing and storing a multitude of lamps (bulbs). Limit your lamp (bulb) types to three or four (e.g., 4’ fluorescent tube lamps at all operatories/uplighting, slimline fluorescents at all undercabinet task lights, fluorescent lamps at all recessed lighting, and low-voltage MR16 lamps at decorative lighting).

4) Budgets like great lighting too.

There is an assumption that a budget-minded office must be limited to 2 x 4 fluorescent lighting throughout. Granted, it is the least expensive fixture type that in our view looks even cheaper when used as the sole type of lighting. To this we would argue that budget-minded fixtures — sconces, track lights, pendants, uplight cove details — when strategically placed will add distinction and fit within most interior budgets.

Typically underutilized and often not considered at all, lighting is a key design element that could distinguish your office above others.

Visit to see photos.

Jeff Carter, DDS, and Pat Carter, IIDA, are owners of PDG- Practice Design Group. Located in Buda, Texas, PDG offers a full range of design and consulting services to dentists nationwide. For information, call (800) 511-7110 or visit

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