Alma, the community-based start-up that's shaking up the mental health industry, opened its first full-service membership-based space to users in late 2018. Founded by former VP of Care at Oscar Health, Dr. Harry Ritter recognized a gap in the mental health space — a space that is typically fraught with challenges for therapists and clients alike. It's hard to find the right therapist, overwhelming to overcome the stigma of asking for help, and spaces that are as empowering as the work happening within them are scarce. Positioned uniquely among the tech, co-working, and healthcare markets, Alma seeks to elevate the experience of therapy and to simplify access to care, all while positively advancing the conversation surrounding the value of therapy in today's society.
Space -- Technology -- Community
Most therapists operate either independently, where they are often isolated without the necessary business infrastructure to successfully run their practice, or within a group practice setting, where they can lose therapeutic autonomy and are beholden to overly branded processes of the parent practice. At Alma, communities are built of top quality independent mental health and wellness professionals ranging from psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers, to nutritionists, acupuncturists, and career coaches. These individuals share access to beautifully designed co-working space, best-in-class technology and business support, and a community of like-minded colleagues for training, referral, and networking opportunities.
Situated on a 6,000 square foot floorplate in Midtown Manhattan, the space consists of 18 therapy rooms, a flexible group room, two tele-med Rooms, four meditation nooks powered byHeadspace, ample waiting areas, as well as a roomy indoor/outdoor practitioner lounge equipped to host weekly events.
Designed by LWS, Creative Director Lauren Spear was tasked not only with the unique challenge of creating one holistic 'brand-lite' experience, but also choreographing dual customer journeys simultaneously. "At Alma, we are shifting the paradigm of the traditional therapy setting; we design for the core customer (the therapist) and in turn the secondary user (the client)," she explains. In order to have a more meaningful impact both socially and clinically speaking, Spear describes the process as 'evidence-based'. "When we talk about design at Alma, it's about the mental wellbeing of real people here. Design plays a significant role in both the enjoyability of a therapy experience and the objective success of that therapy. We use facts to inform our designs, and it's paramount that related decisions are based on research and data," she continues. Spear feels fortunate that the medical community also adheres to this type of thinking surrounding decision making, which makes her job easier. "The real pleasure in working with Alma is not only its founder's desire to adhere to these well-established truths in designing space for optimal care, but also the company's mission to go above and beyond in bringing the humanity and personally back to healthcare."
Alma 1Entry + Meditation NookNatalie Chitwood
Alma 2Shelving + Practitioner CoveNatalie Chitwood
Alma 3Therapy RoomNatalie Chitwood
Alma 4Library + Patio EntryNatalie Chitwood
Alma 5Check-inNatalie Chitwood
Alma 6Therapy Space + LoungeNatalie Chitwood
Alma 7Practitioner CoveNatalie Chitwood
Alma 8Check-in + Meditation NookNatalie Chitwood
Alma 9Group RoomNatalie Chitwood
Alma 10Practitioner Cove + Therapy SpaceNatalie Chitwood
Alma 11Room DetailsNatalie Chitwood
Alma 12Beverage Area + Texture DetailsTory Williams
Alma's pre-design phase was heavy in both research and anecdotal observations gleaned from interviews of dozens of mental health practitioners, therapists, and clients. Regardless of backgrounds and methodologies, two main factors emerged: Security and Privacy. These priorities, in turn, created the basis for which all design decisions were made in order to achieve our goal to provide optimal space for client care.
At Alma, we not only checked the 'safety' box, but more so celebrated the broader feeling of comfort, peace of mind, and familiarity to one's surroundings. We took inspiration from the Nordic term Hygge, or the "creating of cozy and convivial atmospheres that promote wellbeing". Hygge is a relatively new practice in the US, but it's gaining much traction in the cognitive science world . We found many parallels between the theories of Hygge and other well accepted "must-do's" of therapy settings. Below are a few of these executions:
Choice: Giving users the opportunity to explore and 'chose their own path' was an important component for a successful experience; therefore, we provide large and various spaces. This fluid program now contains touch-points such as private meditation nooks powered by Headspace for those who want a moment alone, soundproof phone booths for ever-busy New Yorkers, and comfy semi-private soft lounges away from the main entry.
Consistency: Consistency in the environment is extremely important in therapy settings, both for the practitioner to be at ease and the client to have fewer distractions. Every room at Alma is laid out and furnished (by Swedish based Hem) identically, down to the books on the shelf and the art on the wall. In a shared room co-working model, this uniformity allows anyone and everyone to be instantly familiar in any space they inhabit.
Comfort: Alma practices what is called empathic design— or designing spaces that predict its users needs and reacts accordingly. Productivity and connectedness impact many peoples' mode of comfort, so we've provided cafe-like banquet seating with tablet tables and charging stations. In contrast, some individuals look for more creature comforts like a warm beverage and a cozy blanket to snuggle up in a corner with - all of which we have provided.
Though one of Alma's goals is to assist in breaking down barriers and stigmas of mental health care in the US, the need for privacy is still very real in a therapy setting. As much as Alma exists to provide a gathering space for healing, we have a legal obligation to design around privacy needs. Below are some of the many steps taken at different levels to ensure compliance.
Compartmentalization: Much thought was put into assuring both clients and practitioners have ample space to function in unison when desired, as well as maintaining the separation needed while operating independently. In turn, this creates highly dedicated areas for practitioners to seek respite and downtime, while still giving them the tools to successfully run their practice.
Acoustics: Auditory transference of confidential conversations is, and always will be, a moving target in designing space for metal health care. Many resources both in the construction and post-construction phases have involved remedying the leakage of sound. We've had great success with designing in absorptive materials, baffles, and the use of discrete white noise machines throughout the space. Noise can be rather subjective, so Alma frequently re-accesses measures to take to improve on this front.
Safety: When people feel that their well-being is being looked after, they are far more confident to share, communicate, and explore. In practice, we execute many protocols to ensure our users' safety, but it is through design that we aim to make those mechanisms almost disappear. Technology helped us solve many safety and privacy issues surrounding confidentiality: discreet digital ID badges to enter the building, mobile assisted check-in, and text message notifications to alert clients where and when their practitioner is ready to see them.
Perceptual Privacy: Real or not, we've taken measures to achieve the perception of privacy where total privacy either isn't desired from a practice standpoint, or simply isn't possible. The waiting room for example: We cannot guarantee a client will not passively interact with clients making their way to the restroom, a practitioner switching rooms, or an Alma concierge taking care of another client. However, we were able to lay out the space in a way that not a single seat faces another, thus minimizing those uncomfortable encounters. Also, clients have the option to exit the space through a different door from which they entered. While not always practical, we've provided users the opportunity to have such choices.
BIOPHELIA + SUSTAINABILITY
The biophilia effect —or humans' innate tendency to gravitate toward nature— forms a significant portion of Alma's design ethos. While some corporate sectors see these measures as a perk, we see them as an absolute necessity, as the healing bonds between humans and nature is indisputable within the mental health sector.
Materiality: In the early stages of design, Alma made the decision to execute 'trueness to materiality' in our brand palette. This meant using as many sustainable products as possible — and embracing the natural look, feel, and inherent flaws of such materials. In hard construction, this resulted in many unpolished and exposed aggregate natural stones, raw and non-treated hardwoods, and linoleums. In soft goods, this translated to many natural fiber textiles, leathers, corks, and even woolen carpet tiles. We are committed to these practices not only from a sustainability standpoint, but also for their immediate aesthetic tie-backs to a more simple, honest nostalgic past — where what you see it what you get.
Lighting: Since natural daylight positively impacts mood, productivity, and stress levels, Alma committed to ensuring every therapy space had ample access to natural daylight and views to the exterior. In therapy areas, we gave therapists full control of several layers of light in order to create the desired ambiance. In public areas, we designed a far more intimate, cozy, and warm lighting level with full dimmability. This has been achieved by going completely LED in the space, and working with local manufacturers like Allied Maker and Rich Brilliant Willing to achieve such goals.
Plant Life: As a fundamental component of biophilia, we executed two large green-wall installations at visually high-impact areas that all users would interact with on any given day. They've proven to be the largest maintenance item, but we believe it is well worth the effort to create these special moments for people to connect and gather around. In planning plant life project-wide, we worked with The Sill to determine best plants types for different locations, including over 60 other freestanding potted plants throughout the space.
Behavioral studies surrounding the psychology of shapes have taught us that humans perceive rounded shapes, specifically circles, more favorably that some other more angular shapes. Their rounded nature evokes feelings of wholeness, balance, and eternity (no beginning & no end). At a micro level, the circular concept became an integral part of each major touchpoint - or points of customer contact - and forced those moments to be more tactile in nature. Whether it's running your hand along the wood dowelled entry wall, signing in at a welcome table via our mobile tools, or making yourself a hot mug of tea, every single item you come into contact with during these actions is round. This even translates down to the custom bookshelf system throughout the space, made by Brooklyn furniture maker Armada, or the smallest details like the millwork hand pulls by Reform.
Neuroscientists have been studying the relationship between color, emotions, and cognitive performance for years, so there is a wealth of knowledge to be harnessed while creating palettes. At Alma we primarily relied upon the natural materiality and texture of elements throughout the space, and in turn focused on a very limited color palette. There are two paint colors throughout the space: a creamy white that serves as a blank canvas/palette cleanser in all public areas, and a soothing dark slate which the therapy spaces almost appear to be "dipped" in. Studies have shown blue hues to induce calmness and serenity, while also being seen as sign of stability and reliability in many cultures. In addition to its therapeutic qualities, we executed this high-contrast concept as a way-finding mechanism for individuals to easily navigate 'active' vs 'quiet' spaces.
The creative arts play a substantial role in therapeutic-recovery, so it was important for Alma to incorporate art that speaks to the process of self-discovery, while being accessible to the viewer. We chose to do so though minimal abstract art pieces from artists who are both very process driven and committed to their craft. In the main entry we feature a limited edition of fine art prints from artist, Bobby Clark. Her "Print Range" collection is a methodical study of the balance and connection between fundamental geometric shape and grid-like compositions. In contrast, in the therapy rooms we commissioned artist, Lee Ahlskog, to create original artwork to connect a bit more to the organic, imperfect, and iterative nature of the work that takes place behind closed doors.