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Brightening Up the Lab

Lab professionals share their thoughts on artwork in the workplace.

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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artwork in the labIt was a “5s” reorganization that led to artwork in Doreen Rumery’s lab. 5s is a lean tool for organizing the workspace in such a way that equipment and supplies are right where you need them when you need them, rather than having critical items hidden in a cabinet or closet. The 5 s’s include: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. As part of the “shine” step in the process, Rumery and her staff got rid of their lab’s wall cabinets and painted all the walls. However they were left with a lot of blank space. 

That’s when Rumery’s team came up with the idea of brightening the space with some artwork. However, Rumery felt they couldn’t just put anything up on the walls. 

Yellowstone pipettingPhotos from Artel's Extreme Pipetting Expedition, in which Artel staff tested the affects of pipetting in a variety of conditions such as those in Yellowstone National Park, adorn the walls of Doreen Rumery's lab.Photo courtesy of Artel“The owner of our company is very particular about how things look, so I thought we don’t want to start putting up Metallica posters,” said Rumery, who is a lab manager at Artel. That led her to photos which had been taken as part of Artel’s Extreme Pipetting Expedition a few years earlier, where Artel staff experimented with the effects of varying environmental conditions on pipetting, visiting such landmarks as Yellowstone National Park and taking a professional photographer along to document their travels. 

Rumery made the photo selection a team project, leaving it to her technicians to choose what they wanted to look at on their walls all day, then having those choices made into several canvas prints. 

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While artwork may seem like the least important element in a laboratory, Rumery says her lab’s prints have had some key benefits. 

“It wasn’t all that expensive but it made the atmosphere much more inviting and less sterile,” she said. “One of the pictures they selected was a wolf that we came across when we were in Yellowstone. Some of them have pictures of people pipetting, but a lot of them are just visually-pleasing photos of things that you might see in Death Valley, Yellowstone, or Olympic National Park.” 

Sometimes art doesn't work at work

Other lab managers and professionals we reached out to on LinkedIn had varying opinions on artwork in the lab. Some were limited by space, while others had stricter policies, keeping what can be posted to work-related images such as safety diagrams and wall planners. And, of course, the type of lab also limits what can be posted. 

“The only things that should be in a lab are approved items specifically related to safety and operation of the lab and meet lab criteria,” said Pat Matsumoto, senior certified electronics technician at Texas Instruments, of her lab’s policy. “Non-lab items can pose safety, particulate contamination, ESD [electrostatic discharge] issues, and can even create a hostile work environment for individuals who may not appreciate your choice of postings.” Matsumoto added that even if the poster or photo is work-related, it might not be made from a material that is safe for the laboratory, so it should be approved by the lab manager, environmental health and safety officer, and the human resources department before being posted. 

Safety is also a priority in manager Greg Anderson’s lab at the University of Edinburgh’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology. 

“As long as they [posters or photos] don't pose a fire hazard (e.g. no pictures over work areas with Bunsen [burners]), they are allowed in the labs, however only scientific posters are allowed on corridor walls,” he said of the center’s policy. 

Not another poster presentation

For Rumery, getting away from the usual scientific posters and charts was important. 

“I’ve worked in a lot of clinical labs and research labs where nothing was allowed on the walls unless it was a drawing of how a process worked or the inner operations of a spectrophotometer,” she said. “You don’t really look at those too frequently for pleasure.” 

wolf in YellowstoneArtel's lab also includes photos of landscapes and wildlife staff came across during the Extreme Pipetting Expedition, such as this wolf from Yellowstone National Park.Photo courtesy of ArtelShe added that the prints in her lab also help with ergonomics, giving her staff something to focus on as a break from staring at a computer screen and helping to prevent eye strain. The photos have helped start a conversation with visitors and show the space off as well. 

“People, when they come in, that’s usually the first thing that they notice,” Rumery said. “Most people are pretty impressed and it opens up a dialogue with them.” 

However, she agrees with many of the other lab managers and professionals who commented on social media that there does need to be at least some restrictions on what is posted in the lab, otherwise things can get out of control and people can be offended by what their colleagues are posting. 

“That’s why, when [the staff] asked [if artwork could be posted], I quickly set guidelines as to what we could and couldn’t put up there,” she said. “We didn’t want it to become a free-for-all or HR issue.” 

Overall, artwork can be a cheap and easy way to brighten up the lab, and with their optimal lighting, most laboratories are well suited to showing it off. And, if staff members get bored with the photos or posters on display, they can easily be changed. 

“I don’t think we spent more than $200 in time and getting these pictures printed, so it’s something that if they [staff members] really get tired of looking at them, in a couple more years, they could pull up another seven or eight photos and change them around,” Rumery said.