Who Needs A Lighting Designer?

No I’m not begging for work (although I am available for weddings and bar mitzvahs). At the beginning of every semester I ask my interior design students (especially at Parsons, where the class is an elective) why understanding lighting design is important to them. They tell me that lighting design is important for setting the mood or atmosphere, that lighting affects the appearance of materials and finishes, and that light is an important element in the overall design of any space. Good job!

But, as we move through the semester they often say that there’s so much to know and ask if interior designers, architects, and electrical engineers really know all of it. If not, why do only 10% of construction projects have a lighting designer? Why isn’t a lighting designer assumed to be part of a design team just like an electrical or mechanical engineer?

So I did a little research. According to the DesignIntelligence ranking of the top five interior design programs, only three undergraduate and one graduate program require a semester long course in lighting design. It turns out that I’m in a fairly unique situation in that my undergrad interior design students at Pratt are required to learn about lighting design.

What about architects? According to Architectural Record’s ranking of the top ten undergraduate and graduate architecture schools, only one grad program, and zero undergrad programs, require a course in lighting design! So, at least in the U.S., we shouldn’t expect interior designers or architects to create more than utilitarian lighting because they’re not educated in the practice of lighting design.  Yes, many care quite capable of laying out a lighting plan that meets code requirements but we should remember that codes set minimum requirements for safety and energy efficiency. Codes have nothing to say about appropriateness for the application much less anything to do with aesthetics of the space or the interaction between light and materials.

So what do I tell my students? In the same way that there’s a difference between a decorator and an interior designer, there’s a difference between someone who can “do lighting” and a lighting designer. The differences are many, actually, and include academic education and training, continuing education, range and depth of experience, and a focus on the practice lighting design as a profession and a livelihood, not as an ancillary service. I tell them that it’s important for them to be able to speak the lighting designer’s language and to understand the interaction between light and materials because lighting can have such a strong effect on their work. I tell them that they may find themselves lighting some of their own projects and I hope my class prepares them for that. In the end I also tell them I’m sure they’ve learned that the best lighting designs are created by a professional lighting designer. If they want the best for their clients and their work, it’s worth the extra fee and worth talking to the client about what a lighting designer can do to support and enhance the project. Everyone needs a lighting designer, they just don’t know it.

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