Who Needs A Lighting Designer? Museums and Galleries!

A few weeks ago I gave a three-hour seminar on lighting museums and galleries to the graduate students in an art curating program at a university here in New York. Condensing everything I’d like to say into less than three hours was tough. The two big questions were what to include and what to leave out. I started with a quick overview of how to think about light and lighting before moving on to basic vocabulary and some common lighting techniques. Then, since LEDs are clearly the future, even when lighting art, I moved on to an overview of both color temperature and color rendering. I talked about reference materials such as the IES Lighting Handbook, intensity and brightness ratios, and other considerations before we moved into their gallery space to use their track light system for some demonstrations.

After the whole affair a faculty member, who sat in on most of the seminar, said he had hoped I would have spent much more time talking about how to use track lights and less time on unimportant issues like design, color temperature, and color rendering (!). I was respectful, but stunned. Focusing track lights is so complex that it requires extensive demonstrations? Understanding that with LEDs the color qualities of the light vary widely, and can only be properly selected when they are understood is unimportant information? Uhh…NO. Or, as my 20 month old niece says, “no no no no.”

Yes, five or ten years ago the default light source in museums was an incandescent or halogen lamp. The color temperature difference was minor and the color rendering of both was excellent. That’s not true today. Look at the cut sheet for any museum grade track light and you’ll see that you have a choice of several color temperatures and CRI values. If ANYONE needs to understand the qualities of light that must be selected when using LED fixtures, if anyone needs to understand the affect that color temperature and CRI have on how colors are perceived, it’s certainly people involved in displaying and lighting art. To me, that means the curators of exhibits and the lighting designers they hire.

As I’ve discussed earlier, changing the color temperature of the light changes the color appearance of objects, as shown below.

Illuminated with Warm White Fluorescent Lamp
Illuminated with 3000 K light
Illuminated with Cool White Fluorescent Lamp
Illuminated with 4000 K light

The phenomenon of color consistency means that the shift in color appearance isn’t as great as one might expect or as these photos suggest, but the shifts are real. If you’ve ever bought a black garment only to discover later that it was actually dark blue you’ve experienced this shift. A similar thing happens when we compare a high CRI light source and a low CRI light source. If your work involves color perception this is basic and critical information.

Curators can be forgiven for not knowing much about this, but if they know nothing how can they collaborate with their lighting designer to show the art as they intend? Administrators and curators of museums and galleries – educate yourselves, then hire a lighting designer!

Who Needs A Lighting Designer? Schools!

Studio T+L is the theatre consultant on the theatre in a new school here in New York. During an early meeting with the architect I explained that I prefer to have the dimming and control system for the stage lighting also control the house lighting, so I’d like to schedule a meeting with the lighting designer to talk about coordinating our work.

I wasn’t surprised (although I was disappointed) to be told that the design team for this new school building doesn’t include a lighting designer. Who’s designing the lighting in the classrooms, offices, theatre and other spaces? It’s hard to say. The plan is that one of the architect’s lighting sales representatives will present them with a choice of light fixtures, the architect will select the fixtures, and the electrical engineer will lay them out and circuit them. Unfortunately, this is an all too common approach that results in mediocre lighting, at best. Here’s why…

For starters, it’s highly unlikely that the architect has a deep enough understanding of vision, visual tasks, current fixture technology, control technology, code requirements, and the lighting design requirements of educational facilities to thoroughly evaluate the lighting needs of the school and the various types of spaces that it holds. It’s much more likely that the architect is working with a possibly outdated rule of thumb such as, “Schools should be lit to 50 fc.”   The sales rep, even if he/she is capable, isn’t going to invest any time or effort in a deeper evaluation of the school’s needs because the fixture sale (not good lighting) is the goal, so meeting the architect’s requirements is all that he/she has to do. The electrical engineer is simply implementing the architect’s instructions. He/she is given the selected fixtures and told to arrange them to provide 50 fc, and make sure to cover the code requirements.   What’s missing is any thought about how the spaces will be used and the actual needs of the occupants .

I believe that design is as much a process as it is a product.  A lighting designer would not assume that all school lighting is the same, and that as long as there’s enough light the lighting will be good enough. A lighting designer would talk to the school about their present facility, and about the good and bad aspects of the current lighting. The lighting designer may consult one or more of the available guides to quality lighting design for schools such as ANSI/IES RP-3-13 Lighting for Educational Facilities, and would look for opportunities to include daylighting as one element of the overall lighting design. A lighting designer would look at the sustainability and energy efficiency aspects of the lighting system and factor that information into the overall design. A lighting designer would take the time to understand how various types of classrooms are used, and would lay out fixtures and select controls accordingly.

I’m sure that none of this is happening on this school project.

And, not just any lighting designer will do. It behooves architects to have some understanding of the lighting needs for the building types they design to make sure the lighting designers they hire doing their job.  For example, my classes at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan are held in a building that is less than five years old.  It  that was designed by a prominent architect. However, the classroom I was in last semester had terrible lighting.  The room has two rows of direct-indirect pendant fixtures. The uplight and downlight components are controlled together, and all of the fixtures are controlled by one dimmer, so all of the lighting in the room works as one. The problem? The projection screen is bathed in light that washes out the image, and there’s no way to dim or turn off only the fixtures that affect the screen. There are lighting controls by the door, but none by the instructor’s computer station, so I find myself walking back and forth across the room to make adjustments to the light as I constantly balance my students’ need to see the screen with their need to see their notebooks. This is a rookie mistake, and any experienced designer worth his or her salt should have immediately seen the potential problem and selected fixtures, a layout, and controls to avoid it, but it didn’t happen.

So, who needs a lighting designer? Schools and the architects who design them.

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.

“Celebrating Pratt Authors” Comments

Here are my comments from last night’s “Celebrating Pratt Authors” event.


Let me say a few words about my book and than I’ll move on. One of the things that drive me to write “Designing With Light” is missing content in other lighting design books. I come from the theatre-both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in design for the stage, and I worked in the theatre for over a decade before transitioning to architectural lighting. The other two common paths to becoming a lighting designer are from work as an architect or as an electrical engineer. Until now, as far as I can tell, lighting design books have been written by people with those two backgrounds. They do a fine job of discussing how to light architecture and how to calculate illuminance, but none of them actually address the issue of design. None of them discuss how to think about light as a design element in a space, or how to use light to create the desired atmosphere, environment, or ambiance. That’s the void I wanted to fill.

Some of you may know that the United Nations has designated 2015 as the International Year of Light. I want to build on this by saying a few words about the importance of light and lighting design. There’s an old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” but with lighting design the truth is actually closer to “within sight, out of mind.” Too often people ignore or are unaware of the potential that lighting design offers because as long as they can see they’re satisfied. Many people only notice light when it’s beautiful, as with a sunset, or when it’s an impairment, as when there’s not enough light to do what they want to do. Yet, while only a small percentage of people are aware of the lighting in their surroundings, 100% of people are affected by that lighting.

Sight is, without a doubt, our most important sense. Research shows that about 80% of our sensory input, learning, and activities are related to vision.

Our visual interaction with the world, and has two components. The first is target or object identification. “I see and apple,” is an example of object identification. However, our minds are much more sophisticated than that. We don’t stop at object identification. We’re not really aware of it, but we automatically go on to evaluate our visual target and its relationship to the surrounding visual field, to our previous experience, and to our expectations. This second component of vision is perception-the identification, organization and interpretation of sensory input. Perception is directly affected by the way light reveals the world to us. Can we see the texture of a material or not? Is the color as expected or is it distorted? Can we see the three-dimensionality or does the object appear flattened? Are details visible or are they hidden in shadow? Lighting design matters, in part, because it affects our perception.

The lighting requirements for object identification in terms of brightness, color, direction, etc. are minimal. However, the effect light has on our perception is huge. Perception causes us to form opinions about, and have intellectual and emotional reactions to, everything we see.

If I were to say that I want to take you to a romantic French restaurant, every one of you immediately has a mental image of that space. You may have a mental picture of the color palette of the room, or the ceiling height, or the spacing of the tables. That image varies from person to person, but there is a remarkable amount of commonality in our expectations. For example, I’ll bet that in your restaurant there’s a candle on the table, that the lighting is dim, and that the wood is dark and polished.

If we walked into a restaurant that we have been told is romantic and find it illuminated like a classroom, the perceptual dissonance between our expectations and our experience would cause us to immediately reject the notion that we were in a romantic restaurant.   We would declare that the lighting design was a failure. We would, perhaps, extend the idea of failure to the interior design and, depending on the strength of our emotional response, maybe even to the food. Lighting matters, and understanding how expectations of the users affect their perception is one aspect of creating a successful lighting design.

This is something that I emphasize to my students all of the time – you must understand the intended look and feel of the space before you can light it. I also emphasize that they must understand the distribution of light in three dimensions, not just in a two-dimensional plan view.

To control the three dimensional distribution of light requires an understanding of the many types of lighting fixtures that are available, and of the light sources that they use. To control those light sources we have to know about dimming and control systems and technology. The body of knowledge required to create a lighting design is very large.

And, it’s getting larger every year. New lighting technologies such as LEDs and OLEDs have some unique properties. To use them well we have to expand our understanding of issues such as color and control technologies. Add to that the fact that energy conservation codes compel us to think much more carefully and creatively about what we do and how we do it because we’re given so little electrical power to realize our design goals.

Add all of this up and we find that lighting design is hard! It requires a solid grounding in light sources, fixtures, controls, and codes. All of that technical expertise has to be combined with a broad understanding of architecture, interior design, lighting techniques, and aesthetics to turn a mental vision or a rendering into a realized design.

I get very excited when I talk about light and lighting, but I’m frustrated, too. Only about 10% of design and construction projects include a lighting designer on their team. For the other 90% of projects, the lighting design is handled by the architect, the interior designer, or the electrical engineer. Yet academia is not providing the lighting education future designers need.

I’ll use Pratt as an example. Not only is lighting design not a required course in the any of the architecture programs, it isn’t even an elective. Students have to go to the Interior Design department if they want a semester of lighting, but that course is going to be eliminated within a few years as the Interior Design department reorganizes. Pratt is just a single example of what I think is an overall disregard or failure to understand the way light affects our experience of the built environment, and the need to teach future designers how to address the entire visual experience. This, of course, takes us right back to “within sight, out of mind.” But, good enough lighting isn’t good enough.

So, in this International Year of Light, I want all of you to think about and talk about the importance of good lighting in your homes, at work, an in the other places you spend your time. If you teach architecture or engineering or interior design, I urge you to give lighting design a place on the curriculum. If you’re a student I want you to demand that lighting design be made a part of your education. The International Year of Light has set the stage, but it’s up to us to act, to raise the importance we place on good lighting.

IALD Set To Launch CLD Credential

After five years of planning the IALD is set to begin accepting applications for the newly created Certified Lighting Designer (CLD) credential. The CLD credential is similar to the LC (Lighting Certified) credential in that it is meant to demonstrate lighting design competency. Unlike the LC, the CLD credential will be awarded based on a portfolio review that demonstrates proficiency in seven areas of professional practice rather than by passing a written test. The other difference between CLD and LC is that the CLD will only be awarded individuals with at least three years of experience as a lead designer. This means that some people who have earned an LC (sales reps, for example) will not be eligible for the CLD.

Why does this matter? First, the LC credential carries some weight, mainly because since 2009 the GSA has required the lead lighting designer on U.S. government projects to be Lighting Certified. However, many designers are unhappy that people who aren’t practicing lighting designers can hold an LC credential. By limiting the CLD to working designers, the IALD hopes it will be seen as attesting to the holder’s skills as a lighting designer, not just their knowledge about lighting in general.

Second, lighting design is in some ways the redheaded stepchild of the architectural design professions. Lighting design is not licensed, meaning that anyone can say they’re a lighting designer. As a result, lighting design is provided by electrical engineers, architects, interior designers, sales people, and manufacturers who have widely varying education and training, and with widely varying degrees of success. The CLD could be a means of identifying who is a lighting designer and who is not.

The key to the success of this project is public awareness. If the IALD only talks about CLD to the lighting design community it will be nothing more than letters following a person’s name on their business card. Building owners and other clients have to understand the value that professional lighting designers can bring to a project, and have to insist that the design team includes a professional lighting designer. Architects and interior designers have to understand the role of a lighting designer and be willing to tell their clients that a professional lighting designer is an important part of the design team who is worth the additional fee. If, through the CLD, the IALD is able to raise awareness about lighting design in those who can benefit from it, it will have been well worth the effort.

Starting A New Design

I’m between classes at Pratt, so I’ll have to be brief. It’s the time in the semester when my students start to feel overwhelmed. After talking about vision, light, psychology, design, lamps, color, and light fixtures they’re about to start working on designing projects for class. The most common question is something like, “How can I possibly organize all of this information and start to make meaningful design decisions? I need to pick a light fixture, then I need to pick a lamp for that fixture, then I need to lay out the fixtures to arrive at the lighting that I want, right?”

Wrong! A lighting design doesn’t come from the lighting fixture, so design decisions shouldn’t start there. In a push-me-pull-you kind of way the first questions are always about the end result. Rather than choose a fixture and follow the light down into the room, what we need to do is understand the lighting requirements and follow the light up to the lamp and luminaire. How do you want the space to look and feel? What lighting techniques can help achieve that look? Is there an overarching thematic element that needs to be included?   How can we express the lighting goals in terms like intensity, color, and distribution? The answers to those questions should start to lead the designer to requirements for the fixture/lamp combination, and to the number of fixture types required to implement the design.

I explain that it’s not always a linear process, and that a certain amount of trial and error is part of any design. “Does this fixture give me the distribution and intensity I need?” isn’t always a yes/no question that can be answered by looking at a cut sheet. Sections may have to be studied, calculations run, different lamps and accessories considered, always with the end goal in mind.

Yes it’s hard. So hard, in fact, that some people spend several years studying light and design at the college level before getting their first job, only to discover that there’s so much more to learn! If you have a passion for light and design, though, trust me it’s worth it.

Measuring the Value of Lighting Design

The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently published a short video in which LRC director Mark S. Rea discusses the costs and benefits of lighting. Here it is.



If you set aside the plugs for the LRC, his statements, and those in his book Value Metrics For Better Lighting, are similar to what I’ve said throughout Designing With Light, which is that it’s the quality of the light and lighting design that are of primary significance while the amount of light that is delivered is secondary. Therefore, the true value of the lighting design is found in the design’s success in meeting the multiple requirements of the owner and the occupants of the space, not in the cost of hardware and installation.

Unfortunately, there are several factors that have created resistance to placing value on thoughtful, appropriately designed lighting. The first is that most people simply do not see light (pun intended). For far too many people, if the light is bright enough for them to see what they’re doing it is acceptable and little or no judgment is made regarding the other factors of lighting design, such as color rendering, providing visual interest, overall effect on occupants, etc. I find that if I show clients or students the difference between light that is adequate for vision and light that creates an appropriate atmosphere or environment they can see it and appreciate the difference. It is also a surprise to them that lighting design can make such a difference in a space.

The second factor is that project budgets are set in dollars with no little or no allowance made for the quality of the design. I have often worked on projects where the project budget and the lighting equipment budget have been set, although design work has barely begun. I understand that a client only has so much money to spend and that has to be respected. However, 1) No bean counter in the world can predict what the design team will develop. Budgets are more appropriately set in coordination with the design team after the design team understands the full extent of the client’s needs and desires. Then, if the projected cost exceeds the client’s budget, informed decisions can be made to pull back on certain aspects of the building’s design or to allocate more money to construct the building the client wants. 2) Spending more money up front on efficient lamps and fixtures, and on controls, can more than pay for itself in savings on energy and maintenance.

Another factor is that we value what we can measure. Since the early 1900s the lighting design community has invested a great deal in determining how to measure light and on how much light is required for “visual tasks.” Those two aspects became the criteria for evaluating lighting design, and are still presented as primary in many lighting textbooks. In the 1970s John Flynn and others began to study how light can affect the impressions one forms of a space. Later research examined the relationship between a lighting design and those occupying the lighted space including: the affect on worker productivity, absenteeism, and worker retention; student learning outcomes and test scores; retail sales; a light source’s spectrum and clarity of vision; and light’s affect on sleep cycles and other aspects of health. This research has shown over and over again that intelligent, thoughtful, appropriate lighting design can have a significant effect on the occupants and on the owner’s bottom line, whether that bottom line is to make more money, increase student success, or improve health.

Knowledgeable lighting designers can bring so much more to a building than just illumination, yet illumination and lighting design remain synonymous to most of our colleagues and clients. That is part of the reason only about ten percent of construction projects have a lighting designer on the team. Lighting designers and lighting design professional organizations need to do a much better job of educating design team members and our clients about quality lighting design, what it is, and why it matters.

“Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment” Comment Period

The Low Vision Design Committee of the New Buildings Institute has release a draft of its new “Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment” for public review and comment.  The intent of the guidelines is to offer assistance to design professionals and others in accommodating those  with a variety of vision disorders.  Click here to visit the NBI site to download the draft.