What do people see, and how do they perceive and experience their environments? Because this is a key question for architects and social scientists—and because lighting is inherently involved in the answer—the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee organized an in-depth discussion with several lighting designers from different backgrounds.
Lighting design affects each individual’s view of the world differently. While panelists agreed that there’s no single way to design lighting, Committee Co-Chair and Moderator Evie Klein emphasized that it’s still important to come together and discuss the topic; "Lighting design is valuable in the conversation about architecture and social research because it is an area of design that puts user experience up front, and looking at the way this one sector approaches research allows us to see how different pockets of the design field let us see ways we can understand our environment."
Lighting reflects "how a community wants to be seen," Ken Douglas, Principal at HLB Lighting said. “What do the people in that community want to say about their place, and what don’t they want to say about their place?”
Panelists discussed how they describe lighting in terms of psychology, memory, and imagination. These words are important—and constantly changing—when describing and differentiating between lighting designer as technical expert versus human experience expert. Words and phrases used included joy, place, a place to see and be seen, community, restorative, relaxing, reduce fear, remove dread, phototecture, and photogenous (light with many qualities). This vocabulary helps designers to interpret different moods through design and create desired user experiences in spaces.
As Dr. Linnaea Tillett, Principal at Tillett Lighting Design Associates said, "Lighting designers have to be able to unpack the feelings so they’re not so monolithic" and “understand how [clients] see people moving through the site at night….It’s a translation of the language of emotion and feeling as unpacked as possible, and then you can construct associations.”
Active listening is essential to translating each client’s needs and wants into a lighting design that works for them. This includes understanding others’ unique places and cultures, while not letting one’s own preconceived notions affect his/her design. "Listen first and talk after," as Douglas emphasized.
Another key theme discussed is that lighting design is both an art and a science. With each project, there’s a balance of objectivity and subjectivity, based on the unique perspective of each lighting designer, team member, client, and end-user, and how they feel in a given place and moment. As Nathalie Rozot, CEO of PhoScope, said, "one of the most fascinating aspects of our field is that nothing is absolute and everything is relative."
People do have consistent responses to certain lighting conditions, such as lighting that causes glare, exacerbates physical or social situations that could cause fear, or makes things visible or invisible. However, as Mark Kubicki, Principal at Tillotson Design Associates pointed out, even scientific terms like "full spectrum lighting" and “daylight” need clarification. For example, daylight at 12 noon on December 21st differs significantly compared to daylight at 6 or 7pm in August.
Rozot described the nuances of "dermophotology". She’s conducting a study about “how spectrum is resolved, reflected, and received on different shades of skin…Ultimately, this will lead to a product that will empower performers of color with affordable, portable, dimmable, tunable, open source products” capable of adjusting lighting based on individually desired appearances and goals.
Each panelist addressed different methods. Tillett described recommendations based on qualitative observations and quantitative data collected and used, based on each project’s priorities, available opportunities and client needs.
Panelists talked about safety and comfort as the usual foundation for lighting designs. Beyond that, it's often based on subjective factors. Douglas noted the challenge of achieving a balance between too much illumination "like Las Vegas" or not enough. As Tillett said, “A lot of lighting's value actually is symbolic. You don't need very much light to see. For most of human history, we used the moon or candlelight…so you're almost always engaged in a conversation about symbolism.”
Kubicki talked about complexities of lighting based on different client goals, ranging from "functional" to “functional plus” and “functional plus plus”—or ranging from basic security needs to emphasizing small details of a site feature. In some cases, it can even include “putting lipstick on a pig”—or highlighting some things while removing attention from unwanted areas.
In spite of their different perspectives, panelists did agree when responding to an audience question about what defines successful lighting. Their mutual answer: when people don't notice the lighting It is "invisible" or integrated into the overall site and experience. Rozot also used the term “hypophotal: because in a design, if you can work with lesser light levels, then that’s the goal.”
As Varis Niwatsakul, Design Analyst at PLASTARC and one of the event organizers, summed up after the event, "As designers, we were taught in school that intentionality is key to design. Lighting is an opportunity to direct or set that intention. With good design, lighting can direct attention to key features or obscure undesirable ones in a design project, create a sense of safety, foster social interaction, and solicit emotional responses from people to their surroundings. Lighting designers, in particular, have this incredible ability to control people’s perceptions of place through their designs."
With lighting-related vocabulary and goals emphasized more and more in design projects and client requests for proposals—a trend that several panelists noted—it’s inevitable that lighting with people in mind will continue as a major consideration on architectural projects.
By Carolyn A. Schultz