Light for wellbeing: We have a long way to go

LONDON - Last week’s LuxLive show was a reminder of how much evidence exists that lighting profoundly affects our physiology, productivity and happiness -- and that what we should actually do with that knowledge isn’t so clear.

Philips research presented by Bianca van der Zande suggests that boosting lighting in the classroom can improve both student behaviour and concentration, increase reading speed and reduce mistakes.

In one experiment, students in Germany and the Netherlands were given a very specific error-prone task under both ‘normal’ and higher intensity lighting. Errors were reduced by 20 per cent under the higher intensity lighting. 

In the US, Philips performed a similar experiment for literacy, where, under higher intensity light, reading speeds were improved by between 13 and 19 per cent, though the effect was not immediate.

But, van der Zande concludes, intensity is only one consideration when designing lighting for children. Colour temperature, light distribution, dynamics and control are also key. The takeaway point is not that blasting children with more light all day would be a good thing, but there is perhaps the suggestion that intensity could be increased for short spells to aid concentration on a task.

Philips is adding to the wealth of evidence that lighting positively affect human productivity. But according to Professsor Herbert Plischke of the University of Munich, there’s a gulf between knowing that lighting affects us and knowing what we should do about it.

‘We don’t know how to do it right,’ Plischke said during a panel discussion on light, productivity and well-being. We know people prefer dynamic light, and blue-white light by day, and warmer light in the evening. But we are far from perfecting a lighting system that people respond to. The answer, says Plischke, is to move the research into the field.

On the same panel, Aecom’s Patricia Brock echoed the uncertainty. ‘Artificial lighting that mimics natural rhythms is going to make people more productive.’ But if you simply install lighting at 6000K you can induce stress, she added.

BDP’s Mark Ridler added the optimistic note that at least guidance and legislation seems to be going in the right direction, and we’ve come a long way from the bad old days of LG3. ‘The past five years have been great,’ said Ridler, praising Part L and BS EN 12464–1. Ridler knows feel free to design more intuitively, coming up with more human-centric designs that would not have complied with the letter of the old law, which was written for terminal displays rather than the people using them.

There’s much more to be learned, and in the meantime, there may be a case for keeping things simpler. As Ridler summed up, ‘wherever possible, don’t stick humans in entirely artificial environments,’ before adding that ‘happy staff are productive staff. We know it intuitively, and from collective experience’. Quite.