The 8 habits of top lighting designers

Creative lighting design isn't always about flashes of inspiration. Often, it's sheer craft, and a series of good habits that the top lighting designers employ to ensure they deliver world-class projects time and again. Here we detail – in their own words – eight ways in which the profession's leading practitioners stay sharp...


They stay curious

Probably the most defining characteristic of the leading lighting designers of our age. They go to events, they read incessantly, they keep up with technological developments and artistic innovations, they learn from leading figures in other fields of creative disciplines. ‘I would say study always,’ says Carlotta de Bevilacqua. ‘You never know enough, never.’ ‘Explore the world, meet its challenges and appreciate everyone you meet,’ says Christopher Boots. ‘Learn from them in order to step up the next level.’


They challenge themselves

When approaching a project, John Bullock used to say to himself: ‘how can I do this without downlights?’. Not only do they challenge themselves, they also challenge the brief and will ask clients: ‘Why do you want to use LEDs, not fluorescent?’. Dominic Harris puts it like this: ‘Always challenge the status quo in all aspects of lighting design. It has taken time and experience to learn that the best results come from thinking about things from a totally opposite perspective.’


They avoid a ‘house style’

The truly great design practices avoid cut-and-paste designs. ‘I think it’s fair to say that we approach each project totally independently and we very rarely provide generic solutions’, says Mark Major. ‘I feel very strongly about this but certainly we are not a practice where every restaurant is ‘high contrast’ just because we know that works. This is a reason we have never done just hotels or just airports or just any specialized type of building. We thankfully seem to have avoided getting labelled.’


They surround themselves with diverse people

Barbara Horton of HLB, Mark Major of Speirs + Major and Paul Nulty of Nulty+ are designers who ensure their practices are populated with talented people from theatre, architecture, interiors, landscapes, photography and engineering. ‘My aim is to build a team full of characters with lots of charisma,’ says Nulty. ‘I like people who have ideas and who aren’t afraid to express them and the team are really blossoming into cool designers with opinions and a lot of skill sets.’


They use darkness as well as light

Top lighting designers realise that darkness has as much power as light. Theatrical lighting design Paule Constable says: ‘I don’t think of myself as much of lighting designer, as someone who works with darkness. That’s a very different discipline.’ Mark Major says: ‘Whether its’ the subtle use of candlelight in great churches or the simple drama of pinspotting white tablecloths in a restaurant, we intuitively know that choosing how much darkness to retain is every bit as important as knowing how much light to add.’


They do mock ups

A characteristic of creative designers is they don’t rely on computer renders – they mock up designs. Most have space set aside for playing with lights. Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting even moved from Manhattan to Harlem to acquire a huge space for mock ups.  ‘The great designers from the past like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames were not scared to experiment with materials to create and I think we need to be like this with light,’ says Rogier van der Heide.


They win hearts and minds

Great lighting designers are persuasive: they use their passion and charisma to win over everyone involved in the project to get the right lighting budget and protect the specification and the design vision. ‘The most effective method in my experience is to bring people on board, especially the client and the contractor,’ says Regina Santos. ‘Holding design workshops, having them involved, showing them the fixtures, these are key. I show them what we’re using and why we’re using it.’


They’re nice to manufacturers

Good lighting design practices welcome representatives of lighting equipment manufacturers to their offices, as they realise they can learn from them, and not just about product. ‘We certainly don’t want to make or supply light fittings but we do want to be able to work with industry to help provide solutions without losing our integrity,’ says Mark Major.  ‘Doing that would be a huge mistake.  But I don’t think it is possible to be innovative, unless you are engaging with what people are producing.’


  • Top lighting designers – including Mark Major of Speirs + Major – will share their insights in two days of inspirational talks and presentations at lightspace dot london, part of LuxLive 2017, Europe's largest annual lighting event.  The show takes place on Wednesday 15 November and Thursday 16 November 2017 at the ExCeL London. Entry is FREE – see the full programme of events and register to attend by clicking here.


Picture: Studio Dubuisson