Can lighting turn Tube stations from drab to ‘delightful’?

A new design guide for the London Underground aims to transform the look and feel of the network, with lighting helping to turn stations that feel ‘uncared for’ into spaces for ‘delight, fun and pleasure’.

The design guide was produced by Paul Nulty and Phil Copland of lighting design practice Nulty+ and introduces the London Underground’s new ‘design idiom’ . Nulty+ worked alongside Studio Egret West on the guide, described as “incredibly exciting”  and “A very innovative way of thinking about things,” by Nulty.

While the lighting on some parts of the London Underground is considered to be pretty good (the Jubilee Line extension, for instance, built in the 1990s), there are also many examples of bad lighting on the underground system, Nulty said, which can give the Tube an ‘uncared for’ feel.

There are also many examples where the lighting scheme has not considered daylight, where there is a lack of dynamism and where spaces feel flat and homogenous – including in recently refurbished stations, as well as older ones.

Lighting can be integrated within a station to enhance the customer experience, to delight and surprise, with moments of fun and pleasure”

Paul Nulty

Nulty argues that such disappointing use of lighting isn’t always down to bad design. “Often it comes down to the brief,” he said. “The brief is the starting point.”

So whereas lighting is often only mentioned in relation to safety, he added, the use of light can also be harnessed to enhance a station in many other ways – to create a destination, a sense of identity or to complement retail. Nulty points to Heathrow Terminal 5 as an example of this, adding that “lighting can be integrated within a station to enhance the customer experience, to delight and surprise, with moments of fun and pleasure”.

The lighting section of the guide is broken down into nine principles – including function, orientation, layers of light, conservation of energy, identity, visual interest – as well as the need to be suitable, robust and responsive. Layers of light are important, according to Nulty, because it is “impossible” in a network so diverse to find a one-size-fits-all solution.

The guide covers elements such as orientation, points of sale, information and advertising, and looks at various ‘layers’ of light – ambient, accent, feature and orientation.

“While daylight is limited on the underground,” added Copland, “that’s arguably even more reason to use it effectively.”

Nulty believes that the work his team has done with London Underground has encouraged the network to express its architecture, to be proud of it and to elevate its lighting beyond the merely functional. In the future, lighting on the underground will be used for wayfinding, to enhance retail, but also to create highlights within the journey – to make it a more ‘permeable’, a less ‘flat’ experience, he said.


  • A special Lux conference,  'Lighting for Rail' is taking place on Wednesday 22 June 2016 at the Cavendish Conference Centre in London. Entry is free to specifiers including architects, lighting designers, consulting engineers, estate managers, energy managers and others responsible for the management of lighting installations and their specification. 
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