All good lighting designers must respect their tools

The stonemasons and sculptors that created the masterful York Cathedral knew their materials inside out. Just like the stonemason, the lighting designer has to have the technical knowledge of the kind of light that a project requires.

A great sculptor, making a wonderful piece of sculpture, will have spent years learning about the materials he or she uses to create their masterpieces. That sculptor will have learnt about and will understand how the material they use, such as stone, will work. The sculptor has to know how it will behave during the creation process, the shapes that can be made and how it will behave and last over time.

Composers spend years learning harmony, rhythm, theory and all the technical components of music so that with these building blocks of musical knowledge, they can create their pieces.

The same goes for lighting design. The designer has to have the technical knowledge of the kind of light that he or she needs in order to build that creative lighting atmosphere. The designer has to know what is and is not possible. It starts with the physics – lesson one: Light only travels in straight lines and then builds up. The designer has to understand scientifically, what light is made of, how it is described and measured and how it reacts with the surfaces it falls on. This is because we do not see light, we see the surfaces that are lit.

Say a client complains that the existing lighting of a wood panelled room looks dull. The creative lighting designer will know that the problem is the compact fluorescent lights. He or she should know that the colour of wood, predominantly brown, is technically a mixture of desaturated reds or desaturated oranges and that compact fluorescent light tends to be weak in those parts of the spectrum. This is why they tend to be bad at bringing wood to life. Knowing that, the designer can specify a new light source that is strong in the orange and red part of the spectrum, hence making the client’s wood look wonderful.

Lighting is designed for people. Creative designers must understand both the practical and aesthetic needs of people and the spaces they are in.

Mark  Sutton Vane 

To be creative it is essential for the designer to understand the building blocks of the equipment that will make the light that provides the designer’s atmosphere and conveys their message. Every component of the chain must be understood. Then the designer can be creative and deliver the working dream. It is not good if the lighting looks wonderful at full brightness, if when dimmed it starts to flicker. The designer should have understood the relationships and interconnections between the control system, the drivers and the fittings and how they all work together in the dimming protocol.

Often a lighting scheme changes with changing daylight, different times or different uses of a space. The way the lighting is controlled is an essential part of a scheme. It has to be controlled for and by the people who are in the space. Control is a very human-centric concept; the look and feel of the button or switch that the client will click, the politics of who has access to the control system and the state of the lighting at different times must be considered throughout the creative process.

The last technical aspect the designer has to understand is the economics. That wonderful way of lighting an architectural feature or that dream-like decorative fitting should not be considered if they are not affordable. The designer must always have a general quota of costs when starting to create the design.

Lighting is designed for people. Creative designers must understand both the practical and aesthetic needs of people and the spaces they are in. To deliver those creative designs, the lighting designer needs to be fully familiar with the technical tools that deliver the creations. The designer has to understand the nuts and bolts that enable that final, wonderful piece of creative design. Then it will shine, and keep shining for years.

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