Lighting design: A balancing act

Presented by: Marie Gentry

I like feeling the power of light and space physically because then you can order it materially. Seeing is a very sensuous act--there's a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something. James Turrell Problem Statement As design educators and practitioners, we understand the power of light. We know that light determines the perception of objects, details, surfaces, structure, as well as, the emotive quality and visual appeal of spaces. Understanding of the interaction of lighting, color, materials, texture, form, as well as lighting design principles, are key standards for accreditation (CIDA, 2014). Yet, these expectations are difficult to achieve when a dedicated lighting course is the principal mechanism for exploring lighting fundamentals. Because lighting is a complex subject, a single course commonly focuses on technical topics, such as the physics of lighting, physiology of vision, lighting measurement, color science of light sources, construction drawings, and specifications. As a result, the “art” is often tangential. This approach hardly generates excitement and passion for lighting and frequently results in design solutions where lighting is an after-thought. We’ve all seen plans and perspectives with ceiling planes perforated by row after row of the ubiquitous downlight. Methods To address this issue, our program has made a commitment to integrate experiential lighting activities throughout the studio sequence, beginning in the first year. As studio coursework progresses, the emphasis evolves from documentation of experimental and observational activities associated with the lighting of designed objects to development of interiors that balance sensory and technical dimensions of lighting. Learning goals and strategies used by year levels are outlined in Table 1 (Appendix 1). The poster will display key student outcomes at each level of the program. Examples of outcomes are included in Appendices 2-5. The poster format will provide conference attendees with the opportunity to review the curricular sequence and thoughtfully assess student understanding and competencies with regard to the application of lighting concepts. Feedback from colleagues will provide us with additional strategies to achieve a balanced approach to lighting design education. Outcomes/Conclusions By introducing experiential lighting activities early in the interior design curriculum, initial results suggest that students are thinking more critically about the qualitative and sensory implications of lighting on spaces, objects, and people. As a consequence of early hands-on lighting experimentation with objects and study models, observation, and photo-documentation, upper-level students seem much more eager to “play” with lighting during initial stages of the design process. At work stations, we see clip-on shop lights appear, usually without our urging, as students reconfigure space in study models and investigate the effects of light and shadow. How does light affect textural/tactile qualities of surfaces? Spatial perception? Visual appeal? We are thrilled that students seem to be embracing lessons from earlier studios. It seems they have learned from Junichiro Tanizaki, “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.” We hope students will continue to apply these lessons as design practitioners.


  • CIDA (2014). Professional standards 2014.
  • Tanizaki, J. (1977). In praise of shadows. Sedgwick, ME: Leete’s Island Books.
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