Lighting design

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

The lighting designer combines electrical engineering, interior design, architecture and theatre. John Ford of Electrolight outlines the issues surrounding this new but crucial discipline.

sculpture by
Electrolight at the
Canberra Centre
Shopping Complex,
by Cox Humphries
Moss. This work
modulates light
through a three-storey
void by day
and night, spreading
coloured shards of
light around the
space. Photograph
Electrolight. (above and below)

Light sculpture by Electrolight at the Canberra Centre Shopping Complex, by Cox Humphries Moss. This work modulates light through a three-storey void by day and night, spreading coloured shards of light around the space. Photograph Electrolight. (above and below)

Heide Museum
of Modern Art,
by O’Connor
+ Houle, with
lighting designed
by Electrolight.
Shannon McGrath.

Heide Museum of Modern Art, by O’Connor + Houle, with lighting designed by Electrolight. Photograph Shannon McGrath.

Dawson’s Anchor
at Melbourne’s
Docklands, with
lighting designed
by Electrolight.
Shannon McGrath.

Neil Dawson’s Anchor at Melbourne’s Docklands, with lighting designed by Electrolight. Photograph Shannon McGrath.

The lighting designer is located at a curious intersection in the array of building design professions. Lighting designers have only recently become regular members of the design team and the approach to the role is not well defined. Practitioners have different levels of control over the lit environment, depending on their background and the context of their practice, and the significance of light to each project is highly variable, leading to a lack of consistency of approach from project to project and from practice to practice. The role of lighting also varies geographically. Europe and North America have quite different lighting industries, due to different voltages, localized manufacturers, widely varying education standards and incongruent design codes. The Australian situation is different again, not least because the natural light conditions are so different from most of the Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps only because 240 volts flow from our power points do we follow European trends more than those of the United States.

The term “lighting designer” originates in the theatre, but even there it is relatively young. Prior to the advent of electric light in theatres, the director or set designer was responsible for the lighting (by gas or burning lime), and even when electric lights arrived they were arranged by electricians. Adolphe Appia, working in the early twentieth century, is credited as the first theatrical lighting designer or the first theatre practitioner to realize the creative possibilities of the interactions between character, space and light.

Much the same progression has occurred in architecture. Prior to electric light the responsibility fell to the architect, who had full control of the play of natural light in buildings. Le Corbusier’s comment about the history of buildings being the history of windows suggests that applying light to space and form has been one of the primary problems for architects from the beginning. This aspect of lighting has largely been removed from architects’ hands by electric light, which has, to some extent, freed designers from the need to provide spaces with functional daylight. With the arrival of electricity and its technical issues, light has become a problem to be solved technically rather than a means of expressing a building’s form. The pendulum has perhaps swung too far – buildings designed with consideration for the play of natural light are the exception rather than the rule, and lessons forgotten with the arrival of abundant artificial light must be relearnt as environmental considerations become more pressing.

In Australia, at least, it is almost impossible to train as a lighting designer. Only one course (at the University of Sydney) offers training beyond certificate level in architectural lighting. This means that lighting designers have all come from somewhere else, mostly from electrical engineering, but occasionally from theatre or interior design and very occasionally from architecture. The majority of practising lighting designers have trained as electrical engineers and many lighting design practices are part of or closely connected to consulting engineering firms. This leads to a very technically-based industry that spends much of its time concerning itself with adherence to standards and little time considering the aesthetic factors involved in lighting.

Lighting designers sourced from the theatrical world perhaps take the opposite approach, focusing on the play of light in space and the impact of colour and intensity in the creation of mood. For these designers control of light is paramount, to the extent that use of non-dimmable fluorescent or discharge sources is unheard of. This is becoming an untenable approach under ESD requirements, especially as the government launches into knee-jerk initiatives such as banning incandescent lamps.

One of the predominant lighting design firms in the United Kingdom is Speirs and Major Associates, who describe themselves as “lighting architects” because the two principals trained and practised as architects before discovering the possibilities of lighting. Their success is due in no small measure to their ability to speak architectural language rather than taking the engineering approach and to bring architectural rigour to their practice.

Lighting often falls into the interstices between electrical engineering, interior design and architecture, with occasional input from the facade consultant or the ESD consultant. The electrical engineer will deal with the provision of the appropriate lux level to the floor, the interior designer will select beautiful chandeliers or signature light fittings, while the architect is concerned with the light falling on surface finishes and how the space is read by occupants. The facade consultant will determine the amount of natural daylight entering the space, usually with more concern for the heat load than for the appearance or function of the space, and the ESD consultant may perform a daylight study to maximize the light falling on the work plane, while recommending the use of a control system to reduce power consumption. No-one is thinking about the distribution of brightness in the space, the response of occupants to brightly lit surfaces or shadows, the use of contrast or the effect of colour in both light and material. The lighting designer’s role is to bring these disparate strands together, considering all of them but making a coherent whole out of many competing fragments.

Ideally, the lighting designer cherry picks from electrical engineering, interior design and architecture as well as theatrical design, art and various aspects of building science to bring together the skills required to cast light onto built forms. The use of light as a tool to render space and form visible may be the most succinct job description – however, the lit environment we inhabit every day provides copious examples of wholly inadequate use of light. Many lighting designers are concerned with measuring glare indices and providing uniform light that achieves “visual comfort”, but the eye is a complex thing which defies many attempts to measure and control its behaviour. Others assume that a chandelier with sufficient impact will make a space habitable and distract from other failings. The prevalence of halogen downlights in domestic and commercial spaces points to the lack of imagination applied to lighting by those thrust into the role armed with a catalogue or two.

The environment looms as a significant threat and opportunity to the lighting profession. Perhaps the best thing that could happen for a fledgling industry would be an increase in the price of electricity, which would inspire clients to pay more attention on purely economic grounds. The pay-off from adequate control systems and efficiently designed lighting may only become attractive when – not if – environmental and economic demands are felt.

ESD also offers a chance for daylight to be properly used in buildings of all types where it has been ignored or shut out. Productivity in the workplace and schools is touted as a reason for bringing daylight inside, although we seem in many cases to have lost the knack. Blake’s “dark satanic mills” were not actually all that dark. Narrow floor plates, high ceilings and large windows provided excellent natural light, in spite of other exploitative work conditions. The fluorescent lamp was developed during WWII to provide round-the-clock light to aircraft factories that were fully blacked out to protect from air raids. Seemingly the opposite of the day-lit mill.

Lighting is an inexact science that depends on art to fill in its gaps. This is the nub of the problem of lighting; it is both an art and a science, never wholly one or the other. The lighting designer is charged with patrolling this boundary between creativity and technology and in a perfect world arrives at a compromise that is greater than the sum of its parts.

John Ford is the design leader at Electrolight, a Melbourne-based independent lighting design consultancy.


Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia and New Zealand
Australia’s peak lighting body.
Aims to “advance the art and science of illumination and to disseminate knowledge to all interested parties”.
T 02 6247 2354
F 02 6247 9840

Lighting Council of Australia
Representing manufacturers and suppliers of lighting.
T 02 6247 8011
F 02 6247 9840

Lighting design consultancy.
Projects range from roads to performing arts venues, art galleries and shopping centres.
T 03 9670 2694
F 03 9670 7914

The International Association of Lighting Designers
Based in the United States. The IALD awards recognize excellence in lighting design worldwide.

The European Lighting Designers’ Association
A “voluntary federation of lighting designers and lighting consultants active on an international scale”. Soon to be called the Professional Lighting Designers’ Association (PLDA).



Published online: 1 Sep 2007


Architecture Australia, September 2007

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