The more LED technology evolves, the more the principles of good design matter

The more LED technology evolves, the more the principles of good design matter

We are all experienced and we have all done it! I am referring to a person’s reaction unless good lighting of course. Think about it.

We’ve all experienced architectural spaces where something about the lighting just isn’t quite right. It could be any of the following issues, to name a few: appearance, color quality, controllability, sharpening or lack of sharpening, flickering, harshness of shadows, lack of shadows, levels horizontal and/or vertical surfaces, fixture location, proportions, and/or scale. Each of these problems can be perceived as poor lighting.

Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.

No jury is required, we are each able to judge and say, “this visual environment is not comfortable”, even if the reason(s) cannot be articulated. Each of us perceives the physical world differently through our visual system.

We’ve all done it: Squint, to limit offensive reflections. It is an involuntary reaction when the pupillary response cannot attenuate excessive brightness. Our eyelids and hands (or a baseball cap) help shield us from glare; like when we fall forward and our hands are instantly outstretched.

Physical and psychological reactions to poor lighting indicate that lighting is not in balance with what we need/want from a lighting system. The term: Koyaanisqatsi (koy·aa·nuh·skaat·see) comes to mind. In the Hopi language, Koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life”. Indeed, when elements of our lives are out of whack, the results can range from mildly disappointing to downright disabling.

How can this be? LED technology can deliver more lumens for fewer watts than any other (currently viable) electric light source, is spectrally tunable, small scale, and wirelessly controllable. Quite true, but these attributes do not guarantee a good quality visual environment. Elements of poor lighting can occur when variables that need to be considered during the design process are overlooked, overlooked, or overlooked. This includes the fixture design process as well as architectural lighting design.

Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.

In addition, LEDs have a few distinctly different characteristics from other light sources:

  • LEDs are inherently directional – Each diode projects light in a conical shape of approximately 110 degrees. Each LED, when interrupted by an object, will cast a shadow. LEDs are a directional point source. An array of bare LED chips will cast a multiplicity of shadows. Tungsten filament incandescent sources (A-lamp, etc.) are omnidirectional, like a candle, casting light in all directions except through the base; a true point source. PAR/R lamps are directional point sources because they have a built-in reflector surrounding the filament. Fluorescent sources (gaseous in nature) are considered a surface light source with a toroidal distribution: omnidirectional in cross-section, but less than omnidirectional parallel to the light tube.

  • LEDs do not change color when dimmed; they just emit less full color light. Incandescent sources change color hotter when dimmed. And fluorescent sources actually change color when dimmed. Since incandescent was the first commercially viable electric light source, we have come to expect a change in temperature when an electric light source is dimmed. This is why the dim-to-warm technology, which uses white LEDs of different colors, sophisticated circuits and a specific driver (power supply) was developed. This is also the reason why Dim-to-Warm LEDs have lumen output limitations (a function of thermal management) and require a specific Dim-to-Warm driver and/or compatible dimmers, which can increase the costs.

Moreover, it is easy to understand why there is no simple recipe for good lighting, since a significant percentage of human sensory input is visual, to which we must mention “non-visual”; because iPRGCs (intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells) help maintain our circadian biology, when stimulated by specific wavelengths of light. The design process must take place in order to produce positive and holistic outcomes for the people who live, work and play on the Shakespearean “stage” we call architecture.

Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.

Here are some principles of good lighting design that can jump-start the creative process and yield great results:

Contextual definitions
  • Light: radiant energy assessed visually. [1]
  • Lighting design: a series of planned experiments involving people and space. [2]
  • “The history of architecture is the history of the struggle for light.” [3]
  • “In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color continually deceives.” [4]
  • “We were born from light. The seasons are felt through the light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light. [5]
  • “…visual truth lies in the structure of light.” [6]
  • “Lighting design is about light, not engineering. You have to understand light and its physics, but more importantly, it’s about having a vision. [7]
  • “What do you wish to see?” » [8]
  • “Light is life!” [9]
  • “Light should not interpret architecture; he must transform it! [10]
Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
Inherent Qualities & Functions Light [11]


  • Intensity (of lighting equipment and/or light patterns)
  • Distribution (narrow/wide, high/low, wallwash/task, etc.)
  • Color (warm/cool, subtle/saturated, fidelity/range, etc.)
  • Change (via commands/motion, scenes/time interval, etc.)


  • Visibility (and visual comfort)
  • Shape (shape/texture, crisp/dull, etc.)
  • Composition (of lighting equipment and/or pattern, rhythm, etc.)
  • Atmosphere (attitude/mood, health & well-being, etc.)
Practical Considerations

How Electric Lighting Occurs:

  • Location – Where and how it meets the building or objects inside
  • Source – Laser (it’s coming), LED, Incandescent, Fluorescent, HID
  • Distribution – Narrow, wide, high, low, wall washer, etc.

How electric lighting equipment is applied*:

  • Additional – Cylinder, downlight, sconce, task, track, etc.
  • Architectural – Embedded such as a cove, dome, slot, etc.
  • Decorative – Ornamental, expressive shape/surface, pattern, etc.

* These can be combined – Example: Downlight with ornamental trim

Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
Courtesy of Spectrum Lighting Inc.
How to communicate all of the above

Consider a straightforward approach [12]

The why is more important than the what in this new clear language of light. Ditch the FC, CCT and CRI (technical jargon) when talking to customers. I’m talking about light layers (task, ambient, accent), but now I call them the five light promises:

  1. Do it better – Light can help you see what you’re doing so you can do it faster, safer, and even better.
  2. Learn More – Light can help you know where you are, where you are going, who is with you, and what emotions are on their faces.
  3. Feel better – Light can help you wake up ready for the day, improve your mood, relax more easily, and even heal faster.
  4. Focus Clearly – Light can help you focus on what’s important to you, whether it’s a task at hand, a beautiful architectural detail, the natural beauty outside your home. a window or a child’s pencil drawing.
  5. Change more easily – Light can help you adapt to changing moods, tasks, weather, seasons, and even age.
“They said the lighting would be ‘super dope’ because it delivers the most lumens per watt to the workbench.” “Hmmm, are you sure they were referring to the lighting?”. Image courtesy of Markus Earley
How to do it – Learn from history [13]

The simplest defining characteristic of lighting, but perhaps its greatest mystery, is “the process of learning to see”. By drawing, talking, and writing down our ideas, we increase our chances of communicating clearly. Put people in all your sketches – they might remind you to think about (to) light them.

“In front of you is a blank sheet of paper which is an opportunity for a work of art – let’s see what you can do.” [14]

[1] Howard Brandston
[2] Howard Brandston
[3] Le Corbusier
[4] Josef Albers
[5] Louis Khan
[6] Richard Kelly
[7] William Lam
[8] Howard Brandston
[9] Motoko Ishii
[10] Edward P. Barthelemy
[11] Howard Brandston, inspired by Stanley McCandless (1932) “A Method of Stage Lighting”
[12] LD+A Magazine February 2021, published by IESNA, written by David Warfel, founder of Light Can Help You
[13] Excerpts from “Learning To See, A Matter Of Light” written by Howard Brandston and from, flight. 48, Number 04 2016
[14] Leon Friend, graphic design teacher, founder of “Art Squad” at Abraham Lincoln High School, Brooklyn, NY

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