More than Meets the Eye

Crafting a lighting design solution that balances vision, art and science to meet the needs of many users.

To the general public, lighting design might seem like an engineering discipline utilizing simple, utilitarian sets of decisions about where to place fixtures and how to control them. For RDG’s lighting designers, however, lighting design involves an in-depth understanding of multiple factors: architecture, interior design, theatre, ambience, cost-effectiveness, efficiency, energy, mood, safety, even aspects of wellness. It takes a unique approach to design a lighting strategy for each project because the experience of light – its brightness, color, intensity, glare – varies from person to person. Crafting a solution that is fully integrated into the architectural environment and can meet the needs of many users requires a delicate balance of vision, art and science. 

Vision, Art, and Science in Lighting Design

Vision is the true reason that lighting exists. We light places for people to see, to both experience the beauty of the environment and to ensure that the lighting levels within those spaces meet the visual requirements of occupants. Understanding the biology behind the vision is critical. Designing a lighting program for a senior living project requires a much different approach than that of an elementary school or an office building.

To understand the role of lighting design in the user experience, it helps to first define the different elements of lighting design itself. Lighting adds to the beauty of spaces in which we live, work and play. The art of lighting design refers to these aesthetics, the interplay of color and texture through highlights and shadows that further enhance the architectural environment. Elements that provide visual interest – an accent wall, a featured finish material, a unique architectural detail – can be brought to life through effective lighting design.  

The science of lighting is essentially the technology behind the design. In-depth knowledge about the physics of light (optics, electrical theory, color theory, construction materials and controls) is essential to the success of any lighting design and allows designers to bring a project from concept to reality. At RDG, we actually use a working lighting lab to allow both designers and clients to experience unique lighting conditions and understand how to manipulate lighting in space. 


A Look at Effective Lighting Design in Action

Balance between art, science and vision is successful when designers consider the different kinds tasks or activities users are performing in various spaces. For instance, WELL guidelines stress the importance of quality light in a work environment. To create comfortable and effective work environments, lighting designers work closely with architecture and interior design teams to review room geometry, surface reflectances and glare potential from both natural and artificial sources.

Iowa State University Economic – Development Core Facility in Ames, Iowa by RDG. Photography by IRIS22 Productions.

In a church, on the other hand, considerations around lighting may focus more on how design can enhance the worship experience. Recently our team was working on a church design project, and the building committee expressed the challenge that lighting levels were too low in the pews for their aging congregation. Our first site visit revealed beautiful, ornate architectural details that were sitting in the dark, unnoticed.  With RDG’s comprehensive design approach, we were able to provide the congregation with higher lighting levels while also bringing reverence to the historical fabric of the building.  The result is a solution that addresses insufficient lighting levels (the impetus for the project in the first place) and brightens the entire sanctuary to offer church-goers an enhanced worship experience.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photography by Tom Kessler.

New advances in lighting are also informing senior living design. Collaborating with memory care units and Alzheimer’s researchers, we’re seeing the benefits of utilizing tunable lighting systems in addition to higher task lighting levels to impact patients’ circadian cycles. These systems, which go above the minimum foot-candles required in most design guides for senior living environments, help reduce the impact of dementia and other brain disorders and increase visual acuity to better the quality of life for both the patients and staff at the facility.

Effective lighting design strikes a careful balance between easily maintained and dependable technology solutions that are within a project’s budget- and end results that are aesthetically pleasing to the natural or architectural environment. Approaches such as these – ones that combine the art, science and visual aspects of lighting – allow for a complete, holistic and effective design that can successfully meet the needs of a variety of users.

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