Ask a Designer: The Art and Science of Lighting Design

An illuminating look at what it means to be a lighting designer and the skill it takes to create visual environments where people can live, work, play and learn.

Architectural lighting design has been a recognized specialty in the industry since about 1935 when a lighting sales rep named Richard Kelly started focusing on selling ideas rather than just lighting fixtures. In fact, Kelly completed lighting design for many notable architectural projects, including the “Glass House” by Philip Johnson, the “Kimball Art Museum” by Louis Kahn and the “Seagram Building” by Mies van der Rohe. A majority of Kelly’s career was represented by projects where he was teamed with other prominent architects like Eero Saarinen – shaping what we now know as modern architecture. Most current notable design firms, including RDG Planning & Design, employ a lighting designer to ensure the vision for a project is represented well in light.

The positive effects of carefully designed lighting on quality of life are vital: human health, productivity, comfort and function depend in large measure on appropriate lighting. To effectively and positively incorporate lighting into the built environment, projects require qualified, educated and curious lighting designers who can help guide the way. As RDG’s Lighting Design Studio Leader, I spend all day every day focused on lighting design, collaborating with colleagues and stakeholders to provide expertise and insight on a diverse range of projects. Here, I break down some of the most common questions about the lighting design profession and explore why an integrated approach is vital to designing visual environments where people can live, work, play and learn.

The World Food Prize – Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

What type of training does a lighting designer have?

Lighting designers come from a full range of backgrounds. For example, I have an MFA degree in entertainment and theatrical lighting, while Lighting Design Studio members Shelby Klooster and Courtney Francis have a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a BFA in interior design, respectively. Even though some higher education institutions such as Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln include lighting topics as part of an architectural program’s building environmental technical systems classes, there are actually few degree programs that offer specialization in architectural lighting. Most lighting designers seek out the specialty because they have a passion for the visual arts and understand the power that light has on the built environment, with most of their training happening outside of the classroom. Technical skills can be learned, talent cannot.

What exactly does it mean to be a lighting designer?

And now we get to the question that’s most exciting to answer. It’s understandably confusing because many people can call themselves a lighting designer. Sales reps, contractors, residential designers and A/V consultants are all capable of creating basic lighting layouts, but organizing rectangles, circles and squares on a reflected ceiling plan is not lighting design. While it’s true that basic lighting design utilizes two-dimensional layouts and considers the aesthetics of the fixtures selected, a genuine lighting designer will also understand the quality of light a fixture will produce, how the light will fall on the surrounding surfaces and finishes, whether additional supplemental lighting is required and be able to do all of this within the budget expectations of a project. An understanding of physics, electricity, vision, human biology, environmental issues and the art of design are all essential in creating a successful lighting solution. Working with electrical engineers, who bring specialized knowledge about energy use and code-related lighting levels, can round out an integrated approach to design and leverage the expertise of each discipline to create environments that best serve users.

At a fundamental level, lighting designers interpret the artistic principles of light and master the four scientific properties of light: color, distribution, intensity and movement. Mastery of these principles allows designers to improve visibility, soften harsh elements or emphasize desirable ones, to improve the aesthetics of an environment. A skilled lighting designer also looks for fresh, innovative approaches by focusing not just on the quantity of lighting, but on the quality to enrich the architectural environment.

What are some examples of how lighting design has been incorporated into projects?

Our scope typically includes the lighting design and lighting controls for both interior and exterior areas of a project, with the power and circuiting of the lighting assigned to the electrical engineer’s scope. In the history of lighting design at RDG, we’ve incorporated lighting in a number of interesting ways and in a variety of spaces, including:

  • Art gallery and theatrical facilities  
  • Church sanctuary and worship spaces
  • Custom fixture design and optics calculations for monument and architectural feature lighting
  • Specialty areas such as research space
  • Senior living and long-term care communities
  • Lighting enhancements that offer color changing, backlighting, integrated millwork or other custom elements

Lighting design goes hand in hand with architecture and interior design, and lighting designers use their specific expertise to create ambiance, enhance the visual environment and set the atmosphere of a space. One real-world example of this integrated approach is our design for the World Food Prize – Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa. The project is a great example of integrated design teaming between RDG’s Lighting Design and Historic Restoration Studios, and a strategic partnership with an external architecture and interiors firm. Originally a city library, the vision was to transform this building into an American “Versailles” that would be visited by dignitaries from all around the globe.

The project required custom decorative lighting fixtures with detailing inspired by both early 20th century styles and Iowa motifs. By using a layered lighting approach, the decorative fixtures appear to be the primary source of light in the rooms when in fact small aperture, recessed LED downlights do most of the work and also offer flexibility when the rooms are rented out for events. A room that was once an artist’s studio in the library originally had natural light streaming in through skylights, which had long been covered over. RDG’s unique solution to recreate this room included using carefully placed indirect fixtures reflecting off a parachute silk suspended above the original glass skylights. With the addition of small form factor LED track lighting, the original studio has been transformed into a stunning new gallery featuring artwork from around the world. Educational areas in the basement feature 1,091 SF of 1940s-era murals lit with perimeter wall wash lighting and modern fixtures.

The World Food Prize – Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

All the building’s lighting was carefully selected and integrated into the architectural “fabric” to ensure a clean, yet sophisticated appearance to the overall building and meet all the owner’s functional and aesthetic requirements. As this project demonstrates, lighting is more than just fixtures and sources – it’s about combining energy with ambiance, utility with drama, and safety and efficiency with mood and versatility. It takes an understanding of the interactions of space, texture, technology and purpose to design a unique lighting strategy for each project.

Lighting designers create systems that functionally and aesthetically enhance and complement the surrounding landscape and architecture. It’s critical, therefore, to understand not only what lighting designers do, but also the value a qualified, educated and curious lighting designer can bring to a project team to effectively and positively incorporate lighting into the built environment.

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RDG’s Lighting Design Studio creates integrated lighting systems that not only add ambiance and drama but also save energy and lower maintenance costs. Learn more about the RDG Lighting Design Studio here.

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