Blurred visions of a lighting designer

21st September 2022

As the lighting industry continues to go through rapid growth and developments, Manas Deniz, founder of 781 Lighting, calls on the industry to slow down and take a look around.

“I sometimes think drivers do not know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.”

Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel written by Ray Bradbury in 1953, is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of all time. The observation above belongs to a rebellious teenager called Clarisse, who complains about a certain law that demanded everyone to drive fast enough, so that no one could witness the pleasant details of life. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he would say, that is grass! A pink blur? That is a rose-garden! White blurs are horses. Brown blurs are cows,” continues Clarisse, mentioning the things they were all missing.

But because of such a speed limit, drivers ended up seeing commercials just as blurry as cows, flowers, grass, and horses, which was clearly not intended. So, authorities enlarged the size of the billboards so everyone could read them while keeping the rest blurry.

Bad news is, the world of light and lighting design recently appears no different because of laws, restrictions, and the unnecessary speed that each and every member of the lighting industry has to carry through. We are taking a leap from a dystopian novel towards professional lighting design, but let me show how similar they sometimes feel.

Since my graduation from Hochschule Wismar back in 2019, I have been thinking about how lighting design could be carried out with more sensitivity towards global, personal and social wellbeing. One thing that appeared clear to me was the speed that the lighting industry had been evolving at, thanks to ever-changing technologies, trends, methods, and approaches. Although awareness for the importance of proper lighting is getting more and more prevalent, there are still so many aspects we miss due to this extraordinary rush we are in.

Clarisse of Fahrenheit 451 was aware of what billboards ordered us to do, to buy and to think. But how about the billboards of our world, the world of light? This speed we carry disconnects us from our planet and our society and even from ourselves. We can see some things more clearly, yet others appear almost as if looked at behind some frosted glass. We are still far from seeing all those details, which make us better people, and a better lighting enthusiast in the end. Here in this article, I would like to introduce you to the visions of a lighting designer that we see and miss on our way, during this fast and long drive of ours.

For quite some time now, the call for energy efficient products, solutions, lighting methods and energy-friendly projects overall has been echoing in our ears. Lately, every single lighting designer, manufacturer, architect and even client has heard about the significance of energy efficiency at each lighting related conference and fair they attend. Speakers nowadays never forget to mention how much energy and money they have saved with the use of LED light sources, sophisticated control systems, and smart lighting gadgets. While manufacturers have been promoting their range of products with the capability of providing extraordinary efficacy data and the lighting industry gathering around “a more efficient world”, we are starting to overlook other aspects of light and lighting design.

The phasing-out of traditional incandescent lamps is one big example of how the industry has evolved around the passion for efficiency. Obviously, that is because our understanding of light has changed dramatically over the past decade. The definition of light is nowadays equal to the definition of only visible light. However, for thousands of years, living beings have benefited from the Sun and the full spectrum of wavelengths that sunlight consists of. Nowadays, production of wavelengths beyond the visible range – especially infrared – are said to be a waste of energy. Those who try to compress our understanding of light into a narrow range forget the fact that all living beings, both psychologically and physiologically, have adapted to a greater range of energy since life began. Although light without a wider range of energy might not appear as efficient in the means of visible light per consumed power, all those wavelengths we miss with newer technologies not only bring quality to light but also to our lives.

Higher ratio of distributed visible light per consumed power unit is now possibly what makes a light source a legitimate tool for design. Open a random catalogue of products that contain LED light sources, and the first information you see will be the lumens per watts data. The manufacturers are not the ones to blame for promoting it. After all it all comes down to what the customer demands, and as lighting designers it is our duty to guide those who are not working in the field of lighting. Although efficiency is a major consideration in a project, it is not everything. In other words, I do accept that efficiency is a significant benefit that LED technology has brought into our lives, however it is not significant enough to shape a project around it.

A psychological effect, the Jevons Paradox, refers to more consumption of a product than usual when that product is claimed to be efficient. A year ago, a very close friend of mine turned his living space into a Bluetooth-controlled RGB smart lighting-house. And I still spend my evenings in a living room where only two dimmed halogen lamps are turned on, which appear to be way less energy-friendly compared to LEDs. He turns the lights on 30 minutes before he gets home via his smartphone app, while I turn off my two beloved halogens whenever I leave the room. So, I do wonder who has a larger electricity bill.

Before we buy lighting products, often we are certain of how energy-friendly they will be, however there is a flipside to the coin. Examples could be supported with proper data, however my goal is not to fill pages with graphs and tables but to remind you to question the practicality of what billboards tell. Things that we believed were crystal-clear are perhaps a sequence of illusions that forbid us from seeing what we actually need to see. But what are those things? Let’s break the law, lift off from the gas pedal and take a look around.

The efficiency paranoia has initiated a rapid switch from traditional light sources to LED lighting all around the world. The residential example I gave above is just a small part of it, since the whole world is switching to LED technology on a greater scale. Streets, parks, highways, walkways, almost every outdoor space is now aimed to be illuminated with LEDs. The main reason behind the change is again the prophecy of energy-efficiency. However, the rebound effect is applicable for outdoor situations as well, probably even in bigger digits. Although fixtures with LED light sources provide much more controllable and directional outdoor lighting, the over-usage of luminaires has been increasing the light levels all around the world. Scientists and researchers have been sharing numerous before and after satellite images of LED installations. There is an increase in radiance towards the sky and the fact that night-time

dark skies all around the world have been disappearing is now undoubtable. We perhaps have started to forget what the night sky and the stars used to look like.

Remember the pre-LED, traditional street lights we used to have? High-pressure and low-pressure sodium lamps, which had a warm amber-like colour. This monochromatic colour of light consisted of a narrow-band spectral power distribution, and had no high-energy wavelengths (UV to blue light) within their spectrum. Although outdoor LED lighting can mimic the correlated colour temperature (CCT) of a sodium lamp, it is quite rare to see an LED light source that eliminates high-energy wavelengths within its spectrum.

Human beings have been using incandescent light sources at night for thousands of years. Fire, torches, candles, oil lamps, gas lamps and later with the invention of electricity, incandescent light bulbs. Our introduction to artificial UV and blue light is very recent. We have received shorter wavelengths of light only from the Sun, during daytime. And during all those years we have developed an internal clock that is regulated by light. But we are not the only occupants of this planet we live on.

Plants and animals have been exposed to artificial blue light very recently. And just like humans, there are insects, animals and plants who see, eat, hunt, emigrate and live according to the patterns of day and night-time. Imagine the impact those LED lights make on nocturnal beings. Are they really ready for this change? Can they adapt to these newer technologies as fast as the industry has? This shiny world is polluted with light, and we only get a quick glance of it, since we are too busy finishing exterior lighting projects with purely aesthetic purposes. This blurred vision of ours is preventing us from seeing the size of the impact we are making to our environment. The damage that light is capable of doing is real, what we believed to be a saviour is like to kill what we promised to protect. Yet, what if the environment is not the only one who is suffering so secretly and silently?

Have you ever felt a sneaky headache after spending hours in a shopping mall or had trouble falling asleep after a long session on social media? How about that feeling of laziness and sluggishness when you spend too many days at home without even going out? All of these situations of discomfort are caused by the rapid evolution of lighting technologies that have invaded our daily lives. It is not only the animals, insects and the cities that are hurt; but we have been suffering from unpleasant lighting conditions just as much.

New technologies of LED lighting have occupied each and every corner of our lives, without leaving a doubt of their benefits. However, our body has developed a rhythm that generates hormones according to the changes in the quality and quantity of light, in that case natural light.

Hormones do not only impact how well our body physically functions, but they also have a direct impact on our mood and psychology. Only a small portion of concerned experts and designers are familiar with the principles of white light distribution from LED light sources and the amount of blue light that they consist of regardless of their CCT. This Trojan Horse, blue light, is sneaking through every little crack it finds into our lives; not only from light fittings, but from smartphones, tablets, and other types of screen.

As lighting designers, it is not quite realistic to attempt to alter the screen habits of society, but at least we can understand and teach multiple aspects of good and healthy lighting. One important aspect of understanding good lighting comes from expanding its definition, and not limiting it only to light that our eyes can see. The benefits of proper lighting do not only serve the wellbeing of the globe and individuals, but also the wellbeing of society.

Back in 2018, alongside my 22 classmates at the Architectural Lighting Design Master’s programme in Wismar, I had an unforgettable experience in a city called Neuruppin, located north-west of Berlin. We took part in a lighting workshop that had aimed at illuminating multiple locations around the city. When we arrived at the city centre, it was very quiet, maybe because of the October weather. Our group of lighting designers started working in the woods, illuminating trees, the lake, and other landscapes. We were quite far away from the city centre, yet still visible from the city’s beautiful promenade. We worked near the lake, had multiple detours between the centre and the woods for equipment and food and saw very few people here and there throughout the workshop.

The lighting installation was complete after a couple of days, and we started gathering out in the cold for the celebrations. Only then a few locals started to appear and celebrate with us. There was one single road nearby where only a few vehicles had passed by in the last few days. But a few hours after the lights were on, people started to gather around our installation, with an impression on their faces that showed how amazed and thankful they were. Some even showed up with some cups of tea and coffee and biscuits just for us to enjoy. Until that hour, we were positive that not a single individual was even aware that we were in Neuruppin, experimenting with light. But quite magically they appeared from nowhere, thanking us and caring for us. This was the moment we realised the power of light, bringing people together, bringing joy and amazement to their lives. We talked, cheered, and celebrated together as if Germany had won the World Cup! Perhaps it meant much more to the locals of Neuruppin. The power of light on our society is undeniable and the outcomes can be tremendous when it is used properly. During these times of disconnection and desolation, light is a beautiful tool to help us come back together and collaborate for a “brighter” future.

Just like Clarisse, my intention was not to bring something new to the table, but to remind you that there is already plenty on it. Not only the lighting industry, but the whole world has been suffering due to this ridiculous speed at which everything has been done: massive projects being completed in weeks or even days; quantity being prioritised by designers; quality, depth and meaning getting disrespected and considered as inefficient have been the norms of a welcomed lighting design process. I would like to recall three aspects; global, personal and social wellbeing, that every lighting enthusiast should prioritise in their projects, products, conference talks and catalogues. Let’s slow down for a while, rub our eyes, and take a look around. We have so much power, yet we tend to waste it by constantly accelerating with everything we do. Let’s remember what we are capable of, considering we possess the most overpowered tool ever invented!