Empathic Design

18th December 2020

While the adoption of ‘Human Centric Lighting’ looks at the physiological impact of lighting, what about its emotional impact? Communication Consultant and kindness advocate Bronwen Rolls asks if lighting designers can take a more empathic approach?

I was waiting to receive results of a medical test in a brightly lit, cold, windowless corridor a few days ago and, as the adrenaline and cortisol pulsed through me I realised it wasn’t the results that were making me feel so extremely anxious, it was the environment I was sat in that was compounding it. Bright, cold overhead light pulsed about and reflected and bounced of every white surface, flickering and agitating the space. I began to think back to all the people I have spoken to in lighting about its effect on our wellbeing and I realised that whoever had designed this specific space – or more likely had not – had never themselves had to wait for a medical test result. Or, worse still they had been through the exact same scenario, but had not then used their understanding of how people feel in that moment, in that environment, to improve their design. 

This got me to thinking: are feelings too subjective for lighting design to consider? Should or could lighting be empathetic? Could it care more? I want to start a discussion about this. 

2020 was unprecedented, a genuine game changer for pretty much everyone around the world. When any seismic shifts happen things can go either way. We adapt, we innovate and we move forward or we falter and panic, make rash decisions and we ultimately stop functioning. Observing the changes in society reminded me of the changes I have seen in the lighting. LEDification and digitalisation were light’s revolution. It was a massive disruption to everything, one that removed certainty and created shareholder unrest. What has followed are years of teetering uncertainty, of how to adapt, innovate and move forward. 

When faced with the potential of LED technology and digitalisation, I think it has been too overwhelming, too competitive, driven too hard by the “let’s make it – because we can” reflex. It has seemed that for over a decade everything was prefixed with ‘Smart’, whether it was or not. Then we had connectivity – your lights could tell your fridge to tell your TV to send you a WhatsApp message saying that you needed to buy milk, and this service wasn’t cheap. In contrast to the smart/connective drive we saw the rise of Human Centric Lighting, #Betterlight, healthy light and an awareness of our own circadian rhythms. People were standing up and demonstrating intelligent scientific evidence that light affects us, that lighting manufacturers and designers have a responsibility to consider the people they illuminate in relation to their physical and mental wellbeing. 

But, despite all this incredible potential nothing so far seems to have given lighting the equilibrium it needs to be confident again. I am not for one minute suggesting I know the answer because no one does, because there isn’t one answer. What there is, however, is a chance to reframe how light uses all its potential, and that is where I believe the idea of empathy and caring comes in. 

A few home truths for you: user adoption of light as a service model is slow, a lot slower than the industry predicted or hoped. The requirement for smart projects is few and far between. Design projects are under increasing pressure to deliver as budgets become smaller and now we all face a possible recession. Light as light will always be the priority, and that is it. Lighting is still considered just that by the masses: a source of light. But maybe those in lighting seem to have forgotten this? Maybe lighting needs to revisit its roots and address light not only as a smart or intelligent service or product, but also as a vital source that could be more caring, could be empathetic. 

The shared unrest and sometimes suffering experienced in the recent months has brought with it a collective moment of kindness. The antidote to human suffering is always human kindness. We, as a society have begun to look around and realise that we are all in the same boat and with that shared understanding we have become empathetic. Empathy now has visible, tangible value to a lot more people. It has been a buzz term in design and some businesses for decades. Multiple pioneers of design and innovation adopted user observance techniques and created formulas to follow in order to design user focused items that meet unknown user’s demands. They used empathy as a tool. 

What I’m considering is can this now understandable tool of empathy create a new generation of lighting designers who are not just empathetic, but also care? After all, there is more to being human centric, it’s not the lamp, it’s the person. It’s not circadian rhythms, it’s how this person is feeling in a lit environment. In lighting we are on the right path, aren’t we? 

I wanted to explore this idea and get a few more experts to discuss it with me. However, not one university or research centre I approached could comment with confidence on the role of empathy in built environments or lighting. It’s just so subjective, too subjective maybe? There is research into empathy and built environments – architecture focuses on it, and has done for a while – but not yet in light or lighting. 

So, I went to a lighting expert who is known for her ability to care about the people she designs for. I spoke to Florence Lam of Arup.

“Light is fundamental to our social infrastructure as it connects people with space. Light has the ability to convey atmospheres, ambiences and expressions; and it enhances people’s experience and encourages social interaction. Therefore, empathy needs to be considered from the start of the creative lighting design process.

“As lighting designers, we need to undertake contextual research to understand how people would use and interact with the space we are designing, as well as how light engages with the architecture.” 

I went on to ask Lam about what she believes to be the advantages of empathy and caring more when creating a design:

“We need to understand the intrinsic relationships people have with light, which can be both personal and emotional. The advantage of embracing empathy in design is to unlock the emotive potential of light in narrating a space. It directs movement and attention, creating atmosphere and manipulating the sense of space.

“We also know that light can also impact our physiology, physical health and wellbeing, which in turn impacts our performance, behaviour and mood. We therefore need to balance any empathetic intuition with evidence and knowledge to create lighting solutions that are not only beautiful and inspiring, but safe and healthy too.”

So, then we went on to the subject of Human Centric Lighting. I wanted to know is HCL as it stands today enough (circadian/mood support/etc) or should lighting tackle the emotional situations of people?

“We need both. At Arup, our lighting design philosophy is always to design for daylight first because there is an aura with natural light that artificial light can never replicate. Daylight is inherently a variable light source and its use introduces a dynamic aspect to light, which is tuned to our circadian system. When interior daylight is inadequate (for example in deep plan workspaces), HCL may help the human body stay aligned with the natural world. However, the lighting quality and sense of vitality that daylight brings is not replaceable by HCL as a technological solution alone. Using layers of light to create good spatial variation and contrast are techniques one can use to stimulate visual interest and enhance sense of wellbeing.”

Of course, emotions are extremely subjective so there might not be a simple answer, but could lighting design benefit from greater emotional understanding of their clients, the use of Empath Consultants for example…?

“In my view, experiencing architecture is multi-sensory: it is as much about ‘feeling’ as it is about ‘seeing’ and light has a key role to play. Light characterises a space through the quality, colour and even absence of light, which provides context for the architecture, much like a scene in a play or film. Most importantly, it warms the human soul through interacting with the subconscious in ways that other features of architecture cannot. This interaction of light is how we make sense of places and our experiences; it is important that this is properly recognised by designers and embedded into the design process throughout.”

I believe the conversation has just got going, so too has the design work and the research. Where this conversation will go I don’t know, where it could take light and lighting design I also don’t know, but I do know that empathy, caring, kindness and understanding that is associated with empathy is a potential way improve lighting designs, manufacture lighting solutions and create that balance that is needed in the industry again. 

2021 comes weighed down with the expectations and I hate to add to them, but maybe this is the year lighting starts to care more. 

Join in the debate. What is your experience of empathy in lighting?