Lighting Design for Dummies (Part II)

Lighting is an integral part of any project and, when done right, can enhance everything else in a project. Lighting systems enable us to process information, perform tasks safely and create an emotional response for our clients and their guests.

Lighting systems consist of three components:

  • Light source (lamp — incandescent, fluorescent, LED, halogen, etc.)
  • Light fixture (recessed, pendants, sconces, chandeliers, surface mounted, undercabinet, etc.)
  • Control systems (dimmers, switches, timers, etc.) that transform spaces from only “on” or “off” to something that offers gradual lighting consistent with the human lifestyle. Control systems also save energy (for all light sources) and reduce maintenance in the home by extending incandescent and low-voltage lamp life.

Our clients are motivated by some fairly simple desires when thinking about lighting. These include convenience, energy savings, low maintenance, aesthetics, security, safety, investment, flexibility and retreat. Clients, however, may have a hard time articulating this and prioritizing which of these requirements are most important. It is up to you to guide the conversation to help the project accomplish “good lighting.”

Layering light to create visual interest is one important strategy I use to accomplish good lighting. Don’t just throw light around, lighting objects and things that are interesting and that you want to show off. What you don’t want to do is to create an environment where everything has the same brightness. This would be boring to the eyes and senses.

As I design a space with light, I try to use the acronym TADA! I layer my design using: Task, Ambient, Decorative and Accent light sources to help define those areas and items that need to be highlighted.

  • Task — light that enables a person to accomplish a specific task, e.g., lighting over a chopping area in a kitchen or mirror lighting in a bathroom;
  • Ambient — the general lighting you might find in a foyer, hallway or bedroom;
  • Decorative — the jewelry that dresses up the areas you are designing such as sconces or chandeliers;
  • Accent — lighting used for specific objects, e.g., a spotlight on a favorite picture or flower arrangement. Accent lighting is an excellent way to showcase the dollar investment that your clients are making (granite countertops, tile backsplashes, artwork, wood details, custom millwork, etc.).

You should use the components and different types of lighting to help paint the scene in a particular room or environment.

For example:

  • Control systems should be used to refocus a room or space to create different scenes to suit your clients’ activities or moods.
  • Task lighting should be used sparingly; it is not always necessary.
  • Ambient lighting also needs to be used appropriately because it can be overpowering. Think of the model homes you have seen where a “better is more” philosophy is employed and a ceiling full of recessed lighting fixtures creates nothing other than an annoying glare.
  • Decorative lighting tends to sparkle even more when it has just a soft glow to it.
  • Accent lighting has even more punch when the other lighting in the room is subdued.

Lighting an area properly can take an ordinary space and make it spectacular. The principles are simple and always follow the old KISS adage: Keep It Simple Stupid. (OK, so you aren’t stupid, but that is the saying.)

I want to thank Kathie Leslie from Lutron Electronics for sharing her vast wisdom on lighting with me. Next time, I will address lighting trends and codes. If you have any comments, please forward them to me at