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The Controllable Aspects of Light: Beyond on and of

Light is much more than we give is credit for, and it deserves to be treated with the care of any design medium. Just as a designer takes care is making decisions about the nuances and subtleties of color and material, so, too, must he/she take care in making decisions about light. Light can be controlled to a much higher degree than is commonly considered. To make the most of light, we must investigate what we can control about our light. There are a handful of properties that must be addressed in order to make a well-thought-out lighting decision. Every piece of light we add to an environment must be considered of three basic properties: intensity, color, and texture.

Light intensity: bright vs. dark.

Intensity is the most obvious and well understood aspect of light. It is one step beyond simply on or off: is this light dim, or is it bright? We tend to associate low light levels with more relaxed, intimate, personal environments. We translate higher light levels to be more sterile, public, active, and kinetic.


figure 1: Higher light levels (left) translate an exposed, public feeling. Low light levels (right) translate calm and privacy

Light color: warm vs. cool.

There are a number of ways to alter the color of our light sources both subtly and overtly. Lighting sources can exhibit all manner of different color temperatures, warm or cool, as slight variations of neutral. Our light sources can also be modified to exhibit very saturated, vivid colors. These colors have varying effect on mood, depending on a person’s experiences. Culture and conditioning. Color and color temperature can determine whether a person’s feels comfortable enough to linger in an environment or whether he/she is driven away. Color can immediately affect mood and state of mind. Warm lighting colors, yellows and reds, tend to elicit calm, relaxation and slower pace of action. Cool colors, blues, tend to elicit activity and create a productive pace. Distinctly saturated colors get used in our high-design, themed environment because they create visual interest and a unique experience.


   figure 2 Warm light (left) and cool light (right) should be chosen for the way they reveal the colors and materials in a space, and the mood desired

Light Texture: Directional vs. Diffuse.

Texture is perhaps the least understood or considered aspect of light. The texture of the light we introduce into a space has a dramatic effect on the overall feeling and function. When we speak of light texture, we are talking about the way that light is delivered from the source. On one end of the spectrum we have soft, even, diffuse light that is the product of luminaires that incorporate diffusers. On the other end of the spectrum we have the harsh, directional light that is the product of luminaires that utilize precision reflectors and lenses that deliver light in a specific direction. Think of an average glowing globe (diffused) versus a directed spot light (directional).

The significant differences between the two textures manifest in the shadows and the shapes of light created by these sources.

Diffuse sources produce light that overlaps to fill in shadows and has ill-defined borders as the light sprawls from the source. Directional sources create distinct shapes of light with clear boundaries. Use of directional light results in harsh shadows of light with clear boundaries. Use of directional light results in harsh shadows and contrast as that light is either delivered or blocked completely by an object.

        figure 3: Diffuse light (left) reduces shadows and encourages long tern visual comfort.creates contrast and visual interest

Once we expand our thinking to recognize these three properties, we start to get a glimpse of the depth of decision-making that is required to ensure that the light we are adding a space is working toward our design goals.

When we refer back to the notion that designers are in charge of encouraging emotion, we can begin to see that for every emotion that can be describe, there is a corresponding light intensity, light color, and light texture that successfully encourages that emotion. When we want to create relaxed, calm, soothing environments, we implement lower light levels, warmer light colors, and more diffused sources. When we are designing more kinetic, active, productive spaces, we apply higher light levels, cooler light, and more directional sources. Much of what we will be adding to our knowledge of light revolves around articulating lighting decisions like these to encourage deeper thought about the light we add. In this manner, we utilize light to its fullest potential in our design.

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