Left: This entry is certainly dramatic, but hardly friendly and inviting. Right: Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring: that’s how to light people!

The title for this blog is not about those humans out there who may be referred to as “People of Light” (or on Wednesday night at LightFair, AKA “Party People”). It’s a statement in the imperative tense, a command: do something specific. The specific thing I hereby exhort you to do is to consider people first (over objects or spaces) when specifying or designing lighting. It’s a concept neither difficult nor new, but it is one that appears to be rather lost on most of those who practice the art and science of illumination. Why is that? I have my ideas, which I’ll get to presently, but first indulge me in a mini-rant on terminology that points to underlying problems with the state of the practice.

“Human-centric” is a term freely applied to lighting, lighting and health, circadian whatever, and lots of other things not related to lighting. What I’m nit-picking about (as a marketing guy I can’t help myself when it comes to “branding” things or ideas) is that calling out a special form of lighting as specifically centric to humans implies that everything else is not – and might be, in fact basically “anti-human.” The mission and goals of the Human Centric Lighting Society are all highly commendable, and I mostly support them, but I fear that while applied with nothing less than the best of intentions, the term could be seen as just another marketing thing and lose its effectiveness. Why do we not discuss “human-centric” food or clothing movements per se, as clearly there is an abundance of each which are less than optimal for humans? Shouldn’t everything be “human-centric”? As humans can we even conceive of anything that isn’t? Depends on whether you’re talking about saving the whales, GMOs, climate change, or circadian whatever, I suppose. Blame Protagoras, with the whole “man is the measure of all things,” which is still a “thing.” This concludes the rant portion of my presentation, thank you for your patience.

My guess is that because the modern lighting design profession has part of its historical roots as an engineering discipline, and because the general state of lighting done absent the professional intermediation of lighting designers often seems so dismal, “lighting as usual,” sometimes driven lately by energy efficiency alone, has indeed come to seem rather anti-human. So it’s understandable that we would want to realign the practice with the general goals of making healthier environments for ourselves. We evidently feel a strong need to assert that we are decidedly “pro-human.” Being a human myself I can’t argue much with that.

A deeper issue is that virtually all of our design visualization and communication of beauty in architecture and interiors is done through spaces that are utterly devoid of well, humans. This has been the style for centuries, and is explained eloquently by Michael Sorkin in Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings (Verso 1991, London):

“…This is particularly true in architectural photographs. For a start there are almost never any people in them; the scale and composition of these shots are not so much derived from a sense of the way in which a visitor or user might perceive the building, but from the aesthetics of photographic composition. The best photograph generally triumphs over the best view, diverting attention from the architecture to the means with which it is reproduced. Indeed, architecture and architectural photography have come to have a kind of mutually parasitical relationship in which buildings come to be designed to yield that one striking snap.”

Architect-centric, totally, but “human-centric”? Not quite. But this strange situation is understandable through the perspectives of history and evolutionary psychology. My take is that the math and geometry developed during the Renaissance to enable global trade and its taskmaster father, imperialistic expansion, was brought to bear on drawing, painting and architecture simultaneously and allowed mathematically correct perspective to enter and eventually dominate the cognitive realm of design visualization. This was a great advance, owing as much to scientific method as to the pressing need for architects to accurately portray – and sell – brilliant visions to their wealthy merchant benefactors as a matter of survival, of passing their genes on to the next generation. The advent of photography merely swapped out the technology, not the aesthetic impulses. So basically much of what we see in the built environment looks great “on paper” and is pretty much primarily designed to do that – not necessarily to feel good to people when it finally gets built, but to convince those with the money to build it in the first place, which remains a matter of survival to most architects.

The focus on buildings and spaces instead of the people they are designed for also has an explanation in evolutionary psychology – the drive for status. To our primate brains, status is most definitely a matter of survival, and much architecture obviously reflects the ego and status drive of the funders of buildings rather than the health and comfort of occupants. In residential lighting this is expressed in a preference for lighting art and furniture – extremely potent indicators of wealth, taste, and status – over humans.

This is not exactly an ideally human-centric state of affairs, and because lighting designers largely follow architects in our culture of building, they are somewhat stuck with the problem. What to do? Well, per my earlier exhortation, lighting people is a pretty simple approach, and one that doesn’t preclude also lighting spaces and objects well. It’s just a matter of balance and layering.

In a recent conversation with my excellent friend and longtime collaborator Randall Whitehead, one of the leading residential lighting designers in the world, we realized that almost nowhere had either of us ever seen a depiction of the effects of lighting on humans themselves in the lighting design or architectural literature. Yet the attention to this is a driving force in, for one thing, most Western art, say as in…oh, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio – you get the “picture.” And theater lighting, the other fruitful font of lighting design practice, is all about lighting humans first – no wonder so many brilliant lighting designers take their “cues” from it. (Please excuse dopey puns!)

Randall has been preaching, and practicing, the “better than botox” approach in residential lighting for a really long time. To start with one very basic example, recessed downlighting, way overdone for many decades, mostly because architects and interior designers don’t like to see fixtures mess up their clean lines, may highlight your mid-century Eames chairs quite elegantly but creates unflattering shadows on people’s faces. The solution is to use a better balance of ambient, accent and decorative lighting to soften face shadows while still generously illuminating all your exquisite status hormone-producing acquisitions. That way both you and your guests will look even more fabulous, which may have the side effect of causing them to drink more and overlook any objects that may not be optimally status-producing. You’ll all have more fun at any rate.

Color rendering is another issue that has come up with the advent of LEDs, and is much debated among “those who know.” Unfortunately, many designers and specifiers still don’t really understand color rendering, and the overly technical “specsmanship” of OEMs, researchers, and regulatory bodies isn’t helping. Most reputable (I’ll let you decide what that means!) LED manufacturers today offer “high CRI” (generally >90) products, but CRI is an imperfect metric as we all know, and you can achieve a high CRI and still not have great color rendering because of the way the metric functions. In the meantime Ma and Pa Public doesn’t have a remote notion of what CRI means, and much labeling and packaging of LEDs still doesn’t include CRI ratings. There is some evidence of recent backsliding in the CRI department because of cost and purported energy efficiency claims. But I hope, and sort of believe, that this will all settle out eventually and that LEDs will be applied widely as the vastly superior technology that it can be.

The test for me on color rendering is always how it makes skin look – this is the ultimate “human-centric” approach. To paraphrase Billy Crystal, if we look good, it doesn’t matter how we feel. From what I’m learning by delving into emotion analytics, this turns out to be more true than we realize, and obviously lighting plays a huge part in how we look and subsequently, how we feel.

So light people – humans, your peeps! Take that lamp or fixture you’re thinking of specifying, go to the mirror, shine it on yourself and see how you look. Use layers in lighting – this makes design more complex, but not by much, and even two sources employed together – ambient and task, for instance – can make people in rooms look better than a single ceiling source which is the default for most “undesigned” interior lighting. And think about how your clients will look when they live and work in the space you’re designing, they’ll thank you for it when they become more fabulous. And your genes may just have that extra push they need to make it to the next generation, figuratively or otherwise. Who knows, maybe a potent form of status can also accrue to those who make people look better? The Dutch painter guy would approve.

Clifton Stanley Lemon

About Clifton Stanley Lemon

Clifton Stanley Lemon is CEO of Clifton Lemon Associates, a consultancy providing strategy, product development, marketing and education services to manufacturers and firms in the lighting and energy sectors. He was formerly marketing communications manager for Soraa, director of business development at Integral Group in Oakland, and founder and CEO of BrandSequence, a customer research and brand management firm. He is an active writer and speaker, with extensive experience in event production and curriculum for professional development. He is president of the Illuminating Engineering Society San Francisco Section and sits on the advisory boards of Lighting Facts, Strategies in Light and LightShow West.

Share This