In the traditional world of architectural lighting design a new trend is taking shape that shows promise to fundamentally transform the practice. New ways of creating light, from the RGB LED to video projection and advanced laser technology have started to make their presence felt in the world of high-end permanent architectural installations.
Coming from a background in the concert touring industry, I saw these new technologies applied to the stage at a very early point in my career. I was on the forefront as projection and pixel mapping became a staple on stages across the globe. I got to rub elbows with laser technicians barely in their 20’s giddily playing with technology that could light their cigarettes from across a stadium. I watched as these new technologies transformed that industry, eliminating traditional roles held by wizened engineers and replaced those specializations with brand new ones. Fast forward to 2018 and I feel like I’m seeing a similar revolution budding in the architectural lighting industry I now call home.
I founded Digital Ambiance in 2011 to fill an influx of requests to create controllable lighting effects for architectural installations. Making use of the same technologies and techniques I learned in my concert touring days, I applied the basic concepts of fundamental lighting design for the stage to the exteriors of buildings and sculpture. Using LED and projection to accent architecture, whether that be the facade of an office tower in downtown LA or the contours of a Chinese dragon in an ornate lobby showroom, it was clear from the start that there was a budding desire for more flamboyant light art and money to pay for it.
A majority of the work that we’ve done has been accenting functional pieces of architecture. For example, we frequently are asked to design and fabricate ornate sources of animated light to serve as chandelier fixtures in lobbies. Another recurring theme we work with is artistically illuminating areas plagued by vandalism in or around city infrastructure. The pieces we design inevitably bridge the gap between functional lighting and aesthetic flourish, as our patrons and clients generally want to justify the expense of these projects as serving some practical purpose. Cities are in the process of widely adopting light-art as a means of beautification, adding to property value and the way their communities are perceived to the rest of the world.
The process of bringing a piece to life, from conception to fruition, usually starts with a call from a prospective client and a conversation about creating an effect that he or she is envisioning. Our job as new media designers is to take that concept and refine it with the client into an effect that can be achieved through use of the technologies available to us and create a seamless presentation in the context of the location of the installation. From there we typically enter a design and engineering phase where we develop the technical specification and budget for the piece. Once the budget is approved we begin fabrication, working through the inevitable surprises that always accompanies creating something that no one has ever made before. Finally we install and fine-tune the work, which is the critical phase where the polish is applied and all of the kinks are ironed out of the system.
Throughout the years of working on this style of project we’ve learned some valuable lessons on creating unique lighting installations. In general they mostly come down to having the right team of people in place to support the project, and knowing their skills and quirks as people and professionals.
Know the Technology If you pitch a project, make sure you and your team are fully comfortable with the technology involved. There were many times as a fledgling design firm that we bit off more than we could chew and had to scramble to make a project happen at the last minute with too little money, experience, or both. It’s worth putting a higher price on a project if it means you can hire talent with the right skills.
Be the Voice of Reason When you and your design practice start to become well known, people will likely start to come out of the woodwork asking you to manifest some really crazy concepts. We’ve found that pushing back, even if the client in question is someone you’ve been dying to work with, is usually the best practice. People will respect you more if you keep a project grounded in reality. This applies to the technology and the budget. Never promise anything before you’ve “done the math” to figure out what a concept will really take to develop.
Subtlety When presented with the option of creating any and every color in the rainbow, it’s all too common to see lighting designers create truly garish designs (cue the rainbow RGB craze of the past decade). Use motion as another property of the light, in conjunction with the color, the intensity, and the focus. Animated lighting can be beautiful, but it can more easily be flashy and trashy. The art of animated lighting comes in creating a mood based on the setting of the installation and the emotions the artist wants to convey.
Interactivity Design It’s easy to get carried away with the capabilities of an interactive installation when playing with sensors and software that allows for the generation of light patterns. In practice, we’ve found that the more complex the interactivity the more time it takes a user to understand how to play with the installation. Often this leads to users just “not getting it” and missing out on the intended impact of the design. Practice simplicity, and always do user testing before an installation goes live. Get some random people’s feedback, it will go a long way towards making your piece accessible to the general public.
The most valuable relationships that we’ve developed over the years have undoubtedly been with the other players in this new industry. We are a small family of misfits, and the more friends that we make within it and the more well known our work becomes, the more projects seem to come our way.
I learned this lesson in a very visceral way during the winter of 2016. I decided that I would spend 2 months in Europe, traveling between the major cities and trying to connect with other companies doing similar types of projects. I knew it would be a gamble, after all we are technically their competition. I worked with our marketing director to reach out to the groups behind some of the most mind blowing installations that we’d come across and ask if we could meet up and grab a drink. Most said “yes” and so I journeyed from Munich to Berlin to Paris to Milan to Rome to Barcelona to London meeting up and talking shop with 20+ groups of designers, artists, and engineers. Everyone of them specialized in a slightly different area of the industry, having mastered a slightly different set of technologies, and were targeting different niches of clients. Far from competing, the following year would see us partner with a number of these firms combining our various skills to create beautiful new installations and gaining access to entire new areas of the market.
Other valuable relationships we’ve formed have been with Architectural firms who plan large projects and frequently need the kinds of artistic flourish we can provide. Developers who are working on new projects, city arts councils who continually scour the scene for new talent, and wealthy patrons who are always looking for ways to stand out.
The convergence of new lighting and interactive technology has already begun to transform the architectural lighting industry. Suddenly design agencies, technology firms, show designers, and individual artists have gotten into the game. It’s exciting to be a part of a frontier that we are eagerly pushing into. I’m looking forward to seeing new ever more ambitious projects and exploring where these new technologies take us.