Lighting Design is Placemaking

The first step in lighting design is not a lux calculation, it is defining how light can make a place special. Given this, David Skelley explains how lighting design is “Placemaking” – how we can use the power of light to shape space, form first impressions and promote wellness and your project’s overall architectural design narrative.
An extract from “The Practice of Lighting Design” delivered to industry professionals in Ho Chi Minh City.

Seminar Video

The following is a transcript of the video which you can see on our YouTube channel at

There’s a huge disconnect!
How many of you get given something like this (table of compliant lux levels) as your brief for lighting design?  How do you start with this … and get that? (candle welcoming ceremony at a Phuket resort)? So maybe 0.1 lux comes from a candle so if I put 200 candles together I can get my lux level?
How can we start with this, measuring light levels, and end up with a solution like this where an artwork is used to light a corridor, not a downlight?
Or this … which is a wonderful stage set. You arrive at this resort and it’s like you’ve entered the stage and you go through the act of being welcomed to the resort. How can you start with light levels when we’re talking about a stage set?

That’s a disconnect! Lighting design is not about compliance.

If you start here, or if someone walks into your office to present their lighting design and they’re starting here …well, all those pictures I’ve showed you in the last 30 of slides you’ve missed out on. You can’t start here and capture the power of light to shape space to change emotion and to promote wellness. Where you start is making a place. Lighting design is placemaking. I think you’ve probably understood by now that I’m very passionate about design and people. Because I think lighting design is all about people and it’s about making places for people. So, now we start to talk about lighting design.
I think I won’t dwell too much on this slide because I probably think that most of you know about layers of light. I guess the thing I want to say about this slide is you should, particularly interior designers, you should start with decorative light.
Always start with decorative lighting. Why? It’s because decorative lighting also can provide your task, your accent and your ambient lighting but the advantage is it also tells a physical story. The form of the decorative light can be part of the interior design. I think the other ones are quite simple to understand. I’ve added time in here. Because I think that a good lighting design always changes with time. So, these are the layers. What I’m going to talk about is the Descriptions of Light.These are the Descriptions of Light that will help you to make a place.

Human Comfort
You know I think a lot of people talk about safety and lighting. Particularly those people that show up with their lux table, they talk about safety and lighting. Safety is people feeling comfortable. If people feel comfortable in a space, they will inhabit the space, and more people will come and inhabit the space, and therefore it’s safe. So human comfort is really, really important and the thing to focus on with lighting is the lighting should describe the space. People should know the boundaries of space.

This restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. The shot on the right is during the day, this one’s in the evening. The light is placed on the table because the task is dining. And that light also provides all the ambient light in the room to allow people to understand the space, the volume of the space, where to come, where to go. Important parts of human safety and human comfort are legibility – to understand the space but also to understand the environment in terms of your path of travel. You know where to go you’re not going to get lost. That can also be true inside a space where accent lighting can highlight the main characteristic of a space. When you go into the space you know what you’re there for right, you can see where to go? Where the bar is? And where the tables are? So, using light to orient people, to allow people to orientate themselves and understand the space helps them be comfortable.

That Legibility is also important in the way we light the structures in our city.
For example, heritage structures. Through the lighting of our architecture we can describe the essence of the design, the structure, the rhythm, the proportions. This is in Perth Australia. This city block was derelict, right? This was a place where many homeless people slept. It was a place where people were scared to walk at nighttime. After this renovation project, people reclaimed the space because it described to them their heritage. It gave them a wonderful outdoor safe space. So, let’s use light to highlight the architecture, to tell the stories that you have in your designs.

Context is another important part of placemaking.
The way that light can reinforce a context is absolutely critical at nighttime. So, in this example in Sri Lanka, the context is a beach but it’s also private dining. The use of the illumination of the trees to create a canopy above the space. But then the lower scale of the candles, which was the human scale, set the stage for a private dining venue. Remembering that warm light, at a low human scale, at a low intensity helps us to relax. Conversely, this context was completely different. It’s the context of an urban party. So, the lighting here is dynamic, colorful, strong, powerful. The context is different, and in this context, we can create Spectacle.

That’s another important part of placemaking. Creating Spectacle.
Spectacle is something special. Fireworks is a spectacle, a light show is a spectacle, projections of patterns and colored lights is a spectacle, and that spectacle can change with time. In this bar in Shanghai, we designed along with an industrial designer, the light over the bar which varied in color and intensity depending on the music that was being played. So, the bar can be a really active place with powerful, colorful, changing, lighting. The lounges, which were just around the corner in the same venue, can be a softer space: less intensity light, warmer colored lighting, light down at a low level.

Lighting can also promote Wellness as part of place.
This is a spa in Sri Lanka. Why I’ve showed you this is so you can see the subtle changes in light color for the change in time. I’ve spoken about this already. A little bit more theory on that. During the day, this intensity – as I mentioned before the intensity and the color changes – can be matched with color temperatures of light. So, when we build our work spaces, we can use those tools of change intensity and color as I’ve spoken before.
And in this example, which is a co-working space in Bangkok, you can see the use of natural daylight and the use of artificial lighting.

So an important thing, or one of the important things, about wellness is also the direction of light. Our eyes are more sensitive to the vertical plane. Right? Again, I don’t know why we put the lights in the ceiling and light the floor, because our eyes pick up the vertical plane, the walls. So, if we want to make a space that’s comfortable, if we want to make a space that’s natural, we need to light vertical planes. So, you can see that here in the cafe bar, you can also see deeper into the slide that we’ve lit walls and indeed even lit the ceiling. So, lighting can be used to promote wellness, to support our productivity during the day. It can be support our relaxing at night, and we can even use colour. (I hope none of you are thinking about rainbow colour change?)

I wonder if any of you know about colour theory, colour and healing theory, where different colours have different effects on our bodies. For example, as my team keep telling me, I need to spend five minutes every hour looking at something green. It’s no coincidence that our hospitals, well at least the hospitals where I come from, are painted in a light green color. Green helps us relax; it promotes healing. But green light doesn’t look fantastic on food or people’s faces though. So, in hospitality, consider other colors like magenta or violet, particularly violet, it’s a colour where you get a feeling of sophistication.

So, place making with light is a lot about humans, as I’ve mentioned, but it’s also a lot about building memories for those people that go there. And when we make place, we need to consider about the other natural life that is in the place we are inhabiting. So, we also add on another level of placemaking we call Planet Centric. It’s important to also appreciate and respect other living systems in our environment. Like everyone knows the cute things like birds and frogs, but don’t forget spiders and ants and all those other things. We have a duty of care to our environment when we make a place. For those that of you who are working in external environments don’t over light them, right? Don’t over light them, don’t have lights running on all night, don’t shine a whole lot of light up into the sky so that you can’t see the stars anymore.

Okay so now we get to Light Levels.
Once you’ve determined what your design story is. Once you’ve determined what your design narrative is, once you’ve worked out how you can employ light – in your case not only light; colour, form, texture, material. Once you’ve worked out all those things including light into your design narrative, and you’ve defined your concept then you start to look at light levels. So, I’ve only got three slides to go but I’m putting light levels here because that’s where it belongs. That’s where compliance belongs. Design your narrative. Decide who your customers are, design to them to make them feel comfortable, design for them so they have memories – they have wonderful memories – of your design and your project and then start to look at the technical side. This is important because it’s one of those three circles right. This is the visual aspect of lighting design. But it’s not where you start and it’s not only about the light levels. It’s not only about the light levels that are written in here; which probably you can’t read.

Our eyes adapt to the amount of light in a space. Actually, you can read a book in moonlight, less than one lux. Go look at the construction codes and see what your light level you need to read a book probably 200lx, or 160lx, or something right? You can read it in one lux! Why? It’s the contrast because our eyes adapt. Our eyes are not just fixed like a camera lens, they adapt to bright and dark.

So, where do you start? Well it’s about the difference in light levels.
So, for instance let’s say we’re doing a hotel lobby.  Well I guess it’s the hotel desk, right? The reception desk. Because that’s where people naturally head towards when they enter the lobby space, whether it’s a desk or whether it’s a greeting area and some furniture. So, maybe we have to light that to 200 lux. Okay operator says “oh, we need 200 lux at the lobby”. If you light the whole lobby to 200 lux then when you’re standing outside about to go into the building it’s going to feel dark. So, we’ll have to light all of the outside to maybe 70 lux or 100 lux. So, if we’re now lighting the porte cochere to 100 lux, the driveway’s dark, and we have to light the driveway to 50 lux.
Conversely, you can light the reception desk to 200 lux, then you can light the lobby the 70 lux, then you can light the porte cochere probably for 70 lux too – so there’s a nice in and out … and then you’ve only got to light the driveway for 25 lux. And then you can still see the stars in the sky and the birds don’t get go fly off course into the buildings and the frogs can still live.

Light level compliance is important because it allows people to do tasks. But think about the contrast. Don’t light a whole space necessarily to that higher level.
Then once we’ve got the idea, the narrative; once we’ve done our analysis that we know that we’re complying with the requirements from the operator or from the local authorities.

Then, you know, other people come in: the designers, the architects. They are interested in what light fittings look like. You guys, you’re interested in what light fittings look like. Actually, for us, you know, we’re kind of interested in stuff like this, and the lamps. But you guys are interested in lights and the colour and the size. So, you know, once we’ve got that narrative, once we’ve done our compliance, we can start looking at these things with designers. Light fittings. Selection of light fittings. Light fittings – like I mentioned at the start of my talk, lighting design is about light, it’s not about light fittings – we need you guys to help us work out the light fittings.

Another really important person in the process is the lighting supplier. We rely on lighting suppliers a lot because they have specific knowledge about all the lights that we choose. They have specific knowledge about delivery, costs, freight, getting samples, testing. This is a photograph, on the right side, where with one of our suppliers we were able to go to his showroom and test the lights. So, we can see for ourselves that our ideas are going to work. So, when you’re working with your lighting designer, please work with them closely about the selection of the light fittings. Because we know about the technical requirements and you guys know about what colour and size and proportion is going to work with your design. And then, please choose the lighting supplier carefully on your project. Because the lighting supplier is the guy who connects you, or us, and the contractor, which is extremely important.

Okay so I’m going to leave you with one thought. It’s a little bit off the subject for me.
I’m a designer, my son is an economist, I’m going to talk to you about microeconomics.
So, if you think lighting design is about compliance and getting your light levels right I guess I’d probably also agree with you then that you don’t need a lighting designer.
If you believe that lighting design is about lighting levels and choosing a light fitting then the opportunity cost that you’ve lost is so much. Because you’ve focused a design based on one of the three characteristics of light. The opportunity cost of creating a space or a project that promotes wellness and tells stories that connects people together that promotes culture…all that’s an opportunity that’s lost.

Lighting design is all about opportunity cost and I hope you can see the opportunity that you have when you work with a lighting designer. Thank you everyone!

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