The Practice of Lighting Design

David Skelley explains the design disconnection that limits designers from effectively using the power of light in design. David provides a comprehensive perspective on lighting design to architects and interior designers and project managers by explaining how light shapes space and enhances well-being.
This video is recorded from the seminar ‘The Practice of Lighting Design’ in Ho Chi Minh

Seminar Video

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

I’m going to start talking to you first about light rather than lighting
. My hope is that my presentation to you will open your eyes and your minds to the way that light can be used in design. Then we will look at the possibilities that we can use light for and can also assess where we are at in the profession of lighting design …. and possibly where we should get to in the future with lighting design. 

Some of you may not be aware that light has three components, or three characteristics. It has the visual characteristic, which affects us physically and allows us to see. It has an emotional characteristic, in other words light can actually shape the way we feel about spaces, about experiences. And light can also have a biological effect. It affects our physiology inside us, our well-being. I think all of you are probably familiar with the visual aspect of light.

Now we use light to allow us to do things, right?  
We have light at night time to illuminate a path so we we can walk safely,  we use light in our workplaces to illuminate tasks to allow us to do them effectively. I think all of you understand the visual or physical part of light. Less understood is the other two aspects … and you know this is not some crazy theory I’ve cooked up just for you guys, this has come from science. Light affects the way we feel about things, the way we light a space affects our emotions, our feelings and the way we interact with other people …and the way that we light a space also affects us and our being.

Our natural biorhythm of life. 
Now I’m pretty sure all of you as children were told stories. In some cultures they use light to tell stories. Light has always been part of theatre and been part of telling stories. Light can affect our emotions so it is a great way of telling stories. It’s a great way of reinforcing a story about a design or a building so that the light and the architecture and the design all fit together. So that’s the emotional characteristic of light.

The biological characteristic of light is about how light supports our natural rhythm of life. 
We are awake during the day and we rest at night – mostly. In the morning the light is cool and it wakes us up. In the midday the light is bright and intense and we’re productive. In the evening the light softens and becomes warm which prepares us for rest. It’s no coincidence that candles have a warm soft colored light and that’s what we used at night time until about 100 years ago. So, given that we can tell stories with light – and we can promote design, and we can shape space with light. And given that we can use light to promote wellness – a sense of well-being, a sense of rest, a sense of being in tune with nature. If we can use light on those levels I’m wondering what all of you might start thinking about on your projects. So … these are some of the questions that I think about, or lighting designer thinks about when they are given a project.  

How can I help my client get a better night’s sleep?  
So, this is a competition that we won in 2019, when the world was still buzzing around. A hotel chain ran a competition about a new design for a hotel for business, and we won this competition. So, let me tell you the story behind this. Mrs. Smith is a business traveler from New Zealand. Mrs. Smith is approximately six hours different in time when she arrives in Ho Chi Minh.So she arrives in Ho Chi Minh from New Zealand and she’s had a long day of travel. She goes to the hotel room, puts down the bags, she looks outside, and it’s still daylight! So what does Mrs. Smith need? She needs energy. So in this hotel room she puts the lights on the bright, white setting. This intensity and this style of light gives energy. It’s the sort of light we have during the middle of the day. But right next door in the room someone else has arrived. Mr. Jones has arrived from England and he is around the other way. He’s still feeling fresh. His body clock says it’s 5 pm and he looks outside and it’s night time. So he changes the lighting to this, which is the warmer softer illumination in the room. Warmer, softer lighting prepares us for rest. So why shouldn’t our hotel rooms be like this? Why shouldn’t our houses be like this?  

How can my workplace become more productive?   
The funny thing about the biological clock that we have is that we are attuned to change, because during the day, light changes all the time. It doesn’t only change in colour, it changes in intensity. So why do we light our workplaces to an even illumination? Where does that come from? I need lots of bright light, when I’m focusing on tiny detail. I need a soft warmer light, when I’m talking with my team or relating to people. I want task lighting so I can choose when I want it bright and when I want it soft. So this office was designed particularly to be more like a hospitality venue, in that the light is at a low scale – it’s at human scale – there are spaces that are bright with daylight, there are spaces that are softer with warmer and lower level of light.  

This idea is called BIOPHILIA. I wonder if any of you know that word? Biophilia is defined as our natural love of nature, that’s our natural attraction to nature. Nature is variable! The light changes in nature, it changes in colour and it changes in intensity.  

This is an example of a lawyer’s office. We worked with the interior designer to bring other aspects of biophilia into the workplace. In particular, you can see from this the printed screen with the natural leaf patterns on it. Why should our workspaces all be lit to the same bright level?  

 So what about promoting care in our cities?  
You know this is an interesting topic. Do we really look after our cities? Can we promote an attitude of care in our public places? When we light our cities, we want to create public spaces that people feel comfortable in. If we make people feel comfortable then people will go there. If people go to a space they’re not only going to feel comfortable they’re going to feel safe, because there’s other people there. The more people that go to a public place, and use a public place, the more people will go. So, lighting our architecture, lighting our heritage, lighting our public spaces, our squares, our parks is extremely important to build pride in the city … and light has such an important role to play for that. Because at night time it brings everything alive.   

How about using light to connect us better together, connect us together as people?
Did you do this when you were children? Perhaps your country is much warmer than my country. But sitting around a fire was a great treat when we went to the beach at night time. 

I’m pretty sure at least some of you have memories like this, perhaps when you went camping. Do you remember how the light drew everyone together, the light was the circle where everybody met, the light rendered everybody’s faces. Do you remember that in the warm glow? Well, why can’t we do that as the same idea in our restaurants?   

In this example, this was the first example of using battery-powered table lamps, in the Sydney Opera House. Here we were able to take the lights out of the ceiling – where everyone puts lights, I don’t know why –  take the lights out of the ceiling so that when you looked up you saw those beautiful ribs arching over you.  And the light on the table was just like the fire right. It lit the faces of the people on the table, the light level fell off past your shoulder, and you felt that you were sitting in a private group.   So why don’t we light our restaurants like this? Why don’t we light our entertainment spaces like this? That we can form small groups and you can connect with those friends and family around you.   

And my favorite one of mine is, 

How can we use light to promote the understanding of culture? 
This is something you really need in our world today. We need to promote the understanding and the appreciation of the diversity of cultures that we live in. So, in Rajasthan, we worked on a restaurant which was only lit by candles. I’m not sure if any of you are aware of Rajasthani culture. But in Rajasthan they decorated their public buildings and their special palaces and other larger spaces with tiny mirror tiles embedded into the ceiling and the wall. This was a very direct way we used lighting to explain the culture of Rajasthan. The light was exactly as people had it 400 years ago…500 years ago.  

And slightly closer to home in Thailand. Some of you may know about the Thai culture particularly “Loy Krathong” culture. So using the ideas of candles reflection of candles and water as a welcome space to a resort.  

Why can’t we use Vietnamese culture in the way we like our welcoming spaces? Is there something in your culture that you can use in your projects to promote understanding of Vietnam?  

These are the sorts of questions that we ask ourselves when we start a design. Because we know the power of light that we have, how we can shape people’s emotion, tell stories and promote wellness? 

But … There’s a huge disconnect! How many of you get given something like this as your brief for lighting design?  How to you start with this … and get that? 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 enter 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 the 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 like 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 night time. 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, 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. Firework 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 help 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 right. 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. What’s the most important thing in 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 like 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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