Identifying Excellence – Steps to Understanding the Role of a Lighting Designer in a Design Process

The educational initiative under the title Identifying Excellence – Steps to Understanding the Role of a Lighting Designer in a Design Process will release a series of essays informing all the interested parties about relevant issues from the lighting design domain, always from the point of view of the practice and accompanying scientific and research accomplishments, aiming to inform the broader public, as well as all the participants of the design process, from investors and architects, to contractors, to the end user.

The first such text will focus on the historical context of the profession and briefly cover the contributions of some of the leading personas in the past 100 years whose work has greatly contributed to the global affirmation of the profession.

The Future Is in the Past – Historical Context of the Profession

It is not an unknown fact that in order to understand the present and, to a certain degree, to predict the future, it is important to know history. In the world of science, for instance, a thorough analysis of already conducted research can greatly help a researcher form a good research basis, as well as to build a hypothesis that could lead them to a result which could, in turn, find a new, useful purpose. In that context, an insight into the birth and establishment of the lighting design profession opens the doors of two worlds, the world of scientific research and the world of practical activity, sometimes more and sometimes less intertwined in the past 100 years.

One of the leading researchers in the field of lighting, Christopher Cuttle from New Zealand, in one of his many published papers wrote that the beginning of the profession in Europe is purportedly marked by frequent initiatives and efforts of French engineers in the late 19th century who were trying to find suitable lighting/technical measuring tools for adequate positioning of gas lanterns, installed in the streets of Paris. This was also the beginning of the evolution of photometry and the beginning of establishing internationally acknowledged measurement units, both for planning and for evaluating the quality of realised lighting solutions. On the other hand, roughly at the same time, science went hand in hand with the testing of experimental research findings of Thomas Edison (USA) AND Joseph Swan (UK), which resulted in design, testing and mass production of a new source of light, the well-known filament lamps. Besides, an important role in the establishment of the profession was played by professional associations which began, first in the States (1906) and then soon in UK as well (1909), gathering enthusiasts from different walks of life (electrical engineers, architects, psychologists, artists), who selflessly worked on the promotion of the significance and importance of the profession in the public eye. Interestingly, even back then it was a known fact that a multidisciplinary profession like lighting design can be improved only by a synchronised collaboration of aforementioned experts, to which testifies the collaboration between the Illuminating Engineering Society of Great Britain and the Royal Institute of British Architects in the sixties.

It was this period that played the key role in the establishment of lighting design as a new practice related to architecture, growing in equality during the design process. The regular initiatives of the Illuminating Society could be said to have resulted in a raised awareness among architects, who started to comprehend that daylight and electrical lighting play one of the key roles in the experience of indoor and outdoor architectural spaces, and how timely planning and taking into account not only physical qualities of light and photometric qualities of luminaires, but also understanding of mechanisms of human perception and a correlation between light and used materials, greatly contributes to the quality of final lighting solution. Derek Philips, electrical engineer with a keen interest in architecture and light, was very much aware of this. Around that time in London he established a design studio DPA Lighting, considered to be the first ‘independent’[1] lighting design studio in Europe. At the same time, in the US the key roles in that field were played by William Lam and Richard Kelly, both architects, whose ideas about the correlation between light, architecture and man set a firm ground for the strengthening of the profession whose complexity, now in full bloom, started to break the lines of dull engineering.

Around the same time, research partly went hand in hand with the industry, i.e. the manufacturing of new sources of light, whose application started to question the amount of light needed for work on a horizontal or vertical surface, as well as the impact of light on work efficiency. Notions like visibility and visual comfort were, therefore, throughout the entire 20th century and later in the focus of research conducted by experts like Peter Boyce, the already mentioned Christopher Cuttle, Mark Rea, David Loe, JM Waldram, Jennifer Veitch, Joe Lyness and many other important names. In brief, their work could be said to have resulted in proposals of different innovative practical models, intended for designers, primarily meant as tools for a more efficient planning of lighting effects and for understanding how to avoid the lighting effects that cause visual discomfort, i.e. bad lighting solutions. Cuttle’s model is still very pertinent and insufficiently applied in that context, centring on a shift in focus from only one, horizontal or vertical, plain to ambient illumination in its entirety, which is a result of a reflected, indirect light flow of an installed lighting system or an individual luminaire, taking into account all the plains in a space. Furthermore, changes in working conditions, as well as in today’s workplace appearance, inspired Cuttle to devise this model and propose new measures for the evaluation of a man’s perception of ambient illumination, Mean Room Surface Exitance (MRSE) and Target/Ambient Illumination Ratio (TAIR).

Besides, since the early 20th century, scientists started to focus on researching daylight and its impact on architectural design and human well-being, and in particular, in the lighting design process, it was further analysed in designing educational institutions, larger office buildings and museums or galleries. In that domain, a relatively new measuring unit is currently used to predict illumination, Climate-Based Data Modelling (CBDM) which is, unlike the Daylight Factor[2], based on actual, standardised climatic data gathered for a certain area over a certain time period, applied in complex software systems like Radiance.

Besides, research has been conducted in the field of energy saving, which became pertinent in the 1970s. Efforts in that direction resulted, on the one hand, in more detailed testing and more frequent application of lighting system control equipment, and on other they inspired heated discussions about the negative influence of power reduction on the overall quality of lighting solutions.

It could be concluded that the aforementioned scientific research, as well as many other unmentioned, were very much in touch with the practice, but the reality of daily life was that lighting designers in their work found different approaches to the design process and did not always adhere to the proposed calculation models. The appearance of software tools aiding the design of both daylight and electrical lighting made work a lot easier, in terms of project documentation production which points to meeting certain standards, but with time it became clear that this is not enough to achieve a good quality lighting design solution.

Finally, all these fact should help to make clear that lighting design is a demanding, multidisciplinary profession, which involves different areas and different experts to produce what most people find it difficult to recognise or take for granted – a high quality lighting solution. I hope this brief historical overview of professional facts from theory and practice, encompassing only some of the key traditions and players, paved a way to understanding the role of a lighting designer in the design process and sparked an interest in further acquaintance with this relevant topic.


  1. Boyce, P., 2004. Lighting research for interiors: the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. Lighting Research and Technology, pp. 283-294.
  2. Cuttle, C., 2010. Towards the third stage of the lighting profession. Lighting Research & Technology, pp. 73-93.
  3. Loe, D. & McIntosh, R., 2009. Reflections on the Last One Hundred Years of Lighting in Great Britain, May.
  4. Fry, S., 2006.. The Guardian. [Online]
    Available at:
  5. Veitch, J., 2001. Psychological Processes Influencing Lighting Quality. Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Society, pp. 124-140.

[1] “International Association of Lighting Designer's member lighting designers are uniquely qualified to bridge   the gap between technical regulations and aesthetic considerations while remaining independent of the corporate influence.” From:

[2] Daylight Factor is a quantitative measure for determining the rough amount of daylight in a space, based on the late 19th century calculation models, which continued to improve through research and throughout the first half of the 20th century.


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