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The Foundational Principles of Lighting Design

The Foundational Principles of Lighting Design

in the intro to lighting design, we explain how designers balance natural and electrical light, as seen in this cafe
Published on November 28, 2022

Last updated on July 26, 2023 5:34 pm


Two principles of lighting design guide designers and architects—the qualitative and the quantitative aspect of light.

The qualitative, or aesthetic aspect, ensures that a space has a pleasing ambience. It is the artistic interspersion of shadows and light to showcase figure and form.

The quantitative, or engineering aspect, revolves around providing adequate light levels. The Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) of North America publishes guidelines for light levels for many tasks and activities.

Lighting design for open-office floor plans in modern offices requires planning for function and atmosphere

If the work of lighting design is left to engineers who simply aim to meet quantifiable lighting output requirements per application, then interior and exterior areas run the risk of feeling soulless. Using qualitative measurements, architects and lighting designers can ensure that the architectural intention and aesthetics are just as much of a priority as the function of a space.

When designing the lighting of a space, ask yourself:

  1. What are the light fixture and light output requirements of the space? (quantitative) 
  2. How will the space meet the subjective, psychological experience of the occupant? (qualitative)

What is lighting design?

Lighting design imagines, creates, integrates, infuses and organizes lighting into a coordinated system, all while factoring in the potential of both natural light and electrical light in improving the occupant experience.

Accordingly, design relates to the specific purpose, or multiple purposes, of a particular space. In the kitchen, for example, you’ll likely focus on illuminating surfaces for the preparation and cooking of food. In a home theater or media room, a designer would tailor lighting to support the seating arrangement, aid wayfinding in darkness, and facilitate comfortable movie viewing.

Generally, lighting design should account for:

  1. The specific type of action being illuminated
  2. Amount of light provided
  3. Color of light, which may affect the optics for objects, like works of art, as well as the overall environment
  4. Distribution of light, which applies in exterior spaces as well as interior

Though it varies by application, lighting design should also sufficiently address the impact the illumination has on the inhabitants of the space. Here’s a guide that can help you determine the number of lumens you need to properly light any application.

Top lighting design schools in the U.S.

If lighting design sounds like a career path you’d like to pursue, there are multiple avenues of study. You could obtain a bachelor’s degree in architecture, interior design, engineering or even theater and then enroll in a master’s program focused on architectural lighting. Some schools offer minors in lighting design alongside a related bachelor’s degree, while others have post-professional certificate programs in lighting design. Here are three of the top U.S. schools focused on lighting design:

For practicing professionals…

New York School of Interior Design: Master of Professional Studies in Lighting Design

This one-year program blends the art and science of lighting design. It’s geared toward professionals, with classes in the evenings and on weekends, both onsite and online.

For aspiring product designers…

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: M.S. in Architectural Sciences with a Concentration in Lighting

Well-known in the industry for its Lighting Research Center, RSI’s two-semester master’s offering provides a broad education in lighting research and design, exploring new technologies alongside human factors. This program is geared toward those interested in lighting product innovation and development.

For the full experience…

Parsons The New School for Design: MFA Lighting Design Program

This two-year, full-time, on-campus master’s program explores lighting on an urban scale. Those who are interested in architectural lighting can pursue dual-degree opportunities combining lighting with architecture or interior design studies within the school.

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[…] practical terms, photometrics shows whether a lighting plan meets the qualitative and quantitative lighting requirements for a project. Proper use of photometry can improve the user experience in a space and provide […]

[…] lighting design imagines, creates, integrates, infuses and organizes lighting into a coordinated system, including […]