Interviews + Opinion, Lighting Design

So You’re a Fixture Chooser? A Guest Authors’ Perspective

By Clifton Stanley Lemon and Thomas Paterson

Exactly when did lighting designers consent to allow themselves to be referred to as “specifiers,” the ones who pick the lighting equipment? Other trades and disciplines don’t suffer this indignity: we don’t call artists “paint choosers,” interior designers “furniture pickers,” or mechanical engineers “pump, fan, and duct table monkeys.” “Specifier” indicates an inordinate attachment to equipment and technology, not to the more important process of why you need it in the first place, an essential human activity known as “design.” Let’s just refer to all lighting designers by what they actually do. The profession will be better off for it.

We have been having conversations that touch on this topic as preparation for the LightSPEC West conference in Los Angeles on September 21 and 22, at which Thomas is keynoting with a talk entitled “Craft and the Creativity Myth.” Here we introduce some of our discourse and discuss the terms that come into play when explaining and defining the practice of lighting design.

One meaning of the term “specifier” from is “someone who draws up specifications giving details (as for obtaining a patent).” This harks back to the early days of electricity when the bloodthirsty, contentious, competitive process of patenting and commercializing inventions by people like Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse had decisive outcomes on the future of technology. In fact, it is a way of addressing light though it is simply a matter of appropriately sizing grids of troffers.

Let’s abandon “specifier” in favor of “lighting designer.”

Let’s talk about what we are, starting with what we aren’t. With all due respect to hallowed and heartfelt organizational mission statements, lighting design is, strictly speaking, neither art nor science. We’re not artists, strictly speaking. We design to a brief (should we be fortunate enough to get one) to solve our clients’ needs. That’s design or engineering, not art: we celebrate great art, but creating it isn’t what we do. Art is typically neither driven by external purpose nor regulated by the government.

Lighting design is also not science. We use the results of other people’s scientific learning. But as a lighting designer, when did you last do a double-blind study to inform your design? Or discover a new principle of physics? Or publish a peer-reviewed paper? When did you formulate a hypothesis, prove or disprove it, and submit that new knowledge to the review of your peers? We use evidence in making important design decisions, but that doesn’t make us scientists.

According to legendary designer and architect, Charles Eames, design is “a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” The key ideas here are “plan” and “purpose.” Much of what people do when they design may indeed involve planning – although that’s often omitted in the rush to decorate – but typically fails because the necessary purpose is poorly defined, if it is defined at all. Design as a term ties many things together. It’s a fundamental human activity. “Designer” as a professional descriptor is well understood across many fields, from graphic design to industrial design.

Lighting designers are creative, but do we have creativity? Does creativity really exist? Or is it just a bullshit term that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of design practice and discipline?

We suggest that the creative process is generally misunderstood, confused with butterflies of inspiration, overrated, and carries a corrosive connotation of inherited merit vs. learned skill.

So then, what is it that lighting designers do? We believe that what designers practice is craft, the professional craft of design.

What defines craft? You’re probably thinking of activities like woodworking, decoupage, and making things with popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners, a la Hobby Lobby – unthinkably lowbrow vs. intellectual and professional. For instance, several years ago, the California College of Arts and Crafts (which Clifton attended) became simply the California College of the Arts. Their curricula span architecture, film, fashion, ceramics, comics, furniture, and game arts (and presumably not decoupage).

Craft is formed of a broad knowledge of the media with which one works, the way it will be used, its acquisition, and application. A great craftsman responds to a client’s needs to create something that serves their purpose with grace, elegance, economy, and often great beauty.  What better description of the craft of lighting design?

Making craft implicit in design practice invites a bold realignment of entrenched hierarchical social values. The Old English word craeft signified an indefinable sense of knowledge, wisdom, and resourcefulness. Today, it implies a deep holistic internalization of all the design skills necessary to deliver successful projects: research; defining purpose, problems, and intent; visualization; communication; collaboration; technical understanding; hands-on testing and verification; sourcing; budget management; problem-solving; construction management; and post-occupancy assessment.

Thinking of lighting design as a craft enables a more accurate understanding of necessary skills to be assembled in the mind of a craftsperson in order to form a new mastery. It allows us to look at the professional development of practitioners in our industry as a studied process of building skills and people, rounding out the areas they have not yet learned, and working to bring craft to the collective product of our field.

Recognizing this also allows us to value people at each stage of their career, from apprentice through journeyman/woman to master. Each is a stage of life, with a different focus on personal development, application, and generosity in teaching to the following generation.

Mr. Paterson’s keynote session on Wednesday, September 21, will explore a new perspective on lighting design and the craft needed to practice it. He’ll show how learning in a design practice can be facilitated through mentoring, transparency, continuing education, and direct jobsite experience. His firm Lux Populi, one of the top lighting firms in the world, encourages a culture of active listening, engagement with clients, experience-based problem solving, and collaboration with all other design and construction disciplines. Of course, they choose fixtures, but they’re designers first and foremost.


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