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Changing Technologies Require New Lighting Perspectives

April 9, 2014
Light Think University was founded to create an educational infrastructure to inspire people to see light differently.

In an era when we think of an ordinary tungsten light bulb rating in terms of watts, a term that is on its way out, it is time to rethink our concept of light in a different context. Wattage is simply what the bulb consumes in energy to generate on average about 650 to 850 lumens, the real measure of light that’s listed on every bulb package. Newer light bulbs like LEDs can easily produce this kind of output yet dissipate use much less energy and last much longer.

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Yes, LEDs are more expensive. Consumers are driven more by the relatively much lower initial cost of incandescent bulbs. They are unaware of LEDs’ benefits in energy savings, which yields lower costs in the long run. This is why Light Think University was founded. Its single purpose is to create an educational infrastructure to inspire people to see light differently.

“We need to elevate the appreciation and understanding of light in people’s lives. After all, light impacts everyone and everything everywhere, every day at every moment,” says Derry Berrigan, chairwoman and cofounder of this fully non-profit organization that was founded less than two years ago.

The value of light is constantly being cheapened and undermined by simplistic returns on investment (ROIs). We all know that light is not just about saving energy. It also is about the quality of the experience. We need to transition from ROI to return on experience (ROE) and return to the message of light as the storyteller of life.

So, our first activity with students is a guest lecture: “Light: Magic of the World.” It is an introductory talk that tells stories about why light matters. It redefines the value of light. We need the next generation of both consumers and professionals to care, think about, and value light differently.

Another program is the engagement of students through experiential learning. Last year we worked with a group of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) students to redesign dorm rooms and classrooms. These students gained real-world experience by working through each phase of a project from lighting anthropology to project implementation and an understanding of people-inspired design practices and LED and control technologies on real projects on their campus. Next on the docket is a student group from the University of New Haven.

We define lighting anthropology as the method used to obtain abstract values in the effort to understand people and their “lightpoints.” The insights gained are to be used to design lighting experiences that emotionally, biologically, and functionally connect with people. After all, the built environment is created for people and therefore the light in a space should serve their needs and desires, not just engineered to a pre-determined footcandle level. Light is the platform for experiences. So, the question is how we engineer an experience.

Back in residential design, I met with clients in their existing homes to seek answers about their daily life, seeing their activities and the things they loved and observing the family’s nuances and frustrations. A common complaint was not being able to differentiate between black and blue socks—and that right there, a lighting designer can solve. The lighting designer is in total command of rendering the chorus of color.

So as lighting anthropologists we question, see, and experience for ourselves the where, when, why, and how people, space, things, and light interact—the lightpoints. This is what empowers us as designers to deeply enrich people’s lives. 

In the pursuit of delivering the best lighting experiences for our clients, I have worked drive-through at McDonald’s, fed pelicans at the Nature Conservancy, taught class at a community college, worked checkout at Walmart, and took on many other “undercover” jobs. And, now our team with Light Think University is teaching students to become lighting anthropologists too!

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