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Lighting 101: Some Facts About Lighting Design

September 22, 2012

I like telling people I’m a lighting consultant. I usually get some pretty great response to that. I think this is because people feel so lost about light. It’s technical, it’s mysterious, and it can make or break a design. And light really is all those things. But as with any design component, sometimes it just comes down to ‘I like that.’ No explanation required. No justification needed. Also, as with any design component, knowing a few basic things, and thinking for longer than a second about an idea can take you really far.

So here are some very simple facts about lighting design:

This Hindu temple is actually white.
Click photo for source.

  • 1. If you want to use colored light, make sure the thing that you are lighting up (like a room, or just a single wall) is white or close to a white shade. Otherwise the colors from the light will interact with the color from the surface you are lighting and things won’t look the same.
  • 2. If you like warmer, more natural looking light choose bulbs that say “Warm White” or “Soft White” on the boxes. One step further: This is also known as 2700K-3500 Kelvin (sometimes written out 27K, or 3K, or 35K)
  • 3. If you like cooler, more modern looking light choose bulbs that say “Cool White” on them. One step further: 4000-5000 Kelvin (4K or 5K).
  • 4. Fluorescent gets such a bad rap. It actually makes your skin look super smooth, because unlike most sources it doesn’t have a single point of exit (called a point source) that creates weird shadows. Early fluorescent bulbs didn’t show true colors very well, so the skin looks sick. These days that’s not a problem as much.
  • 5. Frosted incandescent bulbs also make your skin look great. Clear bulbs are from the devil sent to make you make feel bad about yourself.
  • 6. Want to save on your energy bill but hate those CFL’s? Install wall box dimmers that let you keep a setting. I recommend the Lutron Diva or Lutron Maestro. Setting the light down 10% from full power can save you up to 19% in energy costs with the right dimmer and your eyes will never notice the difference in brightness. Bonus: The bulbs will last much, much longer, so you save money there as well.

I tried to make a short list that touched on a little bit of everything, so the list may feel a bit random. I also tried to address the most common misconceptions or mistakes I run into about light. Sometimes these misconceptions come from interior designers themselves, so feel free to gloat over your new-found knowledge to the next designer you meet. 🙂

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