The Basics of Lighting Design

The Basics of Lighting Design

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The Basics of Lighting Design

by Samantha Sannella

Ensuring that your space looks and functions requires the perfect lighting. Light is the key ingredient in the space and influences our safety, health and mood. Layering three types of lighting is critical for good lighting design. Providing flexibility in how lights are activated is important as well. Whether old-fashioned switches or a digital smart system, the guiding rule about how lighting is used should be common sense.

Ambient Lighting

This is the general lighting that must be provided to ensure that a space is well lit. It provides illumination for general tasks and it is always better to provide more, rather than less, ambient lighting. It’s easy these lights on dimmers or to zone it on switches if you believe that you might over-light a space. The psychological aspect of lighting is an important element throughout the design. Ensuring that spaces are devoid of shadows and dark corners helps us to circumvent our mental triggers of looming danger, according to Kristina Zarembo, a lighting consultant at Nemetz.

Task Lighting

Task lighting is critical in workspaces such as offices, kitchens and bathrooms. Under-counter lighting, bathroom vanity lights and desk lighting should be carefully calculated. Foot-candles measure the amount of light on a surface while lumens measure the amount of light emitted from a source. It is important to know the meaning of both of these terms since there can be significant loss of light as it travels to a surface due to distance, direction and other factors, such as the colour of the surface.

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting brings added visual interest to a room by creating different focal points and is another important element of lighting design. Accent lighting highlights specific objects like art, sculptures and bookcases. It can also be used to highlight a textured wall, or other architectural features. Classic track lighting and picture lights are often used to provide accent lighting.

Calculating Lighting Requirements

Lighting calculations can get technical. Fortunately, many suppliers offer these services at no additional cost. However, it is still essential that designers understand the terminology and can ensure that the space is lit appropriately.

Lumen: A lumen (lm) is a measure of the total amount of visible light emitted by a source in any particular direction.

Lux: Lux (lx) is the metric measure of illuminance. This is a measure of how much light there is over a given surface area. One lux is equal to one lumen per square metre.

Foot-candle: A foot-candle (fc) is the imperial measure of illuminance for those who prefer to work in imperial feet. One foot-candle is equal to one lumen per square foot.

There are charts recommended by the Illumination Engineering Society (IES) that recommend the number of foot-candles or lux required for a space.

Lighting fixtures and their lamps indicate how many lumens they emit. After calculating how much area you are lighting, and how many lumens are needed, then you must search for fixtures and lamps that meet your requirements. It is recommended that you over-light and use dimmers. As people age, they need more light.

Photography: Loft BBY SDJ Design
Photography: Loft BBY SDJ Design


Indirect hidden light is a trend on the market today made possible by advances in lighting such as LEDs, OLEDs and fiber optic lighting. It is possible to hide the light sources and illuminate walls and ceilings without ever seeing a single fixture. Lights have become more powerful and laser technology has influenced lighting development.

Also important to note are the advances in lighting control systems. In short, everything can be controlled through WI-FI and a smart phone or iPad, even when you are not home. While some of these applications are great, when the Wi-Fi is down frustration can increase. While many designers dream of never seeing a light switch mounted on a beautiful wall again, reliability over form is highly recommended and at this time redundancy is needed.

SAMANTHA SANNELLA, BFA ID, M ARCH, is a designer, educator and principal at Urban Retreat Homes.

She is an expert in the field of design and construction and is a columnist for RENO & DECOR and editor of the Ontario Design Trade Sourcebook.


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