Lighting Trends

By Craig G. Malesic, LC, PMP, EIT and Thomas G. Schubert, PE

It’s an exciting time to be a lighting design professional. Innovation is rampant, building codes increasingly recognize the importance of lighting, and the sophistication of lighting and controls systems is at an all-time high. But this innovation is also creating several challenges. Here are some of the overarching lighting trends we’re seeing right now:

Lighting Design is Becoming a Specialized, Unique Profession – There are several adjacent professions that dabble in lighting design: architecture, interior design, electrical engineering. In fact, for decades it has been common to have electrical engineers serve as lighting designers. And that made sense when most commercial lighting applications consisted of basic 2, 3, or 4-foot tubes in simple grid formation. But times have changed! Likewise, architects and interior designers often have a very defined vision for a space, and to realize that vision, they prefer to be involved with the selection of lighting fixtures.

Problems arise, however, when you look at the breadth of knowledge and capabilities required from a lighting design professional:

  • Energy Codes
  • Egress Lighting that Blends in with the Architecture
  • Photometrics (Code and Recommended Levels)
  • How Emergency Lighting is Powered
  • Controls (Code and Good Design)
  • Aesthetics

We were recently commissioned to provide electrical engineering for a project. A third-party lighting designer was hired by the architect. They selected very attractive lighting fixtures for the lobby that aligned with the architect’s vision for the space. Unfortunately, the lighting design was more an exercise in fixture selection than full-service lighting consulting. Codes were not reviewed and egress calculations not performed, and it turned out that the specified fixtures were unacceptable. The only way to keep them was to add additional emergency lighting, totally altering the architect’s vision for the space.

We often see lighting selections made without regard to energy use, controls (not just lighting controls, but also building control systems), code requirements, and other critical factors.

The “Why” of Lighting Controls is Being Ignored – There are incredibly sophisticated lighting control systems available today, and they are frequently incorporated into projects. However, these control systems are often too complex for end-users, and if the controls were never properly commissioned, they can be useless. Lighting controls can add unnecessary layers of complexity and cost, with a negative ROI. Lighting design professionals need to effectively lead their clients through early project conversations about their real lighting needs, benefits of lighting control systems, and the impacts on users. If lighting control systems are incorporated into the project, they must be commissioned to meet the intent of the lighting design – which is really based upon the needs of the users. One of the mitigating factors driving this trend are the newer energy conservation codes, which are becoming more restrictive, sometimes even creating the need for a product that doesn’t even exist yet!

The Drive Toward Single-Source Lighting & Control is Limiting Options – The top lighting fixture manufacturers are often the top lighting controls manufacturers, and when you begin moving forward with their lighting product, you’re often forced into their lighting controls product. Manufacturers are creating closed ecosystems, in turn creating fewer options for lighting designers and ultimately hurting owners and end-users. In many instances, using a lighting fixture from Manufacturer A and a controls system from Manufacturer B is not an option (or at least difficult). This closed ecosystem approach has also become common in some technology realms, but it penalizes consumers and limits creativity. In lighting, there’s a lot of seemingly good options out there that simply aren’t good enough because of these ecosystem limitations. There are, however, some smaller lighting fixture manufactures whose products “play nice” with the larger lighting controls companies, potentially driving lighting designers toward these smaller manufacturers to enhance creative freedom.

Occupancy & Vacancy Sensors Have a Role, But Are They Really Needed on Every Fixture? – The quest for incorporating occupancy or vacancy sensors has a foundation in sound sustainable design principals and is often required by code. However, it doesn’t make sense for every lighting fixture to have a sensor. In fact, the value-add simply isn’t there yet for most spaces. This approach also eliminates some of the aesthetic of a lighting fixture. The typical argument is that it is less expensive due to installation cost. The benefits to the HVAC system are promoted, but are often not needed or wanted by the HVAC designers. This concept will ultimately find a place, but is currently not needed in 90%+ of projects.

Solutions in Search of a Problem – Some lighting manufacturers are working to solve problems that don’t exist, or responding to potential code changes that don’t actually make sense. Again, control systems are getting too complex for end-users, so buildings with extensive lighting controls are being designed and constructed, and yet the lighting controls are never used. Ultimately, this again hits the owner in the pocketbook, requiring more in upfront costs for technology that will never be used. The lighting industry – manufacturers, designers, installers – should be looking to make things more simple for the end-users, not more complex. Innovation is important and pushing the envelope helps create the technology of tomorrow. It is a lighting designer’s job to make sure that the system is “Right Sized” with thoughts toward the future. We need to give the occupants solutions of true value, not just advanced technology.

Lighting Control Commissioning is Critical, But Being Handled the Wrong Way – Most lighting controls manufacturers do not have the ability to commission their projects due to geographic challenges and time constraints. The solution is to push it down to the manufacturers’ representatives. These reps are highly trained in how their particular system works and can be programmed, but they rarely understand the vision for the space or the intent of the lighting designer. The main problem is that many designers are shunning this responsibility, because their contracts don’t include commissioning. Ideally, designers should be commissioning these systems because the design intent is exceedingly difficult to put onto paper. You have to see it in person and be able to fine tune it and lock it in. For instance, on a recent entertainment project, the construction manager called to say “There are not enough lights in the lobby.” Certainly this is a subjective opinion; however, the very well-lit lobby was not intended to be the brightest area within the space. A nearby ticketing area was more important, and the variances in illumination were part of a subtle “lighting wayfinding” system that was part of the design intent. (Plus the ticketing area benefitted from the brightest light of all: the sun.)

New Fixture Options Are Changing the Shaping of Light – Most lighting companies that realize we are in the “new” century are embracing LED as a unique and versatile lighting source, instead of trying to retrofit existing fixtures. This has led to the manufacture of myriad fixture shapes. Additionally, lights are getting smaller, brighter, and more efficient, allowing many new form factors. Flat panel lights are becoming very common, and while they are great for utilitarian uses, and good for wipe down in environments that require it, they are just that…utilitarian. Unfortunately, these lights are being overly embraced by facilities managers as the latest and greatest when there are so many better options out there. They are essentially the new trough or acrylic lights, and should only be used when and where appropriate.

A challenge with the new form factors, however, comes in selection of a specific product. A lighting design professional may find something interesting that fits well into a space and aligns with the design vision. Unfortunately, the specified product may be very unique, and no other manufacturers make something like it. This creates a problem with substitutions – there may be another product that is “acceptable,” but it changes the shaping of light, ultimately changing the feel of the space. This is causing lighting designers to accept concessions for the spaces they are designing in order to marry the design to a competitive bidding process.

Lighting is Increasingly Being Viewed as a “Finish” – Lighting is a somewhat abstract concept in the minds of clients; it is too often an afterthought when it comes to creating the aesthetic of a space. Architects and interior designers can talk about and show samples of cabinets, carpeting, counters, wall coverings, and more, making these things more tangible. But lighting should also be viewed as a true “finish,” a critical component of a space. This also demonstrates the difference between having an electrical engineer do the lighting design – in conjunction with the architect – and commissioning the services of a dedicated lighting designer.

Emergency Lighting is no Longer an Unattractive Add-on – Emergency lighting solutions have greatly changed in recent years, allowing lighting designers to enjoy many more options than in the past. Existing lights can play a dual role as emergency lights, meaning that when power is lost they remain illuminated. This provides multiple benefits, including fewer fixtures and enhanced aesthetics created by not having the added clutter of stand-alone emergency fixtures. However, this newer approach still needs interpretation by a lighting professional as code-required lighting levels still need to be maintained. Lighting designers must properly understand these requirements.

Lighting Education for Clients is a Critical Service – As with any specialized service, it is important to understand and deal with the knowledge gap between clients and lighting design professionals. This has become a highly specialized discipline, so client education is a necessary component for a successful project. Light can be shaped many different ways – some which elevate safety and security, and others that detract from it. Furthermore, there is a significant difference between simply “doing the lighting calculations” and actually having the “right” amount of lighting. Perceived brightness and color temperature play a major role in making lighting decisions, and it is a knowledge base that goes far beyond standard lighting calculations. Lighting designers need to help their clients understand the impacts of their lighting decisions.

Lighting Education for Lighting Designers is Never-Ending – Because of the crazy rate of innovation in lighting fixture and controls manufacturing, lighting designers must always keep up with the latest products and approaches. Furthermore, there are now hundreds of lighting manufacturers, making it almost impossible to stay current with the continual stream of products flooding the market. Successful lighting designers must dedicate time to regularly researching and learning about new options – as well as options that are leaving the market. A fixture specified during the design stage today might not even be available during construction tomorrow.

Lighting Education for Trade Contractors is Not Keeping Up – There are a number of factors driving this trend, including the tightening availability of skilled labor, increasing sophistication of lighting equipment, limited understanding of individual manufacturer’s requirements, and more. Different products may have vastly differing installation requirements, so a competitive bid (versus flat spec) situation for lighting may entail options that generally look the same, but require installation using totally different methodologies. For example, lighting with clips attaching to a ceiling grid verses lighting that is actually part of that ceiling grid. Furthermore, the lack of commissioning training is negatively impacting the successful installation of today’s lighting systems.


Right now is a great time to be a lighting design professional, with so many options and an increasing appreciation for how specialized the discipline is becoming. However, many clients don’t yet understand how complicated recent innovations have made lighting design, and thus do not hire specialized lighting consultants. Depending upon the intended use of this space, this approach may be acceptable. But in many cases, this creates spaces that don’t align with the owner’s (and architect’s) vision, or have highly sophisticated systems that end-users don’t understand, ultimately costing more in first costs and life costs. Furthermore, too many people involved with lighting layout and design are still thinking “five years ago,” and not keeping up with currently technologies.

Questions about lighting design trends? Learn more about JDB Illumination and contact Craig Malesic, LC, PMP, EIT at 717-434-1558 or Thomas Schubert, PE at 717-434-1554.

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