There is an interesting conversation going on in lighting land across the globe about a particular subject: light and the human condition. Like photosynthesis in plants, humanity as a species has evolved in harmony with the dictates of light — night and day, day and night. Like gravity or any other of the fundamental forces, light is hardwired into the absolute core of our bodily functions.
Current studies in photometrics and circadian rhythms show clearly how our bodies crave and need daylight to function properly. Not enough full-spectrum daylight, not enough vitamin B production, or not enough vitamin B, and our bodies pay a physical price. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) becomes more pronounced the further north or south we live and the fewer hours of daylight exposure we receive. Move much beyond the 46th parallel, and it becomes quite an issue.
Obviously, full-spectrum daylight is the result of huge thermonuclear reactions far away from the sun. And Mr. Soleil bathes us in an extraordinary array of wavelengths, which make up what we call daylight. Compared to this, the fluorescent tubes of our modern lighted environments are mere blips. They deliver an extremely small spectrum of light, just enough to see. Worse still, our latest magic bullet, the LED, by nature delivers an even narrower wavelength. Energy efficient it may be (and that is another absolute essential), but responsive to our needs, perhaps not.
Looking a bit beyond all this physiology stuff, daylight and the specific wavelengths that make up what we call color have become an integral part of our vocabulary, too. Red is for danger, a provocative color of fire and blood (also Ferraris). Or green for go, a safety color of shelter and food. Likewise, color within language helps express mood and feeling: This person may have a “crimson temper,” while another a “sunny disposition.” References to “feeling a little blue” relate to dead of night when circadian rhythms are lowest. The list goes on.
This visual language of light and color also extends to imagery. In its simplest form — let's say during a walk in the park on a sunny day — the shadows of the leaves on the ground are instantly recognizable and give us pleasure. We enjoy the contrast of light and dark. Watching clouds drift across the sky is a magical experience enjoyed by every single (sighted) person across the globe, across every culture, and across history. Their hidden message of dreamy contemplation is universal.
Stars, too, are an example of both light and imagery that predate every civilization on the planet. As a visual language, they always conjure up the evocative and mystic thoughts that take our imaginations to far and distant places — cosmic, actually!
And our moon is another perfect example. It's a lighting surface, lighting source, and emotional image all rolled up in one — a lighting surface for our sun, a lighting source for our planet, and a powerful piece of imagery to which we feel emotionally attached. The crescent moon even has a national identity.
Today's entertainment technology, coupled with theatrical techniques, provides great opportunities to expand on this simple concept. Media servers, high-res gobos, and moving-head projectors give designers the tools to engage wide demographics in quite complex conversations and shared experiences. This nonverbal communication can cross the boundaries of age, language, and culture to address mood and feeling in a very positive way. And more of that in today's world would be a good thing.
For example, in an installation for The Starlight Children's Foundation (Lighting Dimensions, March 2003), I wanted to instill a sense of community in a respite room for sick kids. The demographics were wide — children of varying cultures from 18 months to 16 years, some with no language at all to young adults with language I didn't understand.
One of my ideas (as well as clouds and stars, etc.) was to incorporate images of families of tropical fish as one might see them in a coral reef, a complete cornucopia of life and different species living together in symbiosis, a colorful and vibrant Moving Wallpaper™. This disparate nature of harmony, as experienced in our music and our big cities, is something I guessed all people would understand and would be effective as a hidden conversation. It was, and it has continued to add another tool for therapy in the hospital environment.
So light plays a huge part in the human condition. As designers, we have great opportunities to engage people at an emotional level, pre-verbally. Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, said, “Lightning does not flow in a straight line.” Even though an arc of electricity should choose the shortest route, even that takes into consideration the conflicting and disparate needs of our natural world. So should our designs.
Ken Flower is a designer (IESNA associate, IALD affiliate), conference presenter, lecturer, and executive-in-residence at Temple University. His work at Starlight Children's Foundation was awarded at IES IIDA 2004, and featured at USITT World Stage Design 2005, LDI 2005, and IALD 2006.