Does Quality in Lighting Necessarily Equate to Increased Spending?

Posted: May 27, 2017 in General Commentary

I’m going to go right at this one head on. The assumption of quality being equated to price paid is a marketing strategy. There is no irrefutable fact or reality associating price with quality. This does not mean that high quality is not a value worth paying for. I am also not saying that there is no justification for paying a higher price to attain a higher level of quality. What I am saying is, the connection between cost and quality is not inseparable. You can achieve high quality at a low price, and you can suffer low quality at a premium. The region between bargain and rip-off is vast.

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Design is the work of assigning an appropriate level of quality in application and product selection, within the need and desire of the customer

To get a handle on this, let’s take a moment to define quality in minimal terms. I believe product and design quality is a composite of three core factors.

  1. Performance that meets the intended demand. In other words, does the product and/or design serve the need and desire of the customer?
  2. Physical integrity. Does the product and/or design include a high degree of fine fitment and refinement of finish, with minimal or no flaws appropriate to the intended use and application? Is the product and/or robust enough to endure or exceed the intended service lifetime?
  3. Service after Sale. Does the provider of the product and/or design stand behind the product, resolving any unforeseen error or failure in a timely and satisfactory manner?
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There are a great many pleasant, long-lasting, efficient, quality environments designed using modestly priced products well-selected.

All of these components of quality can be attained over a wide range of costs. However, unlike ethics, quality is conditional. No all projects require the highest achievable quality of product, or the highest priced design expertise. Nor does hiring the highest priced designer, or applying the highest quality available product result in the highest quality applied design. Applied quality is based on three primary variables:

  1. Subjective customer priorities. Every customer sees each of the many components of a project or application differently. Some place aesthetics over cost, others see ultimate performance as energy-saving, while others see performance in terms of lighting effect. Others see the overall effect of lighting on an environment as critical, while others consider this secondary to other concerns, as long as there is enough light to function comfortably.
  2. Objective performance. Every product or design can be placed in a hierarchy of performance. However, what objective metric is used is not universal. Optical performance, color quality, color consistency, efficacy, applied efficiency, environmental protection, and longevity are just a few objective metrics used to differentiate products and designs.
  3. Suitability to the task or application. Every product and design can be judged on its suitability to its application. The highest quality approaches are those that bring to bear the most appropriate combined qualities of product and design, within the context of a specific application. There are no absolute rules in product or application design that transcend application suitability.
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High degrees of performance can be achieved with strategic application of the right products in the right role.

Design quality is highly subjective. Some would look at the new Apple retail luminous ceiling system, which is very costly, and say it is wonderful – worth the money. Others might say it is a mundane effect that can be achieved at a significantly lower cost using far less proprietary components with no expensive patent attorney involvement. I regularly see great designs cleverly accomplished with inexpensive components. Conversely, I see a lot of very expensive designs – using the best products available – that are offensively bad for the customer being served.

Now, that being said, we can get down to whether achieving a high quality end product or design demands spending more money. I contend it doesn’t. In fact, my design career is founded on delivering to customers the highest quality I can provide them, at the lowest possible cost. Examples of my approach to this includes:

  • Avoiding the use of high-end products in applications where well qualified mid grade product, provides a suitable end result.
  • Carefully weigh the evolution of technologies and the costs of leading edge products, against overall design objectives. Applying the most expensive early adopter level technologies to projects that do not require the ultimate up-to-the-second performance levels is inappropriate.
  • Use off-shelf solutions where possible, to reserve expensive solutions only to those areas where the additional costs are rational and of greatest impact.
  • Design around available products over idealistic visions that demand expensive custom solutions, unless the goal is of very high value to the customer.

The responsibility of any designer is to deliver to the customer a product and design solution that meets their needs, even if the customer does not fully recognize their every need. For example, not all customers consider the long-term impact of choosing a too-cheap product that will require replacement too soon, or consume more than necessary energy from poor performance. However, we must also remember that we are not keepers of the universe. It is not the responsibility of any designer to force a customer to comply with some idealistic perfection in performance or sustainability. If a customer is properly informed, and chooses to pursue a shorter term solution, that is their right, and the designer is then responsible for delivering the best solution and selections within that boundary. As long as the end result is responsibly considered and well executed, whether or not it represents perfection or state of the art, is irrelevant. There is also no justification for forcing a customer into a lighting system they don’t need, in order to win an award or accolades.

Further, utilization of products that are over-kill to an application, is irresponsible. Professionals put the customer first, and every customer wants the highest value they can attain for the lowest attainable cost possible. For example, I’ve done a lot of casino and hospitality work over the years, where a great deal of the product installed is ripped out and discarded to make way for the next remodel. In many of these applications, the spaces were going to be redressed in 7 years or less. Putting high-end, long-lived, expensive products into these environments is a waste of time. However, within these spaces, there are instances of permanent product locations that demanded the highest quality to survive the rigors of frequent remodeling around them, as well as extended service life and sustainable performance. Finding what applied to which product is a neat trick in design of these spaces.

I have found that there are some rules to achieving product selection objectives.

  1. The lower the cost of a product, the greater the scrutiny and pre-qualification required. There are a great many low-cost products of very high performance and integrity. However, they live in a population of products that are decidedly not of the same caliber. The trick is in ferreting out the ruby’s in the pile of garnet, glass and paste jewels that exist in the lower cost segments. This is a responsibility of quality design – delivering to the customer a level of quality they would not find for themselves. Anyone can specify high-end products as quality. The real designers specify the highest value products (lowest cost for appropriate levels of quality = value).
  2. High end products demand scrutiny to weed out brand premium strategies. There are a great many high-priced products in the market that are not worth the premium demanded. Often, a high priced product is a marketing game founded on branding, that delivers no new value. Very frequently, a product of identical quality can be found, without the brand premium, at a lower cost, equating to a higher value.
  3. Costly proprietary products often have no basis. Another brand strategy is to create products that confound competitive comparison by including features or details specifically intended to hold them apart of competition.  This can often result in a fresh approach that is indeed a value worth a premium. It can also present an end result that can be achieved by re-dressing the design in such a way as to utilize more conventional products at a lower total cost. Separating these two, again, is part of quality design, that is impossible for customers to do for themselves.

I use my own rating system to qualify products within these parameters, as well as other performance categories, part of which I described in the LQC article. Beyond the basics of getting the design right for the customer, I see product selection one of the most critical responsibilities of designers, as this is work that customers are the least qualified to do for themselves.

If we take all of this together, the question then becomes, what is a higher priority? High quality design? or, High quality product? The answer is both and neither. They are one and the same. High quality design considers the need of the customer, and all of their specific subjective and objective needs, fully and without prejudice. This includes selection of product to fulfill this objective. Leading the customer to the highest quality design for their application, is the work of a quality design effort. Ultimately, whether or not the customer achieves some esoteric ideal of design, or utilizes the best possible products, is irrelevant. Informing customers, often teaching them if necessary, and guiding them through the thousands of decisions they face, without imposing overly idealistic myopic judgement is the most difficult and highest responsibility of a quality designer.

My dad, an Electrical Engineer, once lamented that his very best work was buried in walls, and invisible to the end users, who experienced satisfaction in not being aware of how and why things around them worked so well. I could not agree more. I’ve applied this to projects as large as the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, the the smallest tract home model. This, to me, is the magic in design. It delivers what the customer and end users need in a way that is intuitive and as painless as possible.

So, does high quality equate to high cost, or demand a higher price?

The simple answer is no. There is nothing in the definition of quality that demands a price premium. However, there is a caveat. There are very few designers capable of delivering high quality design than considers all of the aspects of value matching to customer need described here. These designers are in their rights to ask a premium price for their services. Yet, those that understand the dynamics described, do not inflate their costs so high that they fail to produce a high value to their customers.

The proportion of product manufacturers and designers delivering high quality is overwhelmed by those offering products and service of questionable quality. There are a lot of junk in the market priced to conceal poor value, a great many products of questionable reliability that present what appear to be high initial quality, and more than a few high-priced products not worth the price they command. Digging through this pile of dog droppings is not easy, nor is it intuitive – especially for lighting customers.

A high quality design, and products utilized, will perform well, last longer than promised, will be backed by excellent service, and serve its customer well and as expected. The better the match between the needs of the customer through the application of appropriate design features and products selected, the higher the ultimate value. That is the definition of quality, no matter what price is paid.

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