The Myth of the Irrelevant and Laggardly Lighting Designer Singularity

Posted: June 22, 2017 in General SSL Commentary
The Mythical Imagery of an Irrelevant and Laggardly Lighting Designer Singularity

The scuttlebutt among select vocal SSL technologists and aggressive LED lighting marketeers derides the “Lighting Design” community as a singularity, and a lot of plonkers, that know nothing about technology, who are so focused on lighting surfaces they ignore the needs of human occupants. Some go as far as accusing Lighting Professionals of gross negligence and malpractice. A few others proffer a theory that conventional lamp manufacturers and their simple technology have propped designers up – that the emergence of LED has exposed them as technical posers, who know nothing of photo-metrics, glare, and visual comfort. Others point to statistics showing “Lighting Designers” are involved in just 5-10% of product decisions to prove them irrelevant. To these antagonists, it must seem a mystery how Lighting Designers have escaped exposure for so many years.

My personal take is that these theories are grounded in ignorance of the lighting industry and aggressive marketing campaigns by those seeking a position of higher authority to in marketing schemes that strategically disparage the “establishment.” Some have the relationship between product design and application design all mixed up. Others have little understanding of how products and ideas progress through the industry, and how much influence the Design community has on customers. None seem to understand customers at all. Yet, the core issue is, just who are they referring to when they refer to “Lighting Designer”?

The business of lighting is overflowing with a population of “experts” that are not Lighting Design Professionals; sales agencies, manufacturers, lighting service providers, ESCo’s, electrical contractors, showrooms, retail outlets, and opportunists alike. Since many identify themselves as “Lighting Designers”, confusion is rife. Google any community for “Lighting Designer” and you’ll see the problem.

This mess is compounded by the failure of the IES to properly define what is and what is not a Lighting Design Professional, or “Lighting Designer.” The reasons for this are numerous – not the least of which is that IES membership is a mixed bag of lighting professionals, sales channel members, manufacturers, and special interests that make any action legitimizing one group (Lighting Designers) impossible. With no clear definition, and failure of every attempt to isolate or license Professional Lighting Design, the confusion is pervasive. This leads differentiation to self-identification which customers must sort for themselves. This leaves the market wide open to exploitation. It also seems contradictory to the mission of the IES to protect lighting customers from opportunists and charlatans.

I offer the following as a means of sorting the issue – for those inclined to look beyond easy-button rhetoric.

What a Lighting Design Professional IS NOT

He/She is not a manufacturer rep or rep agency employee. He/She does not work for a manufacturer in marketing or applications engineering department. She/He does not work for an electrical contractor, a lighting showroom, or a distributor. Further, He/She and the firm they work for does not derive any financial benefit from the sale of product, directly or indirectly. He/She also does not work for a lighting contractor or maintenance organization that sells, installs and/or supports products designed into a facility by their organization.

I am not saying these individuals offer no value. They most certainly do. I am also not saying there aren’t any individuals in these roles with expertise and considerable skill. Many of them do.  I am simply offering that they are not Lighting Design Professionals. This is a definition issue, not a put down. It is about identification that outsiders and insiders can use as a qualifier, to avoid the confusion of attributing expertise and focus. I classify the most skilled and experienced individuals in these capacities as Lighting Specialists, which is a perfectly worthy endeavor – distinct from Professional Lighting Design practice.

The Lighting Certification that Isn’t 

The NCQLP “LC” certification was a potential path to qualifying Lighting Designer-ship. Unfortunately, the credential does not qualify recipients as a Lighting Design Professional. “LC” only identifies an individual that has passed through a very loose qualification doorway and successfully completed the Lighting Certification Exam. The lack of meaningful identification is evident in the “qualification” of prospects (pulled directly from the NCQLP web site):

If you hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college/university and have three years of lighting-related experience, OR have a total of six years of lighting-related work experience, you are qualified to sit for the examination.

The accredited college degree is not limited by any specific major, and “…related experience” can  mean most anything. Nothing in this qualification defines the applicant as an actual Lighting Design Professional. As a result, there are now thousands with an “LC” appellation with zero experience in lighting system design, management of lighting projects, or responsibility for direct interaction with a building customer in the work of designing lighting systems. Many have no work experience outside the envelope of marketing, product sales, sales support, or sales management. To make this even messier, many Lighting Design Professionals have not bothered to take the exam, either because it has no value to them, or in protest of it legitimizing non-professionals with a lighting credential.

What a Lighting Designer or Lighting Design Professional IS

A lighting professional derives 100% of their income from the activity of designing lighting systems with no other sales or installation services income associated.

This is the definition of “Professional” in the specification and design universe. This carries with it an assumed product neutrality and liability for results that cannot exist within sales/distribution or contractor/installer channels. Examples of this are: General Contractors cannot be Architects (AIA), Electrical Contractors cannot be Electrical Engineers (IEEE), HVAC Installers are not Mechanical Engineers (ASHRAE), Interior Decorators are not Interior Designers (ASID) etc… These are definitions established and enforced by the professional organizations supporting their members.

A Lighting Design Professional is a professional designer directly involved in the work of designing lighting systems to the satisfaction of a customer and the occupants of spaces and places. Lighting Design Professionals are contracted by owners, Architects, Electrical Engineers, Contractors, Distributors, and Facilities Managers to provide a range of design services ranging from advice consulting to full specification and follow-up services. Some may work within Design Build, Architectural, and Electrical Engineering firms as specialists, including holding professional licensing in electrical or architectural disciplines.

When providing full specification services, Lighting Professionals manage lighting projects for a customer or a customer surrogate. They organize and evaluate the needs of the business and occupants, assess the demographics of the occupants, tasks involved, desires and goals of the design team and owner, regulations, the need for controls, budget constraints, etc… They also assess the appetite and capacity of the customer to absorb advancements in technology or accept new thinking, and creating a plan to assist the customer assimilate change. As part of this larger picture, Lighting Design Professionals identify, select, specify and eventually approve products to be used to execute a design and create plans and supporting documentation for putting the design in place by contractors. That said, anyone seeking to understand the profession must know one thing: Lighting customers define the role of Lighting Design Professionals, not the other way ’round.

Manufacturers should also understand that Lighting Professionals are under-paid for the work they are asked to do, are involved in thousands of decisions invisible to the sales channel, given too little information to work from, and are frequently required to fill gaps left by Interior Designers and Architects in order to complete designs. Additionally, fee structures have changed very little for decades – while non-design requirements imposed by advancing code compliance work, energy and TCO calculations, customer education, BIM, 3D CAD, and the demand for rendering and lighting calculation has grown exponentially. Coupled to these expanding time sucks is the fact that specifying SSL products requires greater effort due to the failure of many SSL product marketers to provide proper documentation and specification/test data. So, pardon the Design Professionals if they are not keen to provide  free market insight, design guidance and industry expertise to every newbie SSL hopeful to ride into town – frequently presented to them by reps who are competing for customer attention.

The Latent Un-met Need to Establish a Clear Identity for Lighting Design Professionals

The IES has never established clear identification of its Professional members, so boundaries for the identity of “Lighting Designer” is institutionally out of control. The IALD does a better job of this in their membership classifications. In many ways, because of this, identity as “Member-IALD” has more credibility in identifying a Lighting Design Professional than “Member IES” or the “LC” appellation. But the IALD has not advanced this far enough, as it has not enforced this approach in the market at large, like the ASID has in defining “Interior Designer” vs. “Interior Decorator”. Had the IALD Professional Member qualifications been used to qualify candidates for the NCQLP exam, there would be no question as to who is and who is not a Lighting Design Professional. Add to this a bit of peer and industry pressure to control the use of the title “Lighting Design Professional” and you have the workings of a solution.

It is far more difficult for an electrical laborer to attain the title “Journeyman Electrician” than it is for someone to label themselves “Lighting Designer”. The result of this failure to establish a distinct profession, is that a Journeyman Electrician earns more annually than most Lighting Design Professionals. The Journeyman also enjoys the benefit of a legitimate and enforced job title – something that a Lighting Design Professional with 35 years experience is denied.

In a parallel universe, the “Interior Designer” definition has been vigorously pursued by the ASID and IIDA. Unlike the NCQLP, the CIDQ/NCIDQ certification for Interior Designers has far more stringent qualifications. Interior Designers with NCIDQ appellation have a significant position and cache as professionals over their “Interior Decorator” practitioners, and their title as “Interior Designer” is rigorously protected – in some states by law.

But all is not lost. There is a path within the existing muddle. Here it is:

The strongest possible indicator of a Lighting Design Professional is the combination of “Member IALD” coupled with an “LC” appellation.  These can further be identified as practicing as Independent Lighting Design Consultants or holding a position as a Lighting Design Professional within Architectural and/or Engineering organizations. 

Everyone else calling themselves “Lighting Designer” are actually non-professional “Lighting Specialists.” Now all we need to do is have six hundred committee meetings to make it official.

With the advancement in understanding of the impact lighting has on the health and well-being of human occupants, the path toward licensing may now be visible in the forest of trees. The concept that lighting may one day be tuned to directly manipulate human physiology will lead to realization that this cannot be left in the hand of unqualified, self-proclaimed “Experts.” But that is a long way into the future that will only happen after some harm has been done, similar to what led to the licensing of other professions that have a direct impact on human health and safety.

A Profession Under Constant Attack  by its Own Network

The Lighting Design Professional has been under attack by free service providers for decades. Lighting reps and manufacturers doing free layouts to gain a specification has taken many areas out of the lighting designer involvement and placed it in the hands of those seeking to make a sale.

With design services being offered for free, Lighting Design Professionals are frequently pushed off common occupancy areas, such as office, back of house, warehouses, classrooms, and manufacturing space – interestingly the areas most vulnerable to lighting having a negative impact on human health and well-being. When the design qualifiers are limited to meeting pedantic energy code requirements and budget minimization, human considerations suffer. Yet, these are the areas the Lighting Design Professional is not engaged to service. The choice is made by customer to save a few dollars in design fees, enabled by those who provide layouts free in order to capture a sale. Another area of popular human interaction is site/area lighting, which are served by manufacturers and sales channel members, who provide layouts and specs for free. Again, out of the Lighting Design Professional’s hands – not from lack of expertise, but due to their nasty habit of asking to be paid to do the work others are giving away.

The dynamic of the sales and distribution channel competing against professionals that support them with specification of product, can be infuriating. However, many customers have no issue with it, so Lighting Design Professionals have no grounds to demand they change their approach.

Some customers do include Lighting Professionals in every aspect of building lighting design, including back of house, with full consideration of human performance factors, Net Zero considerations, health and wellness development, and sustainable design principles. The work can be frustrated by the marketeers noise making that distracts customers approached with any number of bold claims and promises. This is also becoming rarer, as the number of entities willing to jump in and provide design for free expands. Some of these players boldly offer to re-design a professional’s work to skew it for a more profitable sale – often using tactics to discredit the original specifier. This approach is a direct affront to Professional Lighting Designers. But, it is a free market, so anything goes as long as there is no differentiation of design authority.

Post-construction services were once part of Lighting Design Professional activity. In the pursuit of cost cutting, customers have trimmed this from contracts. They are not replacing the missing service with a lower cost provider, they are simply taking a chance they won’t need it, relying on the sales network to take care of problems. This means that commissioning, final aiming and tuning, etc… are often left in the wind. The result is such a mess that specialty integration consultants have emerged to sort it out. It also means that field problems are out of the contracted scope of services. For manufacturers, this has the appearance of a design community failing to serve. While many Professionals attempt to provide some support out of feeling of responsibility, they can’t be blamed for avoiding Pro Bono work – especially when it includes supporting manufacturers that have failed to deliver on promises after forcing their way onto a job with low ball pricing on products that conflict with the original specification, or offer no field support to back their products. This has all been the choice of customers to save a few dollars.

Further, customers do not pay professionals for fixing problems that should not have happened, and frequently blame professional designers for failure of products selected on their behalf. Over the last decade, Lighting Design Professionals and their customers have lost millions to bad SSL products that failed to perform as promised. So, forgive Professional Lighting Designers if they are not excited by the latest round of over-promised and exaggerated-claim magic-pill. They are still hurting from a series of burns inflicted by aggressive marketing of half baked products that went bad in application. Thank past indiscretions by unscrupulous marketers for the continued conservative approach of Lighting Professionals, they are simply attempting to protect their own business interests and the customer they work for.

Those Fertilizer Grade 5% Statistics

Trade journal  surveys frequently assert that Lighting Professionals are involved in the final purchasing of products just 5% to 10% of the time. The source of this data is usually Electrical Contractor and Distributor magazines, which indicate the contractor, distributor and rep as having the greatest influence on product purchase decision-making. These surveys are based on over-simplification that fails to include who actually creates the specifications being met. The underlying assertion that Owners, Architects and Interior Design Professionals are leaving lighting decision making fully in the hands of non-professional, non-design, product sales channel and contractors hands for 95% of product decision-making is ludicrous.

For those wishing a more realistic understanding of the market, Craig DeLouie has collected a great deal on this topic and summarized it in ‘Conclusions of Commercial Lighting Market Research Study’.

Objective studies differentiating building types reveals that actual influence of reps and contractors on the specific selection of products to be purchased is inversely proportional to project size, and differs by project type and level of importance of the space involved. Small projects, residential, tenant improvements, and quick remodels rarely involve Lighting Design Professionals. Meanwhile, large and critical projects are rarely designed without Lighting Design Professional involvement. Further, there are no International projects designed in the USA that use a local distributor, contractor, showroom, or rep agency for Lighting Design. Additionally, many US-based Lighting Design Professionals are involved in international projects that are completely invisible to the domestic market’s sales channel.

Architects – even those working within Design-Build organizations – do no hire Lighting Rep Agencies to do lighting designs, although they may ask for layout assistance to complete certain areas during the design process. They most certainly do not hire contractors, showrooms, or distributors to do lighting design work, even though many of these offer “Lighting Design” as a service. When customers seek professional design assistance, they hire Professional Lighting Design Consultants. The actual numbers are in the range of 5% to 10% of speculative lease office space (no tenants), 10% to 15% of residential and low-end hospitality, retrofit and tenant improvement, 25% t0 40% of industrial, and mid level hospitality, 30% to 50% of light commercial, retail, high-end hospitality and public education, 40% to 60% of health care, casino, and higher education, and 70% to 90% of museum, performing arts centers, museums, art galleries, banquet halls, convention centers, and premium retail space. In other words, how much influence Lighting Design Professionals will have on your lighting product business depends on what application market’s you target.

Bottom line: Dismissing proper Lighting Design Professionals as irrelevant based on statistical manure is ill-advised for anyone interested in penetrating the lighting market – whether or not you respect them for their technical prowess.

Violators of Basic Laws of Marketing

Solid-state marketers, led by lighting market neophytes, are making serious strategic marketing mistakes that result in slower than desired penetration rates and speed.

When SSL zealots blasted into the lighting market with inflated promises and a disrespectful attitude, they had it in their heads that anyone with a brain would see that LEDs were the unavoidable future – thus magic would ensue. The problem is, early LEDs were crap. They were barely as efficient as a good halogen lamp, with less optical capability, low intensity, ugly inconsistent color, modest life, and very high cost. When these “magic” products met resistance to adoption, the techies took offence – and struck out at Lighting Professionals, who were the most critical, and least interested in the hopped up marketing. Not because they did not get it, but because they did get it and were not buying the hype. Early SSL marketers also had it in their head that, based on the potential for LEDs to do magic in the future, they deserved business today – while offering products that were not practically useful.

There is a law of marketing that has been violated by every SSL producer at some point:

You cannot force a comfortable customer to do what you want, just because you believe you have magic in a bottle.

Another dynamic law of marketing rarely recognized by aggressive marketeers is two-fold:

  1. Lighting is a Customer-Centric activity. The customer, whether they be a Building Owner, Developer, Architect or Interior Designer, controls the direction taken by specialist professionals they hire to realize whatever goals they have set for their project.
  2. Customers come in an expansive array of attitudes, mental capacities, and interests that may or may not be suited to the needs of product marketers.

Some customers are completely committed to WELL buildings, LEED, NetZero, max efficiency, and holistic human-centered thinking. Conversely, there are those who see all that as a socialist intrusion on their right to build what they want, where they want, how they want. The market is a rainbow of customer characteristics between these extremes. Lighting Professionals work for all of them, on tight fees, with little time to change minds beyond presenting the best case they are allowed to present. Another law of marketing dictates:

Until a customer decides to accept advice given, beating them with it will get you nowhere.

Blaming Lighting Design Professionals for reluctant and laggard customer behavior is analogous to blaming doctors for patients that die from never seeing a doctor or those who ignore expert advice – like smokers with cancer dying with a cigarette in their hands. Lighting Design is a reactive business driven by customers. Not the other way around. They have no more power than doctors to make anyone do anything, regardless of the ideological argument that they should stand on their principles and insist. Sorry, but that just leads to someone jumping in to offer to do the work for free, which will produce even less progress forward. Most Professional Lighting Designers do their best to lead their customers in the right direction, but stop short of turning chaining themselves to the conference table until the customer yields to the perfect solution to save humanity. They do need to be paid at some point, and the customer has the checkbook.

The market’s slower than wished for growth of LED technology was not the fault of a resistant professional design community. It was the fault of manufacturers setting unrealistic growth projections out of ignorance of the market’s dynamics. They simply expected more than the market could have ever delivered. The capacity of any market to absorb is a composite of sense of crisis, real need, perception of cost vs. benefit and ease of adoption. With energy costs stable, there is no crisis for LEDs to avert. Until recently, LEDs did not produce enough performance difference to constitute a rational need. The technology also suffered poor price-benefit perception and exhibited massive pains of adoption with minimal line offerings, skinny options, missed details, poor mounting features, and an attitude problem when asked to resolve these shortcomings. Proof that this was indeed to underlying factor in the technologies adoption rate, is evident today. In the last four years progress has broken through on all levels and the industry of SSL is realizing exponential growth! This is not a matter of Lighting Design Professionals coming to their senses, it is from manufacturers delivering products they can use to great effect.

Meanwhile, the homes of the owners and investors of some of the biggest tech players determined to make their killing by transforming light to LED remain lighted with halogen and incandescent lamps. I have worked with and for manufacturers promoting SSL as unavoidable – while working under T8 lamps. I’ve visited LED package and source manufacturers facilities lighted by fluorescent and HID lamps over machines cutting wafers into individual world saving little LEDs. The hypocrisy is rife, and reveals a great deal about the ideology and realities of those who classify Lighting Design Professionals as irrelevant or incompetent.

Where is the Praise of Adoption Now?

Today, LEDs are at the top of the food chain. Costs are more in line with expectations. There are now a wide range of products to select from. And, as expected by anyone who knows the business, lighting professionals are not just putting it all to work for their customers – they are driving it to new heights in application after application. There are hundreds of exemplary projects completed each month that showcase the technology. LED application work now fills the pages of magazines, books, web publications, and blogs. Lighting professionals have energized this transformation and the effect the new technology is having on the industry, and its practices. The changes in lighted spaces for customers is beginning to be felt everywhere. This is not happening because the aggressive marketers have finally taken over and made the Lighting Profession obsolete.

What is being done by Lighting Design Professionals has elevated LED to true stardom. There are stunning achievements, both in aesthetics and in human considered approaches, that every technologist should be giddy about. The use of LED technology to address healthful space designs is grown exponentially – driven by Professionals across many sectors of the Design industry, supported, at last, by viable products coming to the market from manufacturers who are now listening. Yet, the hammering continues on the Lighting Design Professional, or at least what they think they are.

Certainly Room for Improvement

There is always room for improvement. Lighting Design Professionals need to recognize new opportunities in the emerging solid-state lighting universe. The application of light tuning to enhance human health and well-being is now an area where professionals are badly needed to displace the flood of predatory marketeers. Participation in WELL and Net Zero buildings requires professional attention not tied to the act of selling product. We are at a crossroads of knowledge and practice that demands conventional thinking be redressed continually, by experts and objective professionals able to look past immediate sales. The Professional Lighting Design community needs to jump in front of these buses before we see a new form of sick building syndrome appear from bad lighting – applied and supplied by those who are pushing forward blindly on the basis of any number of crack pot ideas, schemes, subjective “research” and unsubstantiated opinion – all to make a big sale.

Lighting professionals can also be closed off, myopic, defensive, and click-ish in ways that block open dialog. In many ways, I am not sure why I am compelled to defend this profession, as it is not a warm and fuzzy fraternity. It’s a bit of a cold hard fish at times. This is not universal. There are exceptions. I just wish the community at large was about 10C warmer, with less upturned noses and attitudes, and more open-mindedness to discuss new and fresh ideas.

I am also bothered by how the massive 10th edition of the IES Lighting Handbook came out with so little inclusion of emerging SSL technology. At a time when LED technologist were howling about the reluctant old guard blocking their revolution, the Lighting Handbook hit the market with far too little information about SSL technology and its application. Since it will be a while before this tome is revised, the impression of Luddite-ism of the Professional Lighting community will remain for some time, defined by its own tome.

The past decade has been somewhat disappointing in how little some Lighting Design Professionals know about the underlying technologies inside LED products. I’m talking about understanding of thermal and optical limits and capacities, LED spectral power output and why it is what it is, how drivers behave vs. ballasts, and at least a rudimentary understanding of the basic electronics, like voltage and current relationships in driver configuration, etc… This knowledge won’t necessarily make them better lighting designers. What it will do is a make them educated experts, who can sort the wheat from the chaff of products being pushed at them, and play a role in resolution of inevitable field problems created by SSL manufacturers who are rushing products to market with minimal qualification of suitability.

Another area where Lighting Design Professionals have allowed opportunity to slip through their fingers is in controls integration and commissioning. The community has allowed a gap to form between specification and final building turnover that is being filled by lighting controls integrator and commissioning service providers. As these providers see opportunities to expand into complete control system design to reduce installed system cost, they grow relationships with controls producers and lighting customers alike. They will inevitably intrude into lighting system design as a natural progression. The result will be Lighting Design Professionals suffering even more narrowing of service scope.

In Closing

Great design demands great product. Great product demands expert application. Expert application demands professional design methods and practices. No-one can succeed independent of the other. For this reason, anything that stands in the way of coordination and cooperation from supply side to customer and back will slow deployment and reduce profitability.

I am in an odd situation where I am a part-time Lighting Design Professional, part-time Product Developer and Product Manager, part-time inventor, and author. Call me what you wish, but don’t call me before 9:00AM or on the weekend, and we’ll be good.

My diverse enterprise gives me an interesting vantage point of hearing the many voices seeking to be heard. I will conclude by saying that, in my opinion, the majority of disagreements and criticisms stirring things up are founded mainly on misconception. One of the grandest of all these is the lumping together everyone who sticks “Lighting Designer” on their company website or business card. There is no such thing as a singularity called “Lighting Designer”. The sooner the critics and supporting organizations realize this and create more definition to this over-generalization, the better.

Comments are closed for this article. If you have constructive comments to make, please send them to me and I will include cogent and relevant thoughts, and counter-points, in updates in the near future.



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