Design Skills - Resources and Training for Designers

Using Light
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To be able to choose colours with accuracy, it is important to understand its relationship to light, namely that they are the same thing: there is no colour without light, therefore, the colour of an object/surface will vary according to the level and type of light. This page explores the three main areas to consider when choosing lighting:

| Light and colour | Types of lighting | Measuring light |

Light and colour
The primary colours of light are not red, blue and yellow as in pigments but red, blue and green. When combined equally, these 3 primaries produce a bright white light.

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton viewed the sun's bright light through a prism and was able to see the seven wavelengths of the light we know as colour. The colour value of light is two fold. First the colour value relates to our emotional reaction to the bulb colour when lit. Second, it relates to colour rendering. The closest to direct sunlight are halogen and metal halide lamps as well as some new colour corrected fluorescent.

Tungsten has a warm orange-red colour, which is ideal for flesh tones. Fluorescent light on the other hand is not flattering to flesh tones because of its magenta/pink-green emissions. Under Tungsten-halogen, food looks more appetising because it gives a cool, almost white light. Fibre optic also gives a clean white light and is very versatile but can be quite expensive.
Colour temperature - Click on the thumbnail to open a larger image

Therefore, the colour value of light plays a vital role in how we perceive colours and greatly impacts on environments. Moreover, the value of a colour vary greatly depending on light levels. This is why samples should preferably be seen in situ or somewhere with a similar type of lighting.

Some lighting can even change a colour. For example, some yellow can develop an unsightly green hint under certaing type of lighting. Huysman, in his book 'Against Nature' provides a wonderful account of how colours are affected by candlelight. Even in the 21st century, colours are still affected by light.

Consequently, lighting should never be an after thought in a design and understanding colour and being able to analyse its components greatly helps in choosing the right colours in 3-dimensional design.

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Types of lighting:

Ambient: an all round illumination that is not from an obvious source and produces hardly any shadows. Ambient light should flatter the room and is an ideal background upon which to build a room's character. It works best as a calming and neutral background.

Accent: used to enhance the character of a room, add interest or highlight features, this type of lighting is restricted to a single area. Low voltage halogen bulbs are well suited for accent lighting. Tungsten, a small and bright light source with crisp shadows is also good for lighting objects. Most fittings come with an integral reflector - flood, spot and mini-spotlight - which allow for precise control over the area lit.

Task: improves visual clarity, prevents tiredness and helps focus the mind on the job. As with accent lighting, fittings should have integral reflectors or lenses, that throw the light in a particular direction. Task lighting sources should never be seen and should be mounted in opaque reflectors to totally eliminate glare because glare from bright visible sources tire and distract the eyes.

Decorative: Decorative lighting becomes less effective if it has to compete with too much task or accent lighting. The scheme it occupies should rely on a discreet balance of elements and act as a unifier and/or focal point.

Kinetic: any light that has some movement within it e.g candle, fire, TV, LED display and even the sun!

Avoiding glare from light sources doesn't always mean that they have to be hidden from view but that only their effect should be noticeable. Visible light sources can be stimulating and for example the sun, moon or a fire are a reminder of more natural ways of using light. The best way to incorporate visible light sources into an interior is to shield the source with a larger diffusing shade of paper, frosted glass, parchment, etc or use small reflectors or dimmer switch to diffuse the source.

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Measuring light:

Light travels in straight lines, is filtered through the atmosphere and absorbed into every surface it hits. What we see is reflected on the retina and is only a fraction of what was originally produced.

Therefore, designers need to think about measuring light not only at source but also as it travels and once it has landed and is reflected onto a surface.

Measuring light

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Skills Design Principles

> Design Principles Guidelines> The Psychology of Forms > Graphic Composition > The Design Process > Using Colour > Using Light


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