The Benefits of Hiring a Lighting Designer

Published by Scott Oldner on Jan. 11, 2024, 4:26 p.m.

While it may be tempting to let someone other than a lighting designer handle your project's lighting, that decision could leave your space without a cohesive, impactful design instead of maximizing the visual impact of the interior design, architecture, or landscape features.

Hiring a lighting designer is more than just plans; it provides you with a collaborative team member that works alongside architects, interior designers, engineers, reps, contractors, and the owner to ensure the vision is brought to life on a budget and with maximum value.

Value and cost-efficiencies in lighting design

In lighting, there is a beautiful balance of art and science. Humans experience lighting differently based on various factors like depth, brightness, color, and color temperature. How a person experiences a place has everything to do with how it’s lit. Most of the time, our first impressions are visual, and those visual cues are how we evaluate our world around us. Therefore, the utmost care should be taken when aspects like aesthetics, branding, employee performance and the right mood are key results for a property (and important goals for the owner of the property.) For example, it would be a surprise to hear someone say their favorite fast-food restaurant has a cozy or warm atmosphere because those emotions are not in alignment with the goals of the restaurant (who sell low priced items and needs massive volume for their profits.) It would be equally surprising, even unnatural, for a hotel lobby to feel like a supermarket. In lighting, these subtle, subconscious queues are called intangibles. They communicate silently to consumers, inviting them to linger longer (or not) in a restaurant, or increase productivity in an office space

Lighting designers have the expertise to know what techniques and fixtures complement a space, even on a budget. This is where the value of lighting design comes into play—creating a beautiful atmosphere at the right cost. A good lighting designer, first and foremost, is an excellent listener, listening to the client’s needs, vision, and budget. A great lighting designer will take what they’ve heard and modify and adjust the proper techniques to reveal a brilliant outcome—while honoring the budget. Cost containment strategies that full-time lighting designers use have a foundation in experience, a lot of dedicated time in the craft, and relationships with others in the industry. However, most part-time lighting designers have a multitude of design tasks on their plate and a limited time for lighting. This affects the speed by which they can gain experience and foster the proper relationships to protect the owner’s pocketbook.

The Process

It can be challenging to know what to expect if you've never worked with a lighting designer. So let’s take some of the mystery out and shed some light on the process.

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1. Initial Inquiry

The lighting designer you are meeting should have a lot of questions for your project, including budget, scope and scale, user demographic, the vision of the project and the goals for the space. You must be transparent and realistic about your budget and vision. You may risk disappointment (or coming in over budget) if you underestimate your project's needs or goals. The discussion of these items begins early and sets the foundation for the level of design, cost implications and final expectations.

2. Proposal

The lighting designer will provide a detailed proposal that includes fee pricing and qualifications based on the initial inquiry. It will also have the project areas in the scope and the scope items for the lighting designer to complete. Usually, the primary scope items will be listed and will have follow-up conversations between the lighting designer and owner to clarify those tasks. It will also include scope overlap between the lighting designer and other designers (interior, landscape, etc.).  Usually, a fee proposal is generated but if the scope is not clear then an hourly proposal will be created for approval.

3. Renderings

Once the proposal is approved, a visual rendering will be started to reinforce the design direction to show what the lighting would look like based on the needs of the proposal, architecture, and interior design. Renderings are a crucial part of the process as they depict visual options before installation occurs and what the end product will look like once final decisions are made. Most lighting renderings are built upon the existing renderings from the architect, interior designer, or landscape designer because lighting enhances these features.

4. Creating a Masterpiece

Like any artist that begins with a blank canvas, they begin to add elements to create something beautiful. In the same vein, members of the design team begin with a simple frame and add layers of beauty and lighting to create a complete space.

In some countries, a design-build approach dominates how buildings and lighting are completed. This process is accomplished in the design and implementation phases where the same company does both. However, the American design system takes a more separated approach. This allows the design team to add and take away elements, evaluate the changes then review with other designers and the owner. The separation of design and implementation is meant to ensure that the design choices are made to achieve a maximum value for visual impact with a minimal cost to the owner. It is important to note that lighting designers usually do not derive income from the sale of materials on projects so their choices are based on value and not cash in their pocket.

5. Bid

A great lighting designer will double-check what contractors and developers are ordering and installing. The owner already knows the price of selections and has approved the cost, so the lighting designer is merely reviewing bids for conformance to the construction documents.

Before this occurs, a lighting designer will help the owner make value decisions based on what visuals are a priority and how to implement them to meet the budget. If further cost reduction measures are needed, the lighting designer and owner make those decisions together to change from the original design because, in the end, the lighting designer is responsible for the end visual result. (The owner is responsible for the aesthetic and financial vision for the project.

6. Build

The lighting designer is hands-on during the entire building process. They are seeing the installation process and ensuring the correct fixtures are installed in the proper places from beginning to end. Fixture locations are critical to visual effectiveness.  Art lighting has its own parameters of location, spacing and beam spreads that can be changed in minor ways, but major changes will cause the visual to fail.  The same goes for all other lighting, some techniques require ultimate precision of location such as alignments with other space elements, direct view fixtures, and decorative fixtures. Other techniques are more forgivable such as a lighting cove or sizing pocket light. The lighting designer knows from experience the tolerances for location and lighting distribution and must be consulted on any change to the documents issued if visual success is the desired result.

7. Finishing Touches

Let the magic begin! The final stages in lighting design are making necessary adjustments like aiming and tuning dimming systems, ensuring artwork is lit perfectly with the proper beam spreads (and beam sculpting devices) and enhancing all work done by interior designers and architects.

Everyone has heard the director of a movie say, “Lights! Camera! Action!”.  Stage lighting used to be incandescent and created a lot of heat (90% of the bulb’s energy was wasted in heat) so the last design element to activate before film started rolling were the lights. The director already knew that the set was designed appropriately with all the props and scenery in place. The actors were ready by knowing their lines and were in costume for their role. Then, the lights were energized, and the scene conveyed the emotion that the director desired. Like classic filmmaking, all things in construction must be in place beforethe final lighting can be applied by aiming and setting the dimming. And this, this is where the magic happens. The space is transformed into the vision that was cast by the lighting designer and produced what the owner paid for.

Working with a lighting designer is more than just pretty fixtures. It equips you with an imperative voice in your final product, ensuring that your vision is brought to life and within the budget. A relationship with a lighting designer is the easy way to maximize the visual effectiveness of the construction dollars spent. Their expertise gives you peace of mind that the end result will exceed expectations, work will be done well, and value will be added to obtain the financial goals of the owners for hotel, restaurant, commercial office, retail, multi-family, or any other type of project demographic.

Learn more about what you can expect from working with a lighting designer with this step-by-step infographic.