Experience and thought
The team at Lux Populí explore the emotional and perceptive possibilities of lighting.
In a new, limited-edition book, the team at lighting consultant Lux Populi reflect on the emotional and perceptive possibilities of lighting – and take a retrospective look at an early project, a Chicago food pantry, that exemplified the potential of light in this respect to be a tool of social influence.
HOW WE EXPERIENCE SPACE is defined by how we perceive it – not just with vision, but with all our senses. Light is a particularly impactful sense in our understanding of the world – half our brain is involved in processing vision. Having clarity as to the perceptual tools at our disposal is key.
An architect may seek to make a space feel taller, more generous, simply by uplighting a ceiling. A visual merchandiser will make a dress seem more desirable by accenting it, making it brighter than the adjustment of the eye expects, so it becomes featured, more vividly coloured, more dynamically textured.
The scheme uses the lighting language of a chic cafe, with indirect illumination suggesting a subtle upmarket ambience – the aim is normalised, welcoming surroundings that put people at ease. Image Credit: Tom Harris
Humans are driven by emotion. We love emotional experience; it draws us into spaces, we seek it out. We’re drawn to places by how we feel in them, by how that feeling fits with who we are, what we want to be, what we want to share. Vivid emotion defines our memories and our desires. Subtle emotion defines our rest, our recovery, our learning and our interactions.
Light itself is a direct mediator of basic emotions – our alertness and happiness driven by the light of a candle or a sunny day, our sense of dislocation by glary lighting, our ambivalence under a cloudy sky (or those wretched LED panels). Our most basic emotions are heavily mediated by light.
More sophisticated emotions are equally manipulated by light – from the tribalism of dance lighting to our total emotional engagement in a rock singer dazzling at the centre of an arc of inbound light through haze, to the sense of elegance and self-esteem from dining in a classy restaurant with spotlights on each table. These emotional design experiences are relatively widely understood, but there are others too.
The clients of a food pantry are often in a hard place in life, self-esteem hammered by the challenges they face. But being invited as clients to an environment that brings the cues of a chic cafe communicates that they are valued, welcomed, that the space wants them. Lakeview Pantry, now known as Nourishing Hope, is a Chicago-based social services organisation founded in 1970, providing food – a diverse range of groceries – mental wellness counselling and other social services, such as job and housing assistance.
The ethos of the organisation is summed up in a significant small gesture – a bunch of flowers is given to each client on each visit. They go home not just with the necessities, but with a sense of brightness and renewal that they can display in their apartments, a pleasure and luxury.
Taking the cue from this emotional element in the service design, the lighting design in turn emphasises the quality of food, and the welcome of the volunteers’ faces – faces with whom weekly interactions build towards trust and intimacy over time. Those emotions are the key drivers of behaviour – behaviour that fulfils the goals of a food pantry.
The industrial style of the light fittings reflect the clean, contemporary look of the interior design while the lit effect flatters the produce as it would in any good supermarket or upscale grocer. Image Credit: Tom Harris
Food pantries do not solve their clients’ problems by providing food – a week’s food simply delays the problem of hunger for a week. The need for such support is always based on underlying challenges in the life of a client, from illiteracy and lack of skills to mental illness, domestic violence, social exclusion and beyond. The true resolution of those problems, or at least their mitigation, requires other forms of support beyond food. But how does one ask for help with such profound problems? Who does one ask for help? We feel shamed by admitting problems, so often we bury them, and we only attempt to address them in absolute need, or with our intimates, those we trust.
It is the trust built across the counter at Nourishing Hope that invites their clients to seek help, to open the door to solving their problems. The service design, the lighting, the overall environment is built to grow trust, and it is through that trust that clients are supported with referrals to the services they need, or welcome to programmes they can participate in. Behaviour is driven by emotion.
Without the lighting, the pantry would still function well, it would still build relationships, it would still build engagement – but would it do it so well? A well-integrated design is so seamless that the contribution of one element, especially one so ephemeral as lighting, is impossible to assess in isolation.Light is a tool of social influence and learning to use it positively, in the interests of clients, is a key challenge. Choosing the right light to activate a space, to calm it, to gather people, to drive sales, all of these functions are learnable. Mostly through observation. What works, what doesn’t? Who gathers where? What’s the lighting in those places? What are the clues that tell people how to live in a space? Building mastery of these tools requires observation, not just of light but of people, and the relationship between the two. It’s not just about looking, but seeing.