Currently, lighting designers face a grand problem and it equates to its “message.” Are we alone in asking this question? I don’t think so. This has been a problem for years, if not decades. We have failed to provide a clear and understandable message to the public. This single failure has allowed us to not advance, as we should.
My complaint is to the whole of the industry. It’s not just to the lighting designer, manufacturer, distributor, educator, trade association, or the consumer, but to everyone. So, where does that leave us? It leaves us all in a state of confusion and that of mixed messages. We lack a true understanding of what our purpose is because there is no meaning associated with it.
Without these provisions, we fail to provide clarity in our visions. Also, we share no unifying concept and mission. This state alone supports segmentation and misdirection between the trades. It seems we are nothing more than ‘lost sheep.’
Lastly, I believe this failing is further appreciated because there is no defined destination point. A destination is the same as being fulfilled by having closure. It would make sense that all lighting designers share in a common message, so that we have the same finish line. My thoughts are for all of us to achieve the following:
- A clear path of advanced learning in our specific discipline
- A means to reach financial well-being and retirement
- An appreciated and understood level of professional achievement
When I look back at the early years of my development, everything seemed to be exciting and the opportunities to grow were everywhere. Quite possibly this was because I was a “newbie” and I was encouraged by any learning. After almost two decades of watching my trade and experiencing the learning opportunities that exist within the lighting industry, I feel we really aren’t gaining ground. If anything, we are recycling thoughts and only advancing through technology. This is concerning to me and it should be to you, as well.
So, I asked, “Why are we struggling to advance ourselves?” Is it because we are caught up in the daily grind to make ends meet? Is it because there is really nothing more to gain or aspire to? Is it because this is final state or condition we live in? Each of these questions will most likely provide more discouragement. But, don’t let it take you down that path. Realistically, it all comes back to defining what we are, what we provide and why it is important to society. Our struggles come in the form of stress, confusion and separation.
I believe the majority of us are most worried about self-preservation. Although this is understandable, it can become detrimental when it becomes the only reason we operate. When you operate by the means to self-preserve, you can easily become self-centered and short-sighted. It’s like the horse with blinders on or being inside a tunnel where you only see a distant end. It’s having “tunnel vision.” People that live in this realm never see what’s going on around themselves.
I can remember a time when everyone was willing to help one another. The manufacturer would help the smaller guy (contractor and distributor). The distributor would help the contractor. And, in return, the contractor supported each of them. It was a special relationship–one that promoted growth between its members. However, times have changed and the consumer is to blame. Because they are the end-user, they dictated purchases. Manufacturers began selling direct to the consumer, as well as the distributors. The contractor became disloyal and found other solutions to stay in business.
Survival by Any Means
Our current state of activities is in the form of survival. Or, maybe I should say it still seems to be the nature of where the industry is at. The following is a general listing of group type that is competing against one another:
- The consumer—driven primarily by price, attempting to save money or to justify how money is spent. This pushes us into more of a “commodity” group.
- The manufacturer—driven primarily by sales. They are willing to bypass creativity, educational advancement and historical preservation to achieve sales.
- The designer—driven by creativity, but most of the time they are limited by need (function). Most are challenged due to a lack of funding to learn or gain from. They have the smallest voice in the market.
- The contractor—driven by job/sales. Most fall victim to quantity over quality just to stay busy. Most care only about production or the technical aspects of the business—design typically takes a back-seat.
- The association—driven by membership numbers and the need to stay alive through association dues and events. Most are extra-sensitive to manufacturer causes/needs because of their ability to provide funding to support their needs.
- The distributor—driven again by sales, so that their doors stay open. Competition and on-line sales have hurt these people. Educational offerings are typically entry-level, to encourage new purchases from those under-educated.
In viewing the above groups, one element projects itself the most–sales priority. Even though this is expected, the listing does offer us what is missing. Where is the concern for providing education, creativity and purpose?
The lighting industry has one hope for advancement and it’s in the ability to be identified as a ‘need.’ We can no longer be characterized as simple providers of illumination. Our professions must be understood to be highly professional and properly achieved through experience and learning. We must remove ourselves from thinking it’s purely technical.
Our purpose must be grander than that and it must include true meaning. What is meant by that? We must be viewed as an art or exacting science, that will develop an emotional connection. When emotion is involved, it is remembered. Most customers want to associate with a positive emotional experience. These can be joy, happiness, awe, peace, enchantment, mystery, curiosity, and even fear. Then, it comes down to “who” can provide these experiences? This is the defining line between experienced and inexperienced. Value can be associated with that, and only then, can we gain a higher financial position.
There will always be those inexperienced providers that cannot make this emotional connection. That is okay and that will never change. However, my point is that those of us who are experienced should not be lumped into the same grouping as these others. Mediocrity and lessor experience should not be the standard. Our professions must separate the wheat from the chaff! This is the only way that value can be understood.
Remember, if we are truly to provide hope and opportunity for the future, we must provide higher levels of achievement. The consumer market is the key to this puzzle. They greatly lack this understanding and until we define it, we are associated with the masses. Education in the form of a unified message is essential to achieving this goal. Communication by all parties must be encouraged and developed.
What Should Our Message Be?
Herein lies the true question, which has yet to be answered. After much thought on this topic, I believe our message needs to associated with the following:
Human Health and Well-being
Let’s examine this thought. If our trade and practice is provided as an aid to human health, then there is great power and meaning behind it. We will serve to heal and restore human health. That would be exciting and encouraging to all parties, would it not? Wouldn’t this change people’s perspective of who we are and what we do? Again, I think so. People may begin to see us more as a professional medical specialist or doctor, and that opens the door to obtaining more reflective compensation for what we provide. Besides, it’s relatively easy to understand—we help to make people feel better.
There is another means to achieve greater appreciation for our works and it is in being known as an artist. As I mentioned before, when we associate lighting design with that of being an ‘art-form’, then we can ensure that there is ‘meaning’ behind what we do. This meaning is reflective in our ability to stir the senses and to provide an emotional connection.
When our lighting designs empower one to experience cognitive reaction, it hopefully provides for a meaningful experience. In turn, these experiences effect one’s emotional response. When they are positive, then many desire to re-experience them. And because of this, they become memories.
Lighting designers have a unique opportunity to make this type of personal connection, when many careers don’t. This is the value that we need to be associated with—something special and hard to gain. This must be an understood and common vision for all lighting disciplines. This is the solution to reaching our destination.
Unfortunately, we have past the tipping point on the scale where we, as providers are losing control. This loss of control over our professions only serves to hurt the future generation of lighting designer. We must provide hope and encouragement that our offerings will be of great value to the world.
Our leaders must now stand up to direct our efforts. We need a common message to share. We need unification instead of segmentation. We cannot be confused any longer in our purpose. This includes the consumer market because they must understand why our skills are a necessity to good health.
To close, it needs to be understood that many of us will no longer be able to contribute to the industry once we quit, retire or die. This will leave a big void in the gained experiences that exist. Unless it is passed on or preserved, it dies with our generation.
We have the responsibility to provide ‘hope’ for the current and next generation. If those that perform in the lighting designer role cannot make a decent living, then who will be inspired to pursue this work? Without purpose and fulfillment, we act to discourage the future.
Mark A. Carlson is the Principal/Landscape Lighting Designer of Avalon Lighting Design located in Orangevale, CA, USA. He is recognized by his peers as an award-winning professional in this art form. Additionally, he is an author and leader in the advancement of landscape lighting practices. He is currently studying light, nature and its effect on humans. Avalon has been in service for more than 18 years.