Design History Series N. 016

Beth Levine and American Footwear

In our Design History Series we highlight iconic women in design history and their innovative work. The historic contributions of women to design are many, and we aim to increase the awareness of these contributions in order to counteract a general trend of underrepresentation. In this issue we celebrate Beth Levine, the most influential and innovative American shoe designer of the twentieth century. 

Tiny Feet, Big Dreams

Beth Levine, dubbed “America’s First Lady of Shoe Design,” left an indelible mark on the world of footwear that continues to influence contemporary fashion. Born in Patchogue, New York, in 1914, Levine soon left Long Island for a shoe modeling career in New York City. She had incredibly tiny feet (US size 4, EU size 35) that were the sample size of the era, and developed a keen intuition for how shoes would fit. At the time, shoe designers were men, usually those descended from generations of cobblers. Levine realized that she understood just as much about what constituted a good shoe as these prominent designers, if not more, and was determined to design shoes herself.

Creating the Brand

In 1946, while applying to work at a shoe manufacturer, she met and married Herbert Levine, then a fashion executive. The two founded their shoe factory, Herbert Levine, Inc. in 1948 and Beth began making shoes under Herbert’s name. At the time, footwear had not yet been sold with a woman’s name on the product. The factory was known for its excellence, and talent was brought to New York from all over the world to ensure top quality. She was known for relishing the challenges of footwear, saying “Clothes designers have gravity on their side, but shoe designers work upside down. Ideas are easy to come by. Getting them realized is something else.”

The couple had a vision to create shoes that were not just functional but also captivating. Using strategic cutouts and careful material choices, Levine became known for shoes that made women’s feet appear smaller and were therefore perceived as more elegant. Levine is credited with repopularizing the mule silhouette with this approach. At the same time, she wanted her designs to be comfortable above all, and she wasn’t afraid to be playful and bold. Beth’s innovative designs and Herbert’s business sense propelled the brand to prominence, garnering attention from fashion icons like Barbra Streisand and America’s first ladies of the era; Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, and Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Making History (Again and Again)

One of Beth’s most significant contributions to footwear design was her role in reintroducing boots to women’s fashion in the 1960s. Through her creative vision, boots transformed from utilitarian items into stylish fashion statements. Her stretchy stocking styles and vinyl Go-Go boots captured the spirit of the era and became iconic symbols of liberation and empowerment, epitomized by Nancy Sinatra’s hit song “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The song not only propelled the demand for fashion boots but also led to the establishment of “Beth’s Bootery”, a dedicated fashion boot department at Saks Fifth Avenue. 

Beth’s designs were characterized by their whimsical charm and innovative use of materials. On a dare she designed “topless” or “upper-less” heels, shoes with no upper that would be affixed to the foot with adhesive pads. She called another style “Barefoot in the Grass” and lined the insole with AstroTurf. For the wife of a driver in the 1967 Indianapolis 5000, she designed a shoe that resembles (adorably) a race car, which became so popular that variations on the design were released for years afterward. Her creations pushed the boundaries of conventional footwear. She experimented with unconventional materials (hello, AstroTurf) like vinyl, acrylic, and laminate, creating shoes that were not only visually striking but also ahead of their time. She also developed the now universally standard practice of putting an illustration of the shoe on the outside of the shoebox. 

An Enduring Legacy

Throughout her career, Beth Levine received numerous accolades for her groundbreaking designs, including the prestigious Coty Award in 1967. Her ability to marry creativity with functionality revolutionized the shoe industry and paved the way for future generations of designers. Despite the closure of the Herbert Levine brand in 1975, Beth’s legacy endures through her iconic designs, many of which are housed in international costume collections. To Levine, who passed away in 2006, the only mistake in design is to “play it safe”. Today, her innovative spirit continues to inspire designers and fashion enthusiasts alike, reminding us of the enduring impact of her contributions to the history of footwear design.

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Appeal vs. Responsibility

In today’s design landscape, creators have moved beyond crafting products to shaping immersive product experiences. In this expanded field, narratives unfold through each curve and contour, blending aesthetics and emotions, and transforming designs into compelling and immersive stories designed to entice consumers. Welcome to the world of seductive design. This article will discuss appeal vs. responsibility in the work of the designer.

Seduction Redefined: A Deeper Dive

As important as functionality is, consumers today expect products to deliver more than function alone. They want products that they can connect to emotionally and that bring them joy. This is the definition of emotional design. We see designers trying to meet this demand across product categories. Take, for example, outdoor and sports products that exude a sense of speed and power, highlighting the sensations your body will experience during product use. The sleek design of a high-performance bicycle features an aerodynamic frame and vibrant colors not only to convey speed and power but also to emphasize the exhilarating feeling cyclists can expect when riding the bike.

Storytelling is a key component in creating a connection between a consumer and the product. The story connects the physical object to the consumer’s emotions. These emotional responses can be powerful, creating a bond between the consumer and the product as well as, crucially, cultivating brand loyalty. Packaging, in particular, has evolved to become part of the product experience, as demonstrated by the plethora of unboxing videos on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram.

Both technology and the beauty businesses use packaging to define their brands. It is not just a container but an integral part of the overall seductive experience. Think of the similarities between your iPhone and a bottle of perfume; both promise the consumer an experience and are purchased as a part of a lifestyle the consumer desires as much as they are purchased for function. Consider the iPhone’s sleek, minimalist packaging, which resonates with the product’s promise of sophistication and innovation. Similarly, a bottle of perfume, adorned with carefully chosen materials and design elements, becomes a tangible embodiment of the sensorial journey it offers. Both purchases transcend functionality, entangling the consumer’s lifestyle aspirations with the allure of a unique experience.

The Role of Emotional Design

As consumer expectations evolve, emotional design emerges as the driving force behind product desirability, transcending the fulfillment of needs to nurture a profound connection. This shift toward emotional resonance elevates the functionality of products and establishes a deeper bond, transforming them into vessels that embody and reflect the users’ aspirations and sentiments.

Users perceive more aesthetically pleasing designs as easier to use and more effective. Beauty and usability are intertwined. Clean lines, intuitive interfaces, and straightforward user journeys contribute to the overall appeal of a product. The aesthetics of a product influence consumers’ expectations, fostering the perception that it will be easy to use and that it is superior to its competitors.

Two key questions about the significance of emotional design arise. The first is methodological: How does one effectively infuse products with emotional resonance? The second question is ethical: Given the potential extremes of emotional design, what is the designer’s responsibility to balance allure with transparent and conscientious design and manufacturing practices?

Engaging More Than the Eyes

How do designers go beyond surface-level aesthetics to create meaningful and captivating interactions? Designers can appeal to multiple senses to create an immersive and engaging experience. This might include tactile elements, sound design, or even scent. Material, color, and form are part of the overall product narrative and can be used to create an immersive and emotionally resonant experience.

Designing with an empathetic approach can also increase the emotional resonance of products. Products for new parents can connect emotionally to their ethos on child rearing. Lea Stewart, senior manager of design at Newell Brands, uses these emotional drivers to differentiate between brands like Graco and Baby Jogger, which she oversees. Stewart notes that “a product like a stroller can convey that you are the type of parent who believes the best thing for a child is for the adult to keep their adult life and bring the child along. That way, they get to experience more and see good modeling. The aesthetics then cater to that by appealing more to an adult sensibility: looking easy to take on the go and not impeding life. On the other hand, a different parent may believe that the family should center on the child and togetherness, so you, therefore, embed that in the product aesthetics to evoke security, comfort, and parent/child connection. This is all subconscious to the user when they purchase the product, which is the seduction.”

Another path to creating a connection is to infuse products with nature-inspired elements that evoke emotional connections. For instance, a packaging designer for a skincare brand might incorporate botanical illustrations, earthy textures, or eco-friendly materials to align the product with natural goodness and trigger a sense of tranquility and well-being in the consumer.

Customization is one tried-and-true way to connect the consumer to a product. Products that allow consumers to personalize or customize elements based on their preferences, experiences, or memories create an emotional bond. A furniture designer, for example, may offer customizable fabrics, colors, or engraved details, enabling customers to imbue the product with personal meaning and emotional significance.

Inclusivity is a particularly powerful catalyst in emotional design, transcending visual appeal to provide aesthetics and thoughtful, universal functionality. By embracing diverse perspectives and considering the needs of a broad audience, designers not only create universally appealing product experiences but also weave a narrative of allure that resonates on a profound and inclusive level, captivating users from all walks of life.

If you’re interested in going deeper, consider Don Norman’s Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things and Designing Design by Kenya Hara. Norman explores the emotional impact of design on user experiences, delving into how aesthetics, usability, and emotional connections shape our perceptions of products, a perspective directly relevant to the nuanced realm of seductive design. Hara’s book is relevant to the broader topic of design, including elements of seductive design. While the book is more philosophical, exploring the mindset and principles of design, it provides valuable insights
into the foundational aspects of creating compelling and aesthetically pleasing designs.

The Ethics of Seduction

While strategies for creating seductive products abound, the ethical question of the designer’s responsibility hovers over all of them. Given the impact of technology and evolving consumer expectations on the field of industrial design, it is only natural to question how the use of multiple senses
in crafting seductive product experiences might lead to unwanted outcomes—think doom scrolling on any social media platform.

As designers, we need to examine the potential unintended consequences of crafting seductive product experiences. It raises a fundamental question: In whose best interest is it really to design an experience that immerses the consumer to an extreme, and possibly addictive, extent? Awareness of potential pitfalls is essential to creating products that enhance well-being and, at the very least, do no harm.

The shadow of ethical concern looms large over the art of crafting seductive products. The relentless pursuit of engagement and immersion may inadvertently lead to the exploitation of human vulnerabilities and the perpetuation of unhealthy behaviors. As designers, we must navigate the delicate balance between captivating our audience and respecting their autonomy and well-being. In an era dominated by evolving consumer expectations and technological advancements, the use of multiple senses to create captivating experiences raises profound questions about responsibility and accountability. This calls for a nuanced approach that acknowledges the power dynamics inherent in design and prioritizes the ethical imperative of fostering positive and empowering experiences.

We must confront the potential ramifications of immersing users in seductive experiences by considering the fine line between engagement and exploitation. Only by conscientiously weighing the ethical implications of our design decisions can we ensure that seductive products enrich the lives of users without compromising their dignity or agency. It is incumbent upon designers to adopt a proactive stance, diligently examining the unintended consequences of their creations and prioritizing the well-being and autonomy of users above all else. This heightened awareness of ethical considerations underscores the imperative to design products that not only captivate but also uplift and enrich the lives of individuals in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Advocate and Enabler

In the dynamic field of design, the shift from crafting products to shaping immersive experiences marks a transformative moment wherein aesthetics and emotions are consciously intertwined. As we navigate this seductive landscape, emotional design emerges as the linchpin, propelling product desirability beyond functional utility. The narrative unfolds through sleek packaging and glossy campaigns, transforming purchases into sensorial journeys that resonate with consumers’ aspirations.

The increasingly savvy incorporation of multiple senses in product design—the intersection of allure and functionality—beckons an ethical inquiry, prompting designers to balance the immersive experience with transparency and conscientious practices. Methodologies such as empathetic design, nature-inspired elements, and customization serve as tools for creating emotionally connected products. Inclusivity becomes the heartbeat, ensuring universal appeal, while heightened awareness becomes the compass, guiding designers to navigate the potential extremes of seductive experiences and prioritize the well-being of consumers. The world of design evolves, inviting creators to transcend boundaries and shape not just products but profound and inclusive narratives that captivate the diverse tapestry of human experience.

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Art for All: Exploring the Vibrant World of Public Art Installations

Art for All: Exploring the Vibrant World of Public Art Installations

Public art installations are not just sculptures or murals adorning public spaces; they’re expressions of community identity, cultural heritage, and societal values. They define social spaces in memorable ways that people will travel across the world to experience. They are landmarks, way finding devices, photo-ops, and they are art. Unlike street art, public art is often commissioned by local governments, shaping its themes and styles to resonate with community values and broader concepts that speak to the public at large. 

What is public art? What forms can it take? How is a public art installation different from other forms of art? In this Insight article, we’ll define what a public art installation is, discuss the rise of art fairs that helped to enhance the awareness of public art installations, and share major global art fairs to follow to see superb examples for yourself.

Red Cube by Isamu Noguchi
140 Broadway, NYC. Red Cube by Isamu Noguchi, 1968. Photo by via Unsplash.

Types of Public Art 

While the concept of public art has evolved over the centuries, from ancient monuments to modern site-specific artworks, as long as there has been a public, there has been public art. In the modern era, public art became intertwined with the concept of the “public sphere,” reflecting societal values and ideals. Public art comes in various forms, responding to the needs and priorities of each city or region. Cities known for public art installations, like New York and Chicago, make an effort to feature art from each category. 

  • Ephemeral/Non-permanent: Ephemeral public art consists of temporary artworks that make statements about community art and sense of place. They are designed to degrade over time.
  • Installation: Public art installations are site-specific artworks integrated into public spaces like parks and transit stations, engaging commuters and passersby.
  • Applied: Applied public art includes murals and sculptures mounted on buildings or structures, often paying tribute to community members or cultural heritage.
  • Integrated: Integrated public art merges with pavements, building facades, and landscapes, utilizing existing surfaces to create immersive experiences.
  • Stand-alone: Stand-alone public art describes site-specific sculptures and structures, such as public sculpture gardens, that become landmarks within a community.
Cloud Gate, Millenium Park, Chicago
Millenium Park, Chicago, IL. Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, 2006. Photo by Michelle Raponi via Pixabay.

Characteristics of Public Art Installations

Public art installations are some of the best known examples of public art, as they have the longevity needed to establish themselves as an iconic presence in an urban space. They share several defining characteristics that distinguish them from other forms of art:

  • Accessibility: Unlike the art museums, there is no gatekeeping around public art. It is typically free to experience and serves to create value in shared social spaces. Public art must be easily accessible to all members of the community.
  • Public Sanction: In contrast to guerilla or street art, public art has approval and support from government entities or nonprofit arts organizations, ensuring alignment with public interests. 
  • Longevity: While some installations are temporary, public art is generally intended for long-term placement, often using durable materials resistant to the elements.
  • Interactivity: Many public art installations encourage interaction, fostering engagement and education within the community.
Les Deux Plateaux by Daniel Buren public art installation
The courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris France. Les Deux Plateaux by Daniel Buren, 1986. Photo via Unsplash by Chris Linnett.

The Rise of the Contemporary Art Fair

The rise of contemporary art fairs traces back to the late 20th century, when cities outside major artistic hubs sought to develop and showcase their markets. Art Market Cologne, later Art Cologne, and Art Basel emerged as pioneers in 1967 and 1970, respectively, adopting formats reminiscent of traditional artisanal fairs. Initially regional, these fairs quickly expanded internationally, facilitating business in the art market and fostering dealer networks. The 1990s market crash prompted a restructuring of the existing fairs and the proliferation of new fairs, particularly local and hyper local fairs. Art Basel Miami 2002 marked a turning point, catalyzing explosive growth in the 21st century. This growth also led to the commercialization of the fair experience, like establishing VIP rooms and high costs for special exhibitions. Critics argue that the commercialization has overshadowed the fair’s original intent, neglecting smaller galleries and emerging artists while catering to larger ones. As a result, there’s debate over whether art fairs have become too commercial, leading to buyer fatigue and mixed feelings among artists about their representation. 

Regardless of controversy, art fairs are here to stay. Around the world they attract art and design professionals and enthusiasts, showcasing the most impressive and lauded work of the day. They are covered thoroughly in general news as well as design news outlets, instigating and reflecting major trends in the art world. While many art fairs, regardless of their size, incorporate public art installations into their multi-media experience, a handful have made the exhibition of dramatic public art installations part of their DNA. 

Major Art Fairs to Watch

Here are three important art and design fairs to follow as a lifelong student of design. All are prestigious events watched closely by the world of art and design, and to be a featured artist or creator is a major career achievement. Public art installations featured at these fairs serve as catalysts for discourse on pressing social, political, and environmental issues, amplifying their relevance and impact on a global scale.

la Biennale
Photo by Jen Schwan via Unsplash.

The Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale, renowned as one of the most prestigious cultural events globally, is a biennial art exhibition that has been held in Venice, Italy, since 1895. The 2024 fair, which is the 60th exhibition, will run from April to November. Serving as a celebration of contemporary art and culture, the Biennale attracts artists, curators, and art enthusiasts from around the world to explore a diverse range of artistic expressions across various disciplines, including visual arts, architecture, cinema, dance, and music. Among the myriad of exhibitions and pavilions, public art installations play a pivotal role in shaping the Biennale’s identity and impact. These installations transform Venice into a vibrant open-air gallery, activating public spaces and engaging audiences in unique and immersive artistic experiences. By integrating public art into the fabric of the city, the Venice Biennale blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life, fostering dialogue, reflection, and connection among participants and the broader public. The inclusion of public art installations not only enhances the cultural significance of the Venice Biennale but also reinforces its role as a dynamic platform for artistic innovation, collaboration, and dialogue.

The Milan Furniture Fair

The Milan Furniture Fair, also known as Salone del Mobile, stands as a pinnacle event in the world of design and furniture. It is held at the end of April. Since its inception in 1961, it has evolved into a global platform where designers, manufacturers, and enthusiasts converge to explore the latest trends and innovations in interior design. Alongside the myriad exhibitions of furniture, lighting, and decor, the fair also recognizes the importance of integrating public art into its offerings. Public art installations at the Milan Furniture Fair serve as focal points, not only enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the event but also enriching the overall experience for attendees. These installations, often site-specific and interactive, contribute to the ambiance of the fair, fostering creativity, dialogue, and inspiration among visitors. Moreover, public art at the fair reflects the evolving relationship between design and public spaces, showcasing how art can seamlessly integrate into our everyday environments. By incorporating public art, the Milan Furniture Fair underscores the significance of artistic expression in shaping contemporary design trends and enriching our built environment.

Art Cologne

Art Cologne is an annual art fair showcasing contemporary and modern art, attracting collectors, enthusiasts, and professionals from around the globe. Established in 1967 in Cologne, Germany, it has solidified its position as one of the world’s leading art fairs. It serves as a vibrant hub for galleries, artists, and art lovers to converge and engage with groundbreaking works across various mediums such as painting, sculpture, photography, and multimedia installations. While professionals flock to the city for the fair in November, Cologne features public art installations all year round as well as having a separate urban art fair for street art specifically. 

Looking Ahead

The future of public art is unpredictable, but its significance as a reflection of community identity and shared values remains constant. As long as public art continues to thrive, it will serve as an ongoing project in shaping the modern consciousness of the “public sphere.” Public art installations are not just decorations; they’re integral components of our shared public spaces, enriching our lives and fostering a sense of belonging within our communities.

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Design History Series N. 015

Louise Nevelson and Shadows and Flags

In our new Design History Series we highlight iconic women in design history and their innovative work. The historic contributions of women to design are many, and we aim to increase the awareness of these contributions in order to counteract a general trend of underrepresentation. In this issue, in keeping with this month’s theme of public art, we celebrate American sculptor Louise Nevelson, hailed as the “grande dame of contemporary sculpture,” and her mammoth public art work Shadows and Flags.

New York, New York!

Louise Nevelson was born in Kyiv, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1899. Her family relocated to Rockland, Maine, in 1905, where her father managed a lumberyard. Growing up surrounded by scraps from the yard, Nevelson’s early fascination with sculpting emerged. By the age of ten, she had declared her ambition to become a professional sculptor.

In 1920, Nevelson married Charles Nevelson, a wealthy ship owner she would divorce in 1941, and moved to New York. In the city Nevelson encountered Cubism and collage, shaping her artistic sensibilities. Notably, she worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on a mural project and as an art teacher for the Works Progress Administration, fostering her growth as an artist. Within the male-dominated postwar art scene of New York, Nevelson carved her niche, notable as a woman artist in a field dominated by men.

Though Nevelson held her first solo exhibition in 1941, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that she developed her signature style of monochromatic, spray-painted wooden assemblages. Her innovative approach involved arranging discarded wood pieces into abstract compositions, often forming sculptural walls and environments unified by a single color. While she became best known for these assemblages, which were featured in museums around the world, she was also prominent in the public art scene, crafting massive outdoor compositions in scrap metal that were oversized cousins to her already large cabinet-style works in wood

Photo: Louise Nevelson Plaza

Shadows and Flags

Nevelson was commissioned by the Public Arts Fund to create a site-specific public art work to revitalize a formerly empty lot. The result was Shadows and Flags, a series of monumental curved forms that appear to float and billow in the air like flags. The series included seven towering sculptures encasing columns ranging from 20 to 40 feet high. The sculptures were carefully proportioned to rise just above the surrounding buildings and were painted in Nevelson’s iconic black, which to her signified the sum of all colors and the potential of all experience. Nevelson created the sculptures from salvaged scrap metal and old machine parts, and was raised on a crane to assemble the sculptures in mid-air. 

Shadows and Flags, designed when Nevelson was in her 70s, was her last major public art work. Installed in 1977 within the Financial District’s Legion Memorial Square at 10 Liberty Street, the plaza was transformed into Louise Nevelson Plaza the following year, marking the first time such an honor was bestowed upon a female artist in New York City. 

Adversity and Redesign

As the Louise Nevelson Plaza is not far from the World Trade Center, it underwent significant alterations after the disastrous events of 9/11, reflecting broader security concerns in the area. The addition of security measures, including a guard booth and bench rearrangements, reshaped the plaza’s layout and, as a result, the layout of Shadows and Flags.

The plaza underwent further revisions in 2007, when one of the sculptures fell victim to a truck collision and had to be permanently removed. Today, six sculptures remain, though all but the largest have been moved from their intended positions, as have benches and other environmental details that were originally determined by Nevelson, dismantling the artist’s vision of the space. 

In 2009, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation collaborated with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and other firms to revitalize the neighborhood around the plaza, enhancing both the look and the functionality to the community. Though the plaza is a celebrated public space in the city, it is unclear how dramatically misaligned it might be from Nevelson’s vision, which was never fully documented.  

The story of Shadows and Flags highlights the impermanence of public art, and the importance of the artist’s oversight as well as careful record-keeping in public art projects. The project is a partly cautionary tale, underscoring the ongoing struggle to uphold artists’ legacies—even incredibly famous and well-respected artists—in ever-changing urban landscapes.

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Illuminating Design: Creating Dynamic and Inviting Environments

Illuminating Design: Creating Dynamic and Inviting Environments

Light is a fundamental element in the realm of architecture and design, serving as both a practical necessity and a powerful tool for creating transformative spaces. Light has a powerful influence on our perception and experience of space, affecting our emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being. In this Insight article we discuss the role of light in design: how light can conjure a mood, how it can define a space, and how the diverse array of light sources and their characteristics can be dynamic tools for designers. By learning about the landscape of light, designers can unlock its transformative potential to create environments that energize, comfort, and communicate.

Light and Design

Throughout history, light has played a central role in architectural design, with civilizations across the globe harnessing its power to create awe-inspiring spaces. The manipulation of light has always been integral to shaping the atmosphere of architectural spaces, and, as an ever expanding array of lighting options becomes increasingly accessible and affordable, the consideration of that light has become accordingly nuanced. 

Light profoundly impacts human perception, influencing our emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being. The various wavelengths of light stimulate our retinas, triggering physiological responses that affect our mood and cognition. Exposure to natural daylight can enhance productivity and mood, while harsh artificial lighting may induce feelings of discomfort and fatigue. As designers, we can’t think about space without thinking about light.

Different types of light sources can have wildly different characteristics and applications, so broad is the range of options in the lighting market today. Natural light sources, such as sunlight and moonlight, offer dynamic and ever-changing illumination, while artificial sources like incandescent, fluorescent, and LED lights provide consistency and control over intensity and color temperature. Understanding the qualities of each light source is essential for designers to create spaces that cater to specific functional and aesthetic requirements. 

Clay house living room in the evening sun shadows

Light and Mood

Light and mood share a dynamic relationship that routinely impacts our daily lives. Whether it’s the natural radiance of the sun or the subdued glow of artificial sources, every lightwave affects our bodies and emotions. This connection is down to our circadian system, which regulates bodily processes in response to lighting cues. While natural daylight once synchronized our internal clocks, the prevalence of artificial light has introduced both positive and negative impacts on our circadian rhythms.

In our homes, lighting serves as more than just illumination; it shapes the atmosphere and is an essential part of our routines. Bright lighting encourages activity and alertness, while dim lighting promotes relaxation and rest. Exposure to artificial light, especially during nighttime hours, can interfere with our circadian rhythms, leading to sleep disturbances and related health issues. Bright light therapy has proven an effective treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

In our workplaces, lighting can significantly influence employee productivity and mood. Inadequate lighting can diminish performance, though excessively bright or harsh lighting can also have detrimental effects. Optimal workplace lighting involves a balance of intensity, softness, temperature, and color to create an environment conducive to concentration and well-being. Different sets of parameters are optimal for the innumerable environments we inhabit. 

Warm lighting, with yellow and orange tones, can promote feelings of psychological warmth, comfort, and relaxation. These tones are often found in residential and hospitality lighting. Cool, blue-toned lighting is associated with productivity and alertness. These tones are often found in office and industrial settings. The significance of specific colors in lighting varies widely across cultures and from one person to another.

Light and Space

Light serves as a powerful tool in shaping our perception of space and depth within environments. By strategically manipulating light levels, characteristics, and directionality, designers can create a sense of expansiveness or intimacy, coziness or efficiency. Through techniques like accent lighting and shadow play, architectural and interior design features can be accentuated, drawing attention to key elements and adding visual interest to a space. The interplay of light and shadow can evoke a sense of texture and dimensionality, enriching the spatial experience for occupants. Light can be employed to delineate zones, establish hierarchy, and imbue spaces with a distinct sense of identity. 

3D image of an environmentally friendly coworking office space.

Integrating Light into Design Processes

In any given environment, we typically want a strategic balance of natural light, general or ambient artificial light, and task artificial light. This allows us to adjust the lighting in order to successfully (and, we hope, pleasantly) navigate and use the space regardless of the time of day. Designers can use a wide range of strategies to harness these lighting types to create compelling, functional spaces. Here is a look at a handful of these techniques to get you started.

Optimize Natural Light

Our emotional well-being is directly correlated to the amount of natural light we are exposed to. Maximizing the availability of natural light is a high priority in many environments, especially residential environments. It creates a sense of warmth, openness, and connection to the outdoors. Leaving the largest surface area of windows unblocked by interior elements (heavy window treatments, furniture) and leaving clear lines of sight to those windows from key zones in the space will keep the space bright and inviting. Where window treatments are desired or required, consider sheer options that allow privacy while filtering rather than blocking natural light.

Install Dimmers

While ambient lighting should be proportional and well-suited to a space, and task lighting proportional and well-suited to its designated task(s), dimmers offer the user a range of customization that can make a space much more flexible. These are particularly desirable in residential spaces, which need to facilitate a range of activities and host a range of atmospheres. Allowing the user to adjust the intensity and the quality of the light ensures that the lighting can meet their varying needs, regardless of the time of day, the task at hand, or the desired mood.

Vary Color

Customize not only the intensity of the lightbulb but the color of the lightbulb to the task at hand. A lightbulb’s intensity is measured in lumens, and its color temperature is measured in Kelvin. Warm-toned light (2,700K to 3,000K) ranges from red to yellow on the color spectrum and most often has a golden tone. This is often used to create a cozy atmosphere, similar to firelight or the light at sunrise or sunset. These tones are common in bedrooms and living room or lounge areas where the aim is relaxation. Cool-toned light (5,000K and up) ranges from green to violet on the color spectrum and most often has a blue tone. This blue tint is similar to daylight and these tones are commonly used in task lighting, as in a kitchen or office. Cool color temperatures are often used to create an alert, sterile, or industrial atmosphere, as in a hospital or office building. They are ideal for encouraging concentration and attentiveness.

Vary Task Lighting

Poor or insufficient lighting can cause fatigue and inability to focus, as can overly harsh or bright lighting. Light is ideally tailored to the space and the needs of the user within that space, and it is often the case that a single light cannot meet all of the user’s needs within a space, especially in a multi-use space like a home. Including a variety of task lighting is a great way to create task-oriented stations that increase the versatility of a space, allowing the user to change or combine task lighting options as available daylight shifts and their needs change. This can include task lighting at a variety of color temperatures, light intensity, height, and directionality. For example, a living room might have a dim, diffuse, warm light for watching television and relaxing, and a relatively bright, directional, cool light for reading. 

Spotlight/Uplight Features and Zones

Key architectural features, artwork, and decorative objects can be highlighted with strategic spotlights. A well-placed, directional light can add depth and character to a space, creating visual interest, a dramatic focal point, and more. Uplights can accomplish the same goal from below, calling out the importance of a feature of the room. Spotlights and uplights can also be used to delineate zones in the space, like a flood of light over a dining room table, or a soft glow around a bar area.

Wall Washing

Wall washing is a technique that involves placing a light source near a wall such that the light bathes the wall in a diffuse glow. This is often done with a warm light to create a cozy, welcoming atmosphere. The light might highlight a special texture or feature of the wall, or delineate a seating area. A sconce is a classic option for creating this effect, though many types of lighting fixtures can accomplish it.

Layer Lighting

Layering lighting options is an essential tactic for creating depth and texture in a space. A single, central light source can be flat and relentless, and creates an effect that is the farthest away from the natural variation of daylight. Light sources that create pools of light and shadow offer dynamic contrast, and this is much more dynamic when the zone of influence of a light source strategically intersects with that of another light source, creating still more variation in the light levels of a space. Adding dimmers to such sources offers a custom level of contrast, allowing a user to dial in the atmosphere further still. All of these techniques can be layered to create compelling spaces that are well-suited to their purpose.

Light It Up

Light, and the quality of light, has a significant impact on our built environments as well as our well-being, and is a powerful tool in design. It can define the atmosphere of environments and create boundaries for spatial experiences. The integration of light into design processes involves strategic considerations, from optimizing natural light to implementing a custom blend of lighting techniques to best meet a user’s needs. In understanding the range of lighting possibilities, designers can create compelling and functional spaces that enhance our experiences and foster a sense of connection to our environments.

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