Learn About Lighting

emotional lightingLight has physiological effects on the human body. But did you know that patterns of light in a space can have psychological effects as well?

Does Lighting Have An Effect On Our Minds?

Ever notice that a brightly lit room feels larger and more public? That having dinner with a loved one in a darker candlelit room feels intimate? That a bright space with cool color tones makes us feel more energetic, while dim space with warmer tones helps us unwind?

Now we’re not talking so much about light as lighting. How light is applied to a space. The fact is, lighting stimulates emotion.

Lighting can do this by itself with a visible and beautiful pendant light. But often, it’s the patterns of light and dark that make an emotional impact. What light reveals, what dark conceals, and the contrasts they create can stimulate emotional responses about an environment.

How We Interpret Light

Environmental psychologists Kaplan and Kaplan conducted research and discovered that a primary motivator for a person entering a space is to make sense of it. When we see the familiar, it’s pleasant, as it feels comfortable. But it can also be boring. When we see the unfamiliar, it’s unpleasant, as it’s strange. But it can also be exciting, noting that while exciting is good, it can also be fatiguing over time.

The eye is drawn to the brightest point in the field of view. Research by John Flynn at Kent State found that when relaxing, people like to sit in a dimmer area of a room but orient themselves toward the brightest area. Another study by Sucov-Taylor found that people, when faced with a barrier they’d have to go around to enter a room, tended to go right—until brightness was increased on the left, in which case they tended to go left.

This is the basis of creating focal points with light. Lighting can draw attention to interesting objects in the room, such as artwork and photos, by increasing their relative brightness. The resulting visual hierarchy creates a narrative for the room.

Distribution of light across a space also affects general impressions. Based on a set of lighting criteria, such as ceiling/wall emphasis, bright/dim, etc., people were asked to evaluate various lighting conditions using scaled impressions such as pleasant/unpleasant, relaxed/tense, etc.

He found that low overhead lighting, coupled with some lighting on walls, fostered a relaxed atmosphere. Bright light with lighting on walls and possibly the ceiling, coupled with uniform distribution, can create a sense of spaciousness. Low light levels at the activity space and a little perimeter lighting, coupled with non-uniform distribution, can create an intimate atmosphere.

Lighting Choices For Home Owners

So what does this look like in practice? For homeowners making decisions about their lighting, first, it’s important to understand that lighting choices affect us emotionally. Lighting can make a space exciting or relaxed, spacious or intimate. Lighting can also draw attention in the space. The first question is, what do you want to see when you enter the room? This entails creating a visual hierarchy based on what’s in the room. The second question is, how do you want to feel? Typically, at home, the answer is, “safe and relaxed.”

This is why layering a lighting plan is so important. This involves three discrete lighting elements in the space: general lighting (typically uniform), task lighting (focused on task areas), and accent lighting (focused on objects of interest).

Each layer is separately controlled, providing a variety of scenes. By dimming each layer, a greater variety of scenes can be created, allowing different space uses while also allowing creation of multiple narratives for the space. For example, a living room could have cove lighting, which draws the eye to the architecture and makes the space feel more grand, tense and public. By dimming the cove lighting and turning on task lighting and accent lighting, the eye is drawn down to objects of interest, making it feel smaller and more relaxing and intimate.

Light may reveal the world around us, but it’s lighting that shapes our perception of that world. By understanding the subjective impressions that can be created by different lighting approaches, and by layering lighting that is controlled in detail, a lighting plan can produce a variety of emotional responses to a room.

A space’s lighting defines its personality and how people perceive it, which in turn affects how they feel about being there.

Below are various lighting effects that can take the same space and transform it into different environments.

Psychological impact

Lighting effect

Light distribution

TENSE Intense direct light from above Non-uniform
RELAXED Lower overhead lighting with some lighting at room perimeter, warm color tones Non-uniform
WORK/VISUAL CLARITY Bright light on workplane with less light at the perimeter, wall lighting, cooler color tones Uniform
SPACIOUSNESS Bright light with lighting on walls and possibly ceiling Uniform
PRIVACY/INTIMACY Low light level at activity space with a little perimeter lighting and dark areas in rest of space Non-uniform

Dr. John Flynn’s research indicated that people form subjective impressions of a space based on overall central or perimeter emphasis of the lighting. Shown here are eight renderings of a room, developed based on Flynn’s studies, with central, perimeter and combined lighting, bright illumination as a constant (compared to dim), and both uniform and non-uniform light patterns on surfaces. One can see at a glance how different lighting configurations produce different appearances of the space with different resulting subjective impressions.

Image courtesy of Dr. Robert Davis.

emotional lighting-effects of light

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