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Lighting 101: Color, Intensity, and Control

Light can seem pretty complex. After all, its speed (to the best of our knowledge) is a universal constant of physics, its energy is what fuels most life on our planet, and even its name is often used as a descriptor of things that are good, beautiful, and desirable. And come on- it’s classified as both a particle AND a wave.

Talking ourselves off of a lighting geek ledge, we’ll just focus on what we believe: that the right lighting makes the world more beautiful, work better, and live better. It’s a fundamental thing that has the power to calm, invigorate, and inspire. And we know that it’s not just about the object that creates the light, but how that light makes us feel. That’s why it’s so important to have a decent grasp of lighting fundamentals when designing any space.

We’ve taken the liberty of breaking things down into three, easy to remember categories: Color, Intensity, and Controls.

COLOR

All light has a color–even what we normally think of as “white.” The appearance of that white light is commonly referred to as “color temperature” and is measured in degrees of Kelvin (K) on a scale of 1,000 to 10,000. 

Typically, Kelvin temperatures for commercial and residential lighting applications fall on a scale from 2000K to 6500K. Lower temperatures tend to be more reddish and golden, while higher temperatures tend to be whiter and bluer. Think of it is as a flame–cooler flames are orange, while hotter flames burn blue.

Knowing a light’s color temperature lets us predict the feel of the light it will produce. Designers have discovered this is of vital importance because the human body is specifically tuned to respond to the color of light based on our oldest light source, the sun. Soft, golden light from the dawn tells us to awaken, the intense bluish-white of the afternoon sun triggers our peak alertness, and the bloom of orange and red with the sunset helps us relax and prepare for sleep.

We’ve actually seen folks who have installed daylight-white bulbs (5100K) in their homes, only to later complain that they now suffer from insomnia. Choosing the wrong light color at home can have some surprising results, and it’s not just really unflattering lighting for your cocktail parties.

INTENSITY

The intensity of light, that is, the light we can see, is measured in lumens. The higher the lumen output, the greater the quantity of visible light produced from a source in any one second. This is important in lighting because it allows us to determine if we are providing enough light for the activities in a space, or if we run the risk of overwhelming with excessive output. Not only that, but the intensity of light, like color, affects the human body and how it feels in a space. Higher intensity creates alertness and energy, while lower intensities tend to soothe and relax.

It’s also important to consider how the number and position of lights can make a difference with how intensity is perceived. Multiple sources at varying levels can evenly distribute an appropriate intensity of light, while a single source like an overhead light producing the same measurable light levels feels harsh and unpleasant.

That’s why output from a bulb or fixture is only part of the equation. If we want to create inviting, livable spaces with pleasant and flattering light, it’s not just the highest output we can get that needs to be considered.

CONTROL

Proper lighting control goes far beyond just switching lights off and on. It includes the level of light produced, where it’s produced, with which color, and when. Without proper thought, it’s not just the look of a space that suffers, but also how people feel within it.

The most basic controls used in most spaces are dimmers, which usually only regulate the intensity of light output. Remote controls are the next step up, with wireless controls that allow specific lighting or air-circulation devices to be managed from a distance.  App-based controls allow even greater convenience, allowing the ability to adjust light levels and color on handheld digital devices, even from outside the home. Digital assistant systems (like Alexa, Google Home, or Apple’s Homekit) allow the ultimate integration of controls, linking multiple types of smart devices from separate manufacturers into a single app. This enables users to set daily routines and voice commands for lighting.

Working with a basic sense of fundamentals is the first step towards designing great lighting for your space. There are always other factors, like scale, fixture type, and materials. While those may still seem daunting, we’re always here to be your guide. Visit any of our three showrooms, or call or email us at any time. We’re here to help you discover your lightstyle.

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