Successful Lighting
It doesn’t just help us to see, it helps us to think… to be healthy, energetic, creative and productive. And here is how.
By Teodora Nikolova
Office lighting design tends to focus mostly on how much light is needed to get the job done, strategies for optimizing visual comfort and using as much daylight as possible in order to reduce electricity bills. On the other hand, the characteristics of light which influence our biological clock often escape the limelight of designer attention. In other words, little consideration is given to understanding how light affects physical and mental processes governed by the circadian rhythm which regulates sleep, wakefulness and mood, and therefore affects health, efficiency and creativity. Daylight is the ideal regulator of this natural rhythm. However, we work indoors. Even if we have access to natural light, it is not enough. The question is how to achieve an optimal effect with the inevitable use of artificial light.
An installation entitled “Cells: Healthcare of the future“ by Philippo Taidelli which represents a connection between technology, light and health, Fuorisalone 2018, Milan
A look out of the window of the International Space Station
Children of the Sun
That is what we are, poetry aside. Humans are diurnal species. They are active during the day and inactive during the night. The groundbreaking discovery of fire led to a certain extension of activity into the night. And this continued for thousands of years. Until Thomas Edison dared to change human nature using nothing more than a filament inside a pear-shaped glass ball, which has the power to erase the night. So what happens now? The sun still rises and sets, still gradually changes its spectrum – from the shortwaves of cool blue light at high color temperature (this is the bright light in the morning and during the day) to the long-waves of yellowish-red light at low color temperature (the warm soft evening light). The blue spectrum still activates the brain resulting in alertness, and the yellow-red gradually calms it down until darkness falls and melatonin is released to prepare the body for sleep. In other words: the circadian sleep/wake cycle follows the pattern that works best for the human body. Artificial light, however – and this includes the light emitted by computer, telephones and tablet screens – delays the fall of darkness and consequently the release of melatonin and replaces it with extended periods of blue light (in effect up to 24-hours). The effect is like hitting our internal clock with a hammer and expecting it to continue working as if nothing was wrong. This of course is impossible.
Illustration of the circadian cycle and the physiological states of human beings
Circle of Life or the indispensable clock
We cannot talk about light without first addressing the circadian rhythm. It incorporates all biological processes that are governed by the day/night cycle or to put it another way – by the presence or absence of daylight. The internal clock is vital to physical and mental health. Contrary to the myth of the depressed, sleep-deprived and tortured artist who nevertheless produces amazing masterpieces, the truth is that physical and mental health is essential to creativity and productivity. And this is impossible without the proper functioning of the internal clock. The challenge here results from the fact that we have long since abandoned our natural environment where the only source of light was the sun and now around 90% of our waking hours are spent inside using mixed or artificial light. Repeated disruptions to the biological rhythm lead to sleep disorders, which prevent the body from recuperating fully and deprive it of its vitality, cause mood swings and may even lead to a number of serious illnesses including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. This is why it is imperative that office lighting design should focus on the interaction between humans and light and its effect on physiological and mental systems. The more we do this, the more the effect of sustainable lighting will increase, which will not only save energy but will also improve staff wellbeing and morale, which in turn will boost creativity, efficiency and business performance.
“Less is more“ or lighting and creativity
The architectural moto of Mies van der Rohe – which not only expresses the essence of minimalism but also lends itself to different interpretations in the various aspects of contemporary lifestyle – is fully applicable to lighting. As strange as it may seem, the most frequent problem in offices is excess light. The principle of “moderation“ should apply both to natural and artificial light. Daylight is a must in interior design. A good rule is: no one should be working more than 10 meters away from a window. Research has shown that people who do not have access to enough daylight at work sleep an average of 46 minutes less and do not rest as effectively. Of course, creativity is reduced as well. However, too much of a good thing is not so good. Too much sunlight can fill the workplace with a blinding glare and unwelcome heat. Therefore it is vital to introduce systems that regulate the intensity and direction of sunlight.
The same applies to artificial lighting. According to research people are more creative and better at problem-solving when they work at 150 lux, instead of 500 lux, which offices normally use. The psychological explanation is that when the light is too strong we are afraid to think out of the box because we feel that we are being watched and this restricts our sense of freedom and increases our fear of criticism and disapproval. It can also be explained in another way: when the light is too strong space boundaries are clearly visible and this subconsciously restricts our thinking. When the light is softer space boundaries are not so well defined, it feels almost as if space expands or at least has the possibility to expand. This feeling is transferred also to the cognitive mechanisms which become more receptive and flexible and allow for more unconventional ideas. In addition to this, softer light prevents our eyes from focusing on surrounding details and allows us to concentrate on the big picture or abstract thinking which is fundamental to creativity.
In the 60’s and 70’s when practically everything was still on paper, offices were flooded with unnecessary, even harmful light with little or zero flexibility. This resulted in energy waste, eye problems and headaches. Today excess light would cause not only all of the above but also additional harmful consequences because of screen reflections. For modern workplaces we need to carefully decide what is the right amount of light needed, to use flexible lighting systems and high-class light fixtures to ensure high-quality light which can be regulated in terms of specter and intensity.
Design will no longer be about office space planning alone, but also about helping people navigate it with optimum ease and encouraging the development of new habits.
The drawing used by Humanscale to illustrate one of their light tips – the most effective solution is to bring the table lamp closer to the paper document we are reading, to focus the light on it and to reduce the light coming from the ceiling
The table lamp
Induvial lighting drastically reduces energy costs. Its focus and intensity can be adjusted to suit the individual needs at any point in time which in turn reduces work-related stress. It contributes to improving the quality of light, helps to control it and increases the sense of wellbeing. Individual lighting not only takes care of individual light needs resulting from the requirements of specific tasks, it also solves the problem of the different amounts of light needed by the different age groups working in the same office. With time the eye gradually loses its ability to focus on nearby objects and its ability to process light. This is caused by normal physiological changes. The resulting symptoms are usually manifested around the age of 45. The amount of light required after 50 is around 100 % more compared to that at 20 to 30. Blurred vision and headaches are the consequences of using light that is not appropriate to the respective age. Individual lighting allows us to correct this by bringing the table lamp closer or pulling it back from the surface we want to illuminate as well as to adjust the angle in order to eliminate reflections. Bringing the table lamp closer to the paper document that we are reading and focusing the light on it is more effective than trying to obtain the same amount of light by turning up the ceiling lighting. The latter would only lead to eye tension caused by the point source and furthermore a certain amount of light would be wasted on the way between the source and the surface we want to illuminate. That is why the intensity of light coming from the ceiling should be reduced and supplemented by light from a table lamp. Generally speaking, harmonising the ambient and individual lighting and screen light is a vital step on the way to achieving effective lighting in the work place. Our eyes find it difficult to make the transition from digital to analogue. Stress causes complications for the eyes as well as the mind. Therefore it is important to make the transition between screen and surroundings as smooth as possible. So the image of a desk illuminated by a bright circle of shimmering light in the middle of a room shrouded in darkness may seem cosy and make us think of romantic dedication to work, but nevertheless this is not a good solution.
Zoning and light
According to research blue light affects our ability to deal with tasks which require creativity. That is why many authors prefer to let their imagination run free in the morning and chose to do their writing in the early hours of the day, leaving the afternoon for more analytical tasks – editing, reading, contemplation. This is also connected to the synchronized transfer of alertness from the right to the left hemisphere. Different color temperatures affect the psyche in different ways – they can help us concentrate better, be more alert or make us more absorbed in what we are doing. The spectral characteristics of lighting should be fine-tuned based on the above considerations as appropriate to the different working areas of the office.
Portrait of the young Steve Jobs by Diane Walker. The floor lamp casts just enough light over a certain perimeter to allow sufficient clarity inside it and to hint at its border without overexposing them.
Light is Light
And so, to ensure good lighting of the working environment that will help us to feel healthy, effective and creative, we must first decide how much light we need. Then we have to carefully choose high-class lighting and make sure that the lighting systems allows us to regulate the intensity and spectral characteristics of light. There are smart systems with solar sensors thanks to which artificial light can mirror the changes that take place in natural light during the day. And even though here on Earth we do not have 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, this is still a very good idea for the ancient, vital circadian rhythm.
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