lighting designers: “independence” is cutting your potential short

I urge the lighting design community to stop obsessing over “independence” and start focusing on how to support and drive new forms of collaboration:  Collaboration with customers; collaboration with manufacturers and technology suppliers; and collaboration with contractors.

The drive to establish formal testing and credentials for lighting designers is absolutely the wrong target to focus the community’s energy.  This just perpetuates the desire to make a “walled garden” of elitist professionals and furthers the negative perception that lighting designers are just an expensive luxury on construction projects.  In my opinion, this is most desired by lighting designers who are more interested in creating a cult of “master artists”, rather than providing excellent customer service.

If the association stopped and thought about the true needs of end customers, very quickly service would be at the forefront, not elitism.  A project customer wants great lighting.  Period.  They want a lighting design, equipment package, and service delivered with the least fuss and effort and to the greatest return-on-investment.  The lighting design community should be focused on innovative ways to better the customer experience.

The decades-long struggle to establish lighting design as a distinct function in the architectural design process was absolutely required.  However, this continued and nearly obsessive focus on independence is limiting the market opportunities for lighting design professionals.

What really troubles me is that the decision to be completely “independent” is couched by many in the profession as some sort of  ethical choice. Frankly, this is a diversion from the real issue at hand:  Remaining fully independent of any other collaborative partner is not an ethical decision, it is a marketing differentiation.  If a lighting professional thinks that remaining completely independent — meaning they only make income directly from consulting fees paid by directly by the client — gains a marketable advantage to win clients, I have no problem with that.  But when this decision is institutionalized as the only choice, this is completely unfair and highly detrimental to the lighting world.  The only time it becomes an ethical dilemma is when someone promotes themselves as “independent” while taking kickbacks or other forms of income from other interested parties…which is extraordinarily rare.

I’m also frustrated that many in the lighting design community additionally pose this “ethical choice” as one against lighting manufacturers, as if manufacturers are somehow “unpure”, a necessary scourge that designers unfortunately have to work with to perform their “art”.  Again, this is a snobby, elitist viewpoint, not a service professional’s viewpoint.

The profession of lighting design needs to recognize the fact that in order to advance the art of lighting design, collaboration with numerous other specialty functions is needed, such as:  Industrial Designers for custom hardware; Software Programmers for experimenting with cutting-edge control techniques;  Project Management for better customer service; and indeed, even Supply Chain Management services to construction projects might be a desirable integrated offering.  These are just a few of the examples for potential collaboration.

Remaining aloof and “holier than thou” is a fast way toward specialized obsolescence.