Text: Deborah Burnett

05. May 2010

OMG….he’s green!
About lighting and how it can promote the wrong message

Last September as I turned on the television to watch President Barack Obama address the United Nations for an important speech, I was horrified at the sickly appearance of the world leader staring back at me. Instead of watching a powerful message delivered by a youthful, vibrant and ‘picture of health’ world leader, I was transfixed by the green-faced, baggy-eyed features of someone who had the voice and energetic mannerisms of Obama but appeared considerably older, haggard and sickly. Talk about mixed perceptual signals!

As I listened to the strong voice of a charismatic world leader deliver an important speech, I became confused. What I was watching was not the same healthy and vibrant man I recognized as President Obama from a televised speech he delivered earlier that same day. Pictured before me was a ghastly green faced Mr. Obama standing in front of a dark green, highly reflective marble wall appearing to be a man in poor health as evidenced by his
lackluster complexion and cloudy eyes; a universally accepted physical symptom of illness and distress. In stunned disbelief I realized that my perceptual sensory disconnect was not the fault of my aging TV, but rather the failure of a hurried TV lighting crew. I couldn’t believe that in this day of media savvy politicians and appearance-driven voting habits, I was witnessing an all too common failure by lighting designers to consider the consequences of artificial light on the human skin. By not taking into account the reflective and metameristic properties of the adjacent green marble wall when specifying the broadcast lighting levels, they failed in an ‘evolutionary’ way to provide an appropriate biological signal with which to judge the speaker’s intent. Examining how we use subtle shifts in the visual appearance of facial skin color for recognizing threats to our emotional and physical survival is the basis for recent scientific research. Cutting-edge evidence suggesting how and why visual photoreceptors are spectrally sensitive to underlying haemoglobin reflectivity beneath the skin’s surface are now causing us to re-examine the distorting effects of artificial light on the visual appearance of human skin. Yet few lighting designers are aware of the evolutionary human need to utilize all forms of available environmental light to highlight subtle skin color changes brought about by a physiological reaction to our emotional state.
Emerging scientific studies are now supportive of the recognition of subtle facial coloration shifts as a means for identifying health conditions. Recently a Dutch research team supported the need for more yellow and red-based colorations to identify a healthy facial appearance, while another discovery delves into the visual interpretation of skin appearance and subsequent skin ‘color shifts’ due to physiological and emotional states. […]

The full version of the article can be found in PLD No. 71

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