Profession: To be or not to be

10. Feb 2015

A call to define what we mean
by Professional Lighting Designer

Text: Mark A. Carlson, Avalon Lighting Design

We have reached that moment in time when a decision can no longer be placed on the table for future discussion. Regardless of whether the industry acts, I believe we are beginning to slide backwards given the current acts of encouragement to devalue our professions. We are well past the time to just “think about it.” The Lighting Design community needs to come together now and contribute to defining what we are, what it is we do, why we do it, and how we do it.

We exist in a state of confusion. Neither the consumer nor the trade practitioner has any clear understanding of these questions. If we, as an industry or as an individual artist cannot properly project the benefits we provide for society, then we will continue to lack recognition and advancement. And when I say advancement, I mean increased income opportunities. We must be proactive and act. Although I am speaking directly to my small niche community of Landscape Lighting Designers, I do not believe that it is any different for most any other Lighting Designer. We are all part of one common community. In the past two years, I have seen several impactful changes – matters are getting worse.

If time allowed, I could go to great lengths to describe these problems, but that is not my intention here. Rather, it is my purpose to generate movement. However, I would like to make one brief point about a topic that I believe is causing the discrediting of our profession. Our markets are saturated with manufacturers and so-called manufacturers (importers) who provide knockoff products under a different name. This oversaturation is one of the primary causes of our price wars. It serves to encourage the devaluation of quality in both products and services. Services are affected because they are equally associated with cost control. Lighting installers are greatly impacted by these measures and services must be competitive. In many instances, corners are being cut in order to maintain labor costs and to align with the decrease in product costs. This only provides the consumer with a cheapened experience. Should the contractor decide to stand above this and maintain his service costs, then he stands a greater chance of losing a prospective buyer. Although, this strategy should be encouraged – to identify one’s qualities through higher quality standards. This is all I will say for now, as I would rather provide and inspire solutions. The focus here will be in finding the best path to take and to act upon it.

Our solution is both simple and complex: to provide the market with an understanding of our associated value, as a Lighting Designer. Most consumers do not understand the importance of light nor do they fully appreciate how we apply light to make our spaces more comfortable and pleasurable. As stated earlier, the consumer is confused…..we have no unifying message or standards. Many see us in the same light as the common electrician and in worse cases, the handyman! This is a bold reflection, as many consumers believe they can perform their own lighting services within the scope of a Do-It-Yourselfer project. This is a scary thought, yet a daily occurrence. Why would someone believe that they can perform these services on their own without any proper training or experience? Why does the consumer market believe that working with electricity is safe and easy? The only reason is because we have failed to properly educate them – they are clueless! What is encouraging the market to perform lighting design services or electrical work? It is the internet and easy access to information. Anyone can find instructional information and how-to videos on YouTube. This kind of exposure is both good and bad. It serves to educate, but it also encourages consumers to do it themselves. The inherent problem is that there are no controls established. We cannot ensure that the proper information or advice is being disseminated.

Let us take a moment to analyze what currently exists. The typical consumer of our products and services does not understand the extent of Lighting Design. This explains why we are not properly appreciated or even compensated. What is likely to be the primary concern of these consumers? It is cost. This is a huge barrier and issue for each of us to overcome. Unfortunately, this is a big discriminating factor which exists at the front-end of every job. We are forced to “prove” ourselves over and over again.

Why don’t we ask ourselves what the root of the problem is, as it applies to this cost battle? The problem lies in the form of education and awareness. It is nothing more than a lack of understanding. This needs to be the primary focus for the lighting industry. The consumer and trade practices need to be taught what is acceptable practice and the importance of why we are so necessary in their lives.

One of the great challenges we face is how to define ‘good’ lighting versus ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ lighting. Unfortunately, this inevitably means dealing with subjective comments. How can one say that another person’s design is not good? Herein lies the challenge. However, there has to be a set of basic practices and principles to follow. These guidelines should use safety as their premise for best applications, as there is no disputing that this is of the utmost concern. Going back to the primary objective here, we must place value on what we do. Value is the key to a successful future that is advancing.

What is hurting the value proposition?
There are several things that are hurting this value proposition. One, I believe, is the defining of the terms and/or titles we use. This might sound a little odd, but it all makes sense when it adds to the consumer’s confusion. Take for example the particular term or title, “Professional.” What is one suppose to know about this? We should all ask the following:

• What does this word really mean?
• What does it mean to the lighting industry?
• What does this word imply in one’s title?

No value has been given to this word, and this leaves consumers to only guess or believe what they are told. What are we or they supposed to think when the majority of all lighting practitioners call themselves a ‘professional’ or an ‘expert?’ This cannot be true and it is not a valid statement. If there are no parameters, then there is no meaning or value associated with this.

To provide an example, I will utilize my own profession of Landscape Lighting. Currently, we have no real authority or voice. We can perform and provide just about any service without having to prove who we are. Most of us use these titles or terms and make claims without any questions asked. This is a serious problem and a threat to the credibility of our profession. The underlying problem is: we will be associated together under one discipline and valued based upon the acts of everyone’s performance. If a percentage of the trade are making poor decisions (cutting corners, providing inferior products, and performing poor services), then the whole industry will be associated with this. This has been the case for many years – we have been lumped in with the Do-It-Yourselfers and the handyman services. These inadequacies are making our opportunities to advance even more challenging. This fact alone is reason enough to support a segregation of the practice. Licensing and certification are a means to provide this segregation. If Lighting Designers are to advance and to be properly compensated, then we must separate the good from the bad.

There are many that do not support licensing and certification. I disagree, because it is in our best interest to do so. We must have a means to isolate the good from the not so good. This will be our only means to successfully earn a proper wage and credential. If we cannot properly communicate these differences, then we will continue to encourage the current state of confusion.

The steps we need to take
Please understand that I do not claim to have all of the answers, but I am willing to provide suggestions and steps that I would consider to help advance this cause. The following should serve as a starting point:

1. To develop a control group or authority to oversee and establish these parameters. There must be one authority to act as this voice. It should comprise industry specialists with real and practical experience. It should act as a moderator for the entire group and all industry specialties.

Could this be one of the existing lighting organizations we have? This is unknown, because there may be conflicts associated by country or region. It would be in our best interest to ensure that this is an international effort. However, if this cannot occur, then we need to develop an independent group outside of what exists. The point is to all come together under one form of control.

2. To define the role and expectations of a Lighting Designer, including the various specialties associated under this title. The general title is established in the broadest sense, and it needs to ensure that it includes all specialty disciplines.

Overall, the control group should provide the elements to define a Lighting Designer. But, the various specialties should gather their own panel of seasoned professionals to act in representing their best interest.

In an effort to spur thought, I am providing a list to consider for these specialty groups:

Broad Categories
Interior vs. Exterior
-Architectural vs. Environmental
-Line Voltage vs. Low Voltage
-Daylight vs. artificial light

Specialized Categories
Landscape or Garden
-Roadway & Parking
-Public Transit & Airport
-Media and interaction design

3. To quantify and establish the expectations of each title or term as it relates to experience. This will be one of the more difficult areas to achieve. These determinations should be based on education, knowledge, technical ability/skills, and artistic application. They should also consider one’s performance in business and the performance within the art itself. Parameters and measures should be determined at the ‘minimum’ level of requirement.

Time is the relevant parameter for the above determinations. The quantity and quality of these experiences need to be understood. Considerations should be analyzed based on individual parameters and combined parameters. Should any one parameter be ranked higher than another? Again, this will be the most challenging of the tasks.

To summarize these thoughts, here are the items that need to be addressed:

•Classification of experience levels
•Establishment of what is considered ‘professional’ Standards and Practices
•Development of parameters and expectations for each specific discipline
•Segmentation by certification and/or licensing

This is the most important identifying factor for anyone serving in these professions. Experience is the parameter that can define our value. There are two statements made several years ago by the highly respected, Mr. Howard Brandston. I would like to use them here, because I agree with what he said. They are described in issue #79, October 2011 in Professional Lighting Design magazine, under the article, “Lighting Design is an Art”:

“One can be expected to be classified as a Lighting Designer, if one has produced a reasonable amount of work.”

This is exactly where Mr. Brandston questions whether this qualifies one to be considered a professional or not. He continues to explain that all designers may be defined as being ‘practitioners’. His opinion continues, as he asks, “When does one become a professional?” And, here is his response:

“One can only become a true ‘Professional’ when one makes a recognized contribution to the profession. That recognition must come from one’s peers.”

Although I agree with this, I do see a potential for misunderstanding. The first applies to the word ‘reasonable.’ What are these parameters?  I am assuming that this is for the broad classification or title of Lighting Designer, but will there be any experience levels established under this?

The next word to question is ‘Professional’. Currently, we have no parameters to measure this, at least not in my specific discipline. Take, for example, the use of this word as it is seen in many organization names….the “Association of XXX Professionals.” Does that not seem to imply that all of their members are professionals? This only adds to the consumer confusion, because nothing has been defined. What if the majority of the members of these groups are primarily considered ‘Practitioners’ and not ‘Professionals?’ Is that not misleading?

Personally, I would highly encourage the Landscape Lighting discipline to have an established classification system for these varying experience levels. These levels should all fall under the title of ‘Practitioner’ until they can be considered a ‘Professional,’ as defined above. We desperately need this reform because there are too many practicing this trade to sub-standard levels.

Final thoughts
We cannot wait any longer to define our work, which includes the terms associated with it. Segmentation and the defining of our roles are most important. Advancement cannot occur unless we take action on this score. The consumer has the most to benefit from this and we, as trade representatives, must provide this. Our value must be established and defined. It must include expectations and standards. This will allow us to justify a fee structure. We need a clear and concise measure to the benefits we provide to the community. Education must first start with the consumer level. It is our professional duty to actively develop, advance, protect, and preserve the foundations of our practices. The hope of the next generation of Lighting Designers is dependent upon that. Should we fail and continue to be inactive, then we are only closing our door to opportunity. It is time to provide assurances for those seeking a future in this industry.

Mark A. Carlson is the Owner of Avalon Lighting Design located in Roseville, California/USA. He is recognized by his peers as an industry professional and as an award-winning Landscape Lighting Designer. He is an author, technical writer, designer, contractor and consultant in this specialized discipline. He has been working as an artistic craftsman in the field for more than 15 years.

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