THINK LIGHT: Villains or Victims?

Is our binary view of the industry letting us off the hook?

In an era of polarization, fundamentalism, and absolutist ideologies, it is easy for me to fall into statements like “builders install the cheapest lighting possible so they can maximize profits” or “interior designers think lighting means a trendy chandelier.”

But is the world really that simple? While preparing for this final THINK LIGHT post of the year, I was ruminating on responses to recent posts that seemed to divide people into two camps. When I wrote on low voltage lighting, for example, a majority of responses indicated agreement with my premise that low voltage lighting was the future. A smaller but vocal minority took the completely opposite view that low voltage lighting was a bad idea.

I had fallen into the trap of making black-and-white statements, and the results were just as binary. The truth is much more complicated.

When it comes to the challenges facing our industry, we are all to blame. But it feels much safer to give up our power and play into the role of victim while painting others as the villains.

A familiar scapegoat in lighting conversations is the archetypical builder. We paint them as villains, only motivated by profit, while they spit back that they are simply victims to the whims of market and consumer trends. There is some truth in both sides – builders must be profitable to stay in business, and they must respond to market forces and customer demands in some way or risk irrelevance.

But the simple binary of a villain-or-victim mentality absolves both lighting professionals and builders of responsibility. If builders are villains, then I cannot be blamed for bad lighting. If builders are victims, then they can not be blamed for bad lighting.

This gives us both a get-out-of-jail-free card. We do not have to work for change. We do not have to make the world a better place.

We can apply this convenient binary to virtually any industry professional. Architects become our enemies when we paint them as power-hungry villains who spend time and money on architectural whims while cheapening the lighting. And architects can let themselves off the hook by crying about how there isn’t enough time to learn about lighting, or about the budget impacts of better lighting.

We, the lighting industry, cannot be blamed, because it is the architect’s fault. The architect cannot be blamed, either. So who is left holding the bag?

The consumer, of course. They are the ones who pay for bad lighting and then live with it for decades.

As I sketched through the ideas for this post, I included manufacturers, interior designers, electricians, and even clients. You can see more of these below, but each has the same conclusion.

The villain is to blame, like a manufacturer concerned only with quarterly profits or an interior designer concerned only about ceiling symmetry. The victim is blameless, like a manufacturer dependent on market demands or an interior designer who blames a thrifty client.

No one is to blame, but somehow we keep putting terrible lighting in homes. Maybe it is the fault of the lighting designer, then!

At a conference a few years back I picked up a marketing flyer from one of the leading professional organizations of lighting designers. It read like the villain’s speech on the left, warning the reader of the dangers of not hiring a qualified lighting designer. “Your life will be doomed!” they seemed to say.

Yet so many of my conversations with peers paint us as victims of ignorant clients. There is truth to both sides, but to explore the gray area between the binary is largely inconvenient. It takes too much time, requires too much introspection. And it is scary to explore, because we just might discover an uncomfortable truth.

The truth is that we are all to blame, in our own way.

We are to blame for pushing disk lights on the consumer.

We are to blame for pushing the responsibility for disk lights onto the electrician.

We are to blame for pursuing the most luxurious of lighting or the most basic of fixtures, with little regard to a balanced middle road that might benefit us all.

It is time to stop casting blame, drawing false or shallow conclusions, and sitting by quaintly when we know we as an industry can do better.

Builders are not villains or victims, but real people somewhere in between.

Architects are not villains or victims, but real people somewhere in between.

And on.

So let’s think about lighting. Let’s dream a better future for all of us, and then collaborate to make it happen.

Let’s invent a cost-effective, easy-to-install, decently performing downlight and educate the consumer and builder on how to use them.

Let’s capitalize on modern technology to take us back towards natural light, making tunable white as ubiquitous as incandescent once was.

Let’s make lighting interchangeable and upgradeable to make it easier for consumers to maintain and keep product out of landfills.

Let’s leverage our collective wealth to create television programs and YouTube channels that provide real solutions for real people, all while shifting public perceptions of the value of light in their lives.

If you are blaming someone else for the lack of good lighting in our world, like I am guilty of doing, then you and I are contributing not to a better future but to worsening the problem and growing the divide. Instead, consider joining me to change the world by changing our industry by changing our practice by changing our words.

You and I are to blame.

And that is very good news, because it means you and I have the power to fix it.

Read more of my THINK LIGHT series HERE.

And a few more sketches on the villain-or-victim thread:

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