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Light as a Non-Verbal Language in our Living Environment

What do we consider as a language? Language is any systematic or non-systematic means of communication. There is always a sender, a receiver and a message. Language can be verbal or non-verbal like sign language and body language, and it can even be tactile such as Braille.

Morse code is another example of a language with methods of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights or clicks that can be understood by a skilled listener. In the computer world, there are many programming languages such as Python, C++, Hopscotch, etc. which exemplifies systematic communication with structured rules and methods.

When discussing non-systematic means of communication, we are talking about a language that does not have structured rules and methods. From one perspective, we could consider light as a non-systematic language as it is often interpreted differently around the world depending on cultures, context and traditions. However, there are instances where light can also be seen as a systematic language such as traffic lights where red, green and amber communicates the same message throughout the world. 

In this article, we will take a very abstract approach to light as a non-verbal language and as an expressive medium that communicates messages and influences moods and emotions.

Light as a Communication Force

“In Ancient Greece, the amber golden light of the fire created a feeling of relaxation and beckoned a gathering. The fire and associated light allowed people to unleash their imagination, connect and tell stories.”

The power of the flame is often reproduced in our homes through fireplaces and candles that evokes emotion and delivers many subconscious messages. 

Different cultures engage and react to light differently. There have been cultural studies that analyse light and emotions or light and colours. From these studies, we have learned that in general, Eastern countries prefer cooler light and Western countries a warmer light.

We will take a global perspective and look at light as a medium that enhances communication in our surroundings and the many different applications. 

From Darkness to Light Dusk Image created by Nikos Nikolopoulos, creativelighting.co
From Darkness to Light Dusk Image created by Nikos Nikolopoulos, creativelighting.co

Ambient Communication 

The concept of ambient light communication is of primary importance. It is a hybrid form of spatial interaction that is simultaneously digital and physical, made possible with technology and concepts rooted in human biology.(www.skandal.tech)

Let’s highlight some examples of ambient communication in our everyday life. Firstly, as mentioned in the introduction, traffic lights. Depending on the country, we observe some slight differences in the graphics and sounds of traffic lights. However, as pedestrians, we all know that when the green crosswalk light starts to flash, it is a warning that it will soon turn red. 

Another excellent example is the light language at the theatre. Just before the curtain goes up, the lights are dimmed to alert the audience to be silent as the performance will begin shortly. While at the theatre bar, the lights flicker to communicate to attendees that it is time to take their seats. Same event and two different light patterns, yet both prompt attendees to be in their seats, silent and ready for the performance.

What about all the digital messages in the urban space? As Brad Koerner mentioned in his article about ambient communications, “We live in a time where many people feel trapped by digital screens. With our mobile devices, every new app fights for a precious slice of our attention bandwidth. Out and about, digital signage screams for our attention in every store, bus stop and food outlet. We’re blinded by so much digital clutter, we’ve become immune to digital messaging.” This means that to communicate a message effectively, we should consider simplifying digital signage to quiet and organise the endless messages currently yelling for our attention. 

Times Square Lighting, NY, USA
Times Square, NY, USA. Photography by Claire Jones

Tapio Rosenius from Skandal Technologies, in our interview for Spread the Light by Linus Lopez, highlighted the importance of concentrating on the peripheral vision which does not demand the attention of the viewer. He discusses how light is instantly understandable. Light can convey to the user of the space that a train is soon approaching a platform. Rosenius is one of the first people from our industry who is discussing combining sensing, data and AI to create responsive lighting environments. Apply to this the knowledge of colour, light, patterns and movement to modify the user’s behaviour and trigger lighting moods. As Rosenius says: “With new technologies and programming systems, it is now possible to create, commission and execute immersive content with light.” Yasaman Mavvaj in her research suggests that light animations are effective in triggering behaviour: human’s attention is attracted by motion and animation more than by other visual cues, and thereby can guide humans to focus in a certain direction. 

It will be interesting to witness how ambient communication will be integrated further in our living environment, enhancing and improving our experiences indoors and outdoors.

Media Façades, when the Architectural Surfaces Talk 

On many occasions, media façades have been the target of public debates around energy and sustainability. Along with environmental impact, there is a lack of thoughtfully designed regulations within many cities and countries around the world. This has created a rift in the lighting design community. Yet, on the other hand, media façades can be a powerful tool to enhance the city’s brand identity and used to transmit symbolic messages, support causes, and celebrate art and culture. 

It is very important for cities to create strategies to ensure that buildings are not competing with each other – not screaming for attention. Many cities around the world experience high levels of visual noise caused by light such as Tokyo and New York. Ideally, landmarks, parks and public spaces lighting should utilise an integrated, layered communication approach on structures, surfaces and the built environment. By using interactive technologies, innovative and sustainable materials, there is the opportunity for new meaningful illuminations that replace billboards and direct advertisements to create a dynamic experience for the citizens. I’m not suggesting that every building turn into a communication surface but suggest a strategic selection of private and public buildings with a coherent strategy that can benefit the city. Also, it is essential to establish a responsible curator of the messages and stories on the façades based on the agreed communication strategy. Could the Lighting Designer be the right author of those public light messages? 

There are many great examples around the world, using integrated light as a communication medium but one of the most unique is the façade of the National Stadium of Lima in Peru, designed by Claudia Paz Lighting Studio.

The communications goal is to establish a visual connection between the fans, their passion, and the game using lights. With a combination of innovative technologies and lighting layouts, the stadium façade is infused with a mixture of lights that act as a ‘mirror’ of the crowd’s mood. Advanced control capabilities provide an unparalleled interactive experience by communicating the emotion inside the stadium to visitors on the outside. Patterns vary in colour, speed, brightness and scale – at times the façade can be seen to sparkle with joy and celebration, while when the mood is glum, the lights recoil into a subdued and disappointed state. The project’s designer, Claudia says: “I am always searching for the emotion and sensation the final design will offer to an object, surface, shape, space, or individual.” 

Light Communication on Social, Environmental and Health Issues 

The main focus of my theoretical research in light and communication focuses on sociopolitical, environmental and health issues, analysing how to use light in temporary installations to inspire the community to engage, connect and take action in response to important issues. In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, buildings in Brazil, China, Egypt, Italy, UK, US and countless other countries, are using light as a medium to create powerful images of hope and solidarity. Governments, municipalities, and individuals, are standing together, expressing respect, gratitude and support to the healthcare workers on the front line and sending messages of empathy to those affected by the coronavirus. There are lighting installations on famous landmarks, mountains, private buildings, media façades, etc. using combinations of coloured lights to project messages, images and symbols to encourage people to #staystrong and #stayhome.

Around the globe, there are multitudes of temporary installations where light inspires people to come together. As a powerful and flexible medium, light is used to achieve visual impact and convey a message. 

One of the most recognisable projects is the Tribute in Light in New York City. This commemorative public installation activates every year on September 11th with light replacing the Twin Towers, perfectly mimicking their position and shape. The light represents the ‘ghost’ towers and symbolises the loss of life and calls people to unite in compassion and solidarity. 

Tribute In Light, NY, USA.
Tribute In Light, NY, USA. Photography by Lerone Pieters

Since 2007, the Earth Hour movement by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is an event notable for the absence of light. This worldwide initiative removes the light from famous landmarks for one hour to symbolise our commitment to the planet. The movement calls us to consider the consequences of global warming, raise awareness of energy consumption and light pollution, and remind all citizens the importance of joining forces to protect our environment.

Art Installation Connecting the Virtual with the Real World 

Art Installation Connecting the Virtual with the Real World.
Nattljus 2016 Light Festival, Eskilstuna, Sweden.
Nattljus 2016 Light Festival, Eskilstuna, Sweden. Photography by Katia Kolovea

In 2015, during the COP21 in Paris, Naziha Mestaoui created an ephemeral visual transformation of the Eiffel Tower into a virtual forest by using light mapping technologies. The One Heart One Tree project maximises the level of public engagement through light and finds a way to connect the virtual world to the real one.

Supporters were asked to record their heartbeat and send it to the One Heart One Tree project. A 3D light projected tree grows on the Eiffel Tower to the rhythm of the supporter’s heartbeat. Each tree displays the supporter’s name. The distinctive characteristic of this project is that for every virtual tree, a real tree is planted in a reforestation program spanning five continents. 

This interactive project, perfectly illustrates how light can be used as a medium to communicate a message, encourage reforestation, connect people and inspire them to take action for the protection of our environment. At the same time, by planting real trees, the carbon footprint left by this large-scale temporary digital installation is nullified. This makes me wonder, what if for every light we include in our projects, we could create a counterbalancing solution, for
the environment? 

One Heart One Tree, Naziha Mestaou.
One Heart One Tree, Naziha Mestaou. Photography by Yann Caradec

Light Festivals and City Branding through Light

Dr Thomas Schielke’s research on the use of light for branding states that the term ‘light’ has turned into a tool for urban self-representation and marketing communication. We are experiencing examples of large scale urban marketing with the term ‘City of Lights’ like Paris. Annual Light Festivals have increased and represent a temporary marketing campaign where cities use light to create awareness and define their identity. Communities and municipalities have discovered the power of light to bring people together, creating anticipation and excitement for inhabitants, families, artists, creators and local businesses. 

With a combination of the vast new technologies and tools, lighting characteristics such as hue, intensity, colour, rhythm, brightness, flicker, direction, motion, size and focus can attract an audience and communicate a specific message. Within an ephemeral artistic installation, the designers and artists are able to create meaningful, colourful, playful and memorable public celebrations that can connect the community and highlight the culture of the city. According to Dr Zielinska-Dabkowska, light festivals are building the brand of destinations as a centre of arts and innovation. They attract people of different ages with various educational backgrounds because light is magic and unites us all. 

Fête des Lumières in Lyon is one of the oldest light festivals in the world. Every December, the festival of lights is a major cultural event in the city. As Gérard Collomb, Mayor of Lyon has remarked, “Many cities around the world want to copy what we’re doing because they know that light is magic. Light is what brings warmth to the heart on a December night.” The festival has transformed Lyon into an attractive and culturally important tourist destination. 


Personally, I find the variety of outcomes that different lighting designers achieve by using the same medium, light, in a combination of forms and applications very interesting. The environmental context, the architecture, the culture, as well as the design composition, are key elements that will contribute to the successful communication of important messages. Light definitely influences our emotions and behaviour, and with advancements in technology, light reacts to our emotions as in the National Stadium of Peru. As Gustavo Aviles said: “You are never, in reality, lighting a space; you are lighting what that space means.” 

Light speaks its own unique communication style, and it is able to convey messages quickly and simply without raising linguistic, class, racial or social barriers. We, as lighting designers, must take action. We have the tools and the knowledge of crafting unique and memorable experiences with light in collaboration with design teams and our clients. Let’s find innovative and sustainable ways to implement a different layer of communication in the urban space by using the city as a canvas.