“Where are all the women? Where are all the young people?” A question I asked myself when I attended my first industry lighting event. I am sure women in many industries can relate to walking into a room full of men and being the only female at the table. Or, a recent university graduate walking into a meeting where they are by far the youngest in the room.
It’s a question of how young designers find the courage to overcome the initial feeling that maybe you don’t belong, engage with the industry and not choose to pursue an alternative profession.
Let me disclose upfront that I acknowledge that we all hold unconscious bias; I am that young female in the room. I studied both Industrial Design, which is a heavily male-dominated discipline and Interior Design, which is exactly the opposite. I had expected lighting to be the right mix of the two genders. However, this is not the case.
Women represent only 12% of the engineering industry. Similarly, the construction industry is exactly the same with 88% male. There are slightly more females in architecture, representing 24% of registered architects. How do women realise that their perspective is valuable as the industry contributors should reflect the diversity of their client?
So, what can be done to balance the contributions of both genders? Currently, Interior Design is the only industry within the construction sector with a higher female representation. What can we learn from Interior Design that can be applied to lighting? There is a unique opportunity to balance gender and engage more women as lighting sits between creative design and engineering. The International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) members are 41% female. So how are they engaging the female contingent to take up membership?
With a focus on inclusion and diversity, the next generation has a real chance of addressing the imbalance and increasing diversity in the profession. For the lighting industry to thrive, we need to promote the multi-faceted discipline and establish pathways for those not in the majority.
Art and Science Combined
The lighting design industry is rapidly evolving. We are just beginning the journey towards the full appreciation of the effect that light has on us. Technology is being integrated into artificial lights for the benefit of human interaction. As a young designer, this is an exciting time to be in the creative lighting workforce, we are on the brink of innovations and changes in the way we use light.
The lighting industry is well suited to those who want to support interior design concepts with analytics. In lighting, you need to embrace your creative passion and balance it with technical justification. Architectural lighting is often described as art and science combined. Similarly, to interior designers, lighting designers must take a holistic approach and understand how humans respond to the appearance of a visual environment – both physically and emotionally. Lighting adds a layer on top of interior design requiring the technical side with a mix of engineering, visual design, as well as human experience on a physical and a psychological level.
Although Australia is blessed with abundant natural light, we still spend significant time in artificial lighting. Those working in the lighting industry have a crucial role in creating environments that people enjoy spending time in. We need to consider how to make our spaces fit-for-purpose from executing tasks to relaxing and escaping from the outside world. How do we use lighting to make the inhabitants feel safe and secure?
The industry combines visual design with technical know-how. Although historically lighting has been male-dominated, there is no doubt a place for women in the industry. The lighting industry will benefit when those ‘at the table’ best reflect the demographics of the client.
The Benefit of Youth
When you are starting out in any industry, female or male, you are not known for your work nor have referrals from your happy clients. But…
“…a satisfying career is not about getting coffee and filing the drawings. It’s about adding value throughout your career.”
My first lighting design job was with a small design and construct firm where most people had never heard of a lighting designer nor understood what I did. I was fortunate to work with several talented individuals with great foresight who supported my ideas and pushed me to try new things and innovate.
For many, many years, lighting design was confined to what a lamp could do for a space. Since LED technology, light has become more artistic and sculptural medium. Personally, I have always had a desire to do something that hasn’t been done. Young lighting designers have every opportunity to create something new and make their mark in the industry — if only they have the confidence to try and the determination to not give up.
Starting out fresh in a business where colleagues don’t understand your role is the perfect opportunity to educate and push the boundaries of lighting. In my first lighting design role, with the support of co-workers and my determination to push the boundaries, I developed designs that won industry recognition. Not bad for a ‘young female designer.’
Still, as a relatively young lighting designer, I get asked, “How do people take you seriously?” My honest response, “By knowing what I am doing and being whole heartedly passionate about it!”
Back yourself by understanding the industry standards, and embracing your uncluttered and untarnished view of ‘this is how it has always been done.’ Let youth provide you with the benefit of not feeling the weight of believing you should have all the answers all the time.
Life is about learning, so be a knowledge sponge! From every interaction with colleagues and clients, learn as much as possible. The insight may not be lighting specific but improve your business acumen and better understand client expectations. Industry events, podcasts, publications, etc. provide opportunities to increase your knowledge and inspire innovation. Reach out to industry long-timers to learn from their expertise and make the most of those connections.
Never underestimate the learning power of observation. Lighting is a visual design medium. By simply observing the light around you throughout the day and the seasons, you can learn so much about light. Being observant and aware of light can educate and inspire you more than any theoretical course you can take.
Being self-critical is actually a good practice. Reflect on every project to consciously assess what went well, what didn’t, what you would do differently next time.
Technology is Second Nature
Using technology to enhance my designs and sell my solutions has had an extremely positive impact on my career. Unlike the pioneers who used 2D drawings and tried to explain the effect of light, the young lighting designers of today have the benefit of technology. We can quickly create a visual of the lighting effect that you intend to achieve. In many instances, showing your design idea on a screen provides significant impact and ensures that the recommendation gets across the line with little resistance.
Digital software programs are second nature to most young designers. We have grown up submitting high school and university assignments digitally. We quickly adapt to using apps to assist and enhance our ideas. Proficiency in various creative software programs such as Photoshop, InDesign and numerous 3D modelling and lighting software enables a faster way to explore ideas and execute solutions that bring something new to the table.
We Need to Design Solutions for All
In March 2019, the Committee for Sydney published Safety after dark: Creating a city for women living and working in Sydney. The research is based on analysis by XYX Lab, part of Monash University, and dives deep into the negative experiences of women in public spaces during the hours of darkness. This sheds light on the fact that Sydney may have been originally developed and built by men, but to effectively support all inhabitants, women and girls need to be actively engaged as co-designers.
Environmental factors including physical design, lighting and layout and additional factors contribute towards a positive or negative ‘vibe’. By inviting women into the conversation, there is a significant change in approach and shifting mindset within the collective. The implementation is still a ‘work in progress’ but the discussions have changed for the better.
This is just one example of the importance of diverse engagement in the design process.
“Men and women, young and old, experience the world in which we live very differently. To fully understand the end-users’ requirements, we must relate to their unique perspective.”
Inclusion and diversity in the lighting industry will provide a cornucopia of experiences and perspectives. Multidimensional teams will develop better solutions, not for an individual group, but for the collective.
The Way Forward: it’s not just a two-way street but a busy highway!
Balancing gender and youth participation in the lighting industry means that we accept that we are all in this together. As an individual, we need to be aware of unconscious biases and stereotypes that we impose on them. We cannot enact change if we do not acknowledge these biases and continuously strive to challenge our perspective and work through a raft of points of view.
Personally, I have witnessed passionate young professionals leave the lighting industry as they were pigeonholed to execute specific tasks and never given the opportunities to take risks and grow. Many studies validate that diverse organisation are stronger, financially and organisationally.
Ibis found that those companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Atlassian’s diversity and inclusion survey highlighted that 80% of respondents found that a diverse and inclusive workforce resulted in higher employee engagement and innovation.
By the time I become the 50-year-old at the head of the table, I believe that there will be greater diversity than there is today. The world of lighting is essential in our society for usefulness, safety and comfort. We will achieve the best solutions if we build teams that represent the diversity of our end-users. If the lighting industry is losing the young, disruptive, energetic individuals due to lack of support and opportunity, we are limiting the potential achievement of the whole industry. We cannot sit back and wait for the industry to change, but we must take an active role and strive to build a big table where all the voices matter.