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The next generation of lighting designers

CLUE (Community Lighting for the Urban Environment) is an international lighting competition for students and young professionals around the world created to empower young designers to consider societal issues and conceive innovative solutions.

The competition is over 15 years old and sets the standard for young designers to develop forward-thinking lighting concepts which stimulate challenging ideas and recognise the individuals creating those ideas.

CLUE President, Serina Tarkhanian explains that the competition originated from a group of lighting designers in Montreal. “The goal was to give young design students the opportunity to think about the future of lighting,” she expresses. Today, CLUE is steered by a group of volunteer designers from various walks of life. “We still believe in this today, by means of looking at how lighting can be a driving force for change in communities around the world,” Serina comments. 

The CLUE team is a mix of design related professionals that range from architects, designers and lighting designers. “I’m a designer, and I design interactive educational experiences for museums, schools, and cultural institutions,” informs Serina. Serina is currently on sabbatical for her master’s in Social Design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. “There, my work is focused on the future of ageing. Within CLUE, I act as president,” she advises. “Which means I work with the group to establish a strong and continuous vision for the organisation, amongst other things.”

Serina explores the 4th edition of the CLUE competition, which was titled Light and the Senses. This theme invited students to develop a lighting design solution that aided the users of a city to reconnect and to better their public spaces through the use of their senses. “The winning projects were innovative in that they addressed specific contexts in highly critical, poetic, and stimulating ways through their designs.” Serina explains that these designs told a story of a community, a place, of the people there – and seamlessly used light and other sensory tools to make new, positive and engaging narratives. “You can’t readily pluck the concepts and place them anywhere else either, and that makes them rather unique.”

The theme chosen for this year’s competition is Light & Disruption. This new edition is about having designers identify an urgency and to use their design skills and critical outlooks to create alternative tools, situations and narratives that address these emergencies. “It can be hyper-specific to a community in part of the world or speak to something that spans continents – that is for the designer to decide,” elaborates Serina. She explains that from this edition, CLUE recognises how easy it is to fall into fatalistic discourses when we look at disruptions around the world, “we want to change that.” The theme wants young designers to feel that they can have agency over what’s going on in their communities and that their projects could indeed change the tide. 

The jury has no indication of what is to come of Light & Disruption; “If we could predict the designs, then we wouldn’t be doing a very good job at fostering innovation!” CLUE wants to see young designer’s unique point of views through their designs. “What I personally hope to see are less general and more specific urgencies, ideally ones that are close to the participant in one way or another.” There is tremendous importance in exploring the role of light in emergencies as it helps us understand where people’s priorities are, “their realities, their issues… so that in turn, it can responsibly act to those effects,” explains Serina. “When the market is smart, it knows that what’s good for people can be good for business.”

Serina brings our attention to the top winners from the three last editions, “they are really worth looking at but for very different reasons.” From the 2016 edition called Lightius Loci, DMZ: N38 by Yeon Ho Lee, Woo Seok Jang and Dong Gyun Ha from South Korea. CLUE explains that this was particularly special for how such a beautiful lighting intervention addressed a politically charged place. As provocations by North Korea was intensified, designers Yeon Ho Lee, Woo Seok Jang and Dong Gyun Ha saw an opportunity to express unification with light.

DMZ is a frontline in North Korea, and lights for monitoring run 24 hours a day, this means electrical facilities are already equipped. DMZ: N38, proposed a light-filled Peace Park as a representation of world peace. Beyond the healing of the physical dimension, the concept thought about the emotional side of healing, using light.

The second design was from the 2017 edition called One for Light, Light for All. The project was titled Collective Polyphony by Andras Dankhazi and was of particular interest to CLUE as it created a poetic and unique connection between people and the writhing sea, using light. The project was designed to restore life at an abandoned oceanic shore in Dublin. To achieve this; multiple touch controls were planted to generate light and translate in real-time the tidal level, temperatures, strength, height of waves and ever-changing seascape.

The third notable design for CLUE was from the 2018 edition called Light and the Senses. SOL, by Santiago Bautista, aimed to lighten up the very grey and dreary Copenhagen. CLUE acknowledged the power for this project, “from SOL, light turned into a kind of therapy in the public space,” comments Serina. 

Serina says that given the market has a set of goals that the competition does not, the projects don’t aim to provide solutions to the market but provide to the people. “It’s important to make the distinction because the competition generates ideas that would never come to exist if they were market driven.” It is because of this that the market can look to CLUE for inspiration all while gaining a better understanding of future realities and opportunities.

“We exist because young people should have a place to express themselves regarding the future of communities and the role lighting has in this,”

“New generations of designers are better equipped to do this than we give them credit for – they should be supported in their development process.” CLUE gives these young designers agency; their mission is to create opportunities for future thinking and designing. The competition is about creating a space for young people to imagine how the world could be different, and what role lighting can play in creating those possible realities.

The mission for CLUE is to create a stage for ideas; within their means, they will build a bridge between young designers and the forces that can make those ideas become a project. The next stage is for governments and companies to support the work that comes from this. If governments, companies or other groups are interested in implementing the ideas in the market, this is a bonus for CLUE. Collective Polyphony by Andras Dankhazi, is one project that has been in discussion for implementation. Serina says that more and more local governments and groups are showing interest in implementing not just the winning projects, but the honorary mentions too. “This is interesting because it makes new precedents and new interesting relationships between young designers, companies, and local decision makers for how lighting design projects can come to be.”

The most interesting insight for Serina is how lighting solutions are being used in tandem with other tools. “Participants are particularly good at linking things that we are not used to seeing connected because they don’t have a priori that people in the industry have,” she explains. Serina states that contestants draw parallels between things and design in ways we don’t often see in commercial projects. “This is quite interesting when you are more confined by the market.”

Furthermore, the CLUE competition evokes various sustainable solutions for the market. For Serina, the most interesting aspect is when projects provide ways to live sustainably without going down the traditional paths of eco-sustainability. “To me, the DMZ project was sustainable in the sense that it spoke to a highly unsustainable political reality.” The concept showcased that young designers are proving sustainability is not simply confined to what is just green and eco-friendly, but also peace-friendly too. 

Serina finds projects (such as the mentioned DMZ: N38, Collective Polyphony and SOL) entirely transformative and is particularly excited by the designs she hasn’t seen and what these concepts will address in the next chapter. “I look forward to seeing the many ways in which they will innovate and change the world,” she concludes. 

The CLUE association will continue to position itself inside the broader community of the lighting professionals and pursue the route of being an internationally recognised leader in the design community.