Choose to become a lighting engineer

Do you have what it takes to become a lighting designer? Here are some key attributes you’ll need.


Light is as essential as food, clothing, and shelter for living things. Creating the best illumination is both an art and a science. It is not a do-it-yourself activity because there are too many variables and the technology changes almost daily. This is a lifelong, in-demand job—rewarding both personally and financially. It offers the opportunity to use imagination. Light is like music—fast and slow, loud and soft, with unforgettable rhythm and melody.

A lighting engineer is a detective, needed for construction, architectural history, business, culture, archeology, science, and research. Now there is the added requirement for an energy-efficient, sustainable environment; lighting is the easiest of electrical building’s engineered systems with which to conserve energy, enhance design, increase productivity, boost safety, and improve quality of life.

Caveat No. 1: Excessive energy conservation without increased productivity will fail. People will always find ways to circumvent unwanted or impractical restrictions. The lighting engineer should be able to present ideas clearly to the decision-maker, without using words like “photons” or other unfamiliar technical terms.

A lighting designer is a fixer who can eliminate bad lighting. Poor illumination could be hot, too dim, too bright, glaring, misfocused, wrong style/color/period, obtrusive, energy-guzzling, or just plain ugly. It wastes money, plus causes distress for sufferers of health problems. Emergency lighting must also be included in the lighting engineer’s scope. Thus, the lighting engineer is also a protector.

Of course, an engineer must be technically competent, knowing the basic physical rules of light along with national codes and standards for safety. The U.S. Dept. of Energy findings have to be followed and state and local regulations considered.

In addition to being aware of all the most energy-efficient lighting tools for a particular application, the lighting designer also has to know the appropriate controls and interfaces to connect different technologies properly.

Caveat No. 2: One size or type lighting does not fit all. Unless a number of like projects are done at the same time, the design engineer has to be an innovator to prepare plans and specifications to address unique features. To design, specify, and watch over a project, accepted procedures for both architectural and theatrical lighting are used. Combining the two may achieve the best results. There are automated or manual methods for special effects of color, motion, and dimming. Lighting also can be combined with other systems, like HVAC, for central control.

At all times, the three Cs of construction—communication, coordination, and cooperation—with the entire team show the best way to proceed, and to avoid disruptive interaction with adjacent systems, like air conditioning, life safety systems, etc. This makes the engineer a good team member.

The engineer also has to be a checker. Every completed project should be reviewed to see if it was finished on time and on budget, and met the client’s expectations. Seeing what was done right, what could have been done better, and what should not be repeated is the final step. This makes the next activity easier.

Ability to think on your feet quickly is a must when unexpected problems arise. Other trades could be delayed until alternate solutions are produced.

Finally, whether working as an independent entrepreneur or as part of a firm, the engineer has to add value to the business for it to prosper. Thus, as well as technical expertise, the engineer has to bring something more to the job so it is profitable.

Gersil Kay is president and founder of Conservation Lighting International and Building Conservation International. She is a member of the IESNA Board of Directors and is a past member of professional affiliations and societies including IAEI, AIA's Historic Resources Committee, ICOMOS, and International Council on Art Deco Societies. She is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.  

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