7 Tragic Lighting Mistakes You Should Stop Making

(The first in a Lighting Design Fundamentals series)

How is that we spend so much time under the influence of light, yet know so little about it?  From the first time, we open our eyes, light impacts the way we view things – both literally and figuratively.  I’m not talking about serving the basic need of having enough light to see something.  What I am talking about is far more subtle – it’s about the way the light makes us feel.

Light can draw you in or turn you away.  Light can create an intimate setting between two people, allowing them to focus their attention on each other while the rest of the world fades away into the background.  Light influences our ability to rest and informs our sleeping patterns.  Light renews the spirit – who among us has not felt rejuvenated after a dreary winter by closing our eyes and looking up at the sun on the first warm spring day and felt the serotonin boost that makes us feel good?

In design, it’s critical to harness the power of light to make it work for us to improve our lives.  While we can write volumes about Lighting Dos and Don’ts, here are 7 Tragic Lighting Mistakes You Should Stop Making right now.

1: Don’t light the entire room from a single source, placed in the center of the room, and outfitted with a 100-watt bulb so that light reaches every corner.  While this is the least expensive way to light a room, it creates dim and dull-looking spaces with patches of light that are far too bright to create a relaxing atmosphere, not to mention that it does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life for anyone.  
Pro Tip: Use layers of lighting to create atmosphere and safely perform tasks.

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Open any design magazine, and you will find layers of light - recessed lights offer general (aka ambient) lighting for the room, lamps or picture lights used as accent lighting which focuses attention on essential design elements of the space, and undercabinet task lighting which helps us perform specific activities. Each layer serves a distinct purpose and creates visual interest and helps us perform tasks safely.
Making these changes is something that you can easily do today by reducing the wattage of that center-placed ceiling light and adding lamps around the room where you most need it.


2: Don’t wait until the end of the design phase to talk about lighting and your lighting budget with your designer.  Lighting can be more expensive than you thought - consider all of the technology and componentry that goes into a well-designed light.  Lighting is often one of the last things considered during the design phase of space and usually one of the first items to get cut from the project when the budget starts to slip since it is one of the last pieces installed. However, a good lighting plan can showcase good design and improve your quality of life or detract from a well-designed space and create an unsafe environment
Pro Tip: Make a list of important tasks you perform in your space and tell your designer about them.

The topic of lighting should be an integral part of your initial discussions.  Not only can lighting improve your ability to perform tasks safely such as wielding sharp knives to cut vegetables, but a well-thought-out lighting plan can also highlight and focus attention on some of the more beautiful elements of your design.  Why spend $50,000-$300,000 on a kitchen and not showcase it properly?

3: When remodeling a space, don’t just leave the lighting as it was.  Take a good hard look at your existing lighting – both the quantity, quality and placement.  For example, the current recessed kitchen lights are centered above your old range, but once the range is moved over and we added a kitchen sink to the island, the light above the range is now 12-inches off-center, and there is no light above the sink.

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Pro Tip: Think through the new layout and make sure to move the light to accommodate new locations of crucial design features or tasks.
Ask yourself these questions:
•    Do I have enough light to easily perform the tasks that need to happen in this space?
•    Do I need this much light?
•    How does this light make the room feel – does the room feel dingy or glaringly cold?
•    If I removed all of the lighting in this space and started over, where would I place dots of light to use the space better?
•    Do I enter this room often with my hands full (for example, entering the room with a laundry basket) and would I benefit from a motion-sensor activated light?
•    How do I feel about the environment and do I want to reduce my energy bills by using LED lights?
•    Do I want to integrate Smart Lighting Controls into my house system?

Thinking through the answers to these important questions early can help provide you with a space that is custom-designed to make your life easier and make performing tasks more enjoyable.

4: Don’t light everything.  A common mistake we see all the time is using recessed lights everywhere instead of where you need light.  Think first about why you need light in a space.  In a kitchen, for example, you need it to find spices inside of cabinets, to help you see when your dishes are clean, to make sure you can look at your cutting surface, so you don’t chop a finger instead of a carrot, and to help you determine when your sautéed vegetables are cooked well-enough for your recipe.  You don’t need superfluous light for your kitchen pathways.  


However, the lighting requirements in each room are different.  In a stairway, you don’t need to light the ceiling, the railing and the top of your head as you climb the stairs.  You do need to light the path, so consider forgoing the ceiling lights and using wall-mounted light just above the stair treads instead.  If you aren’t building a new stairway or going through a remodel of your existing stairs anytime soon, there are several wireless step light products on the market designed for a homeowner to install themselves on the surface of the drywall.  If you already have a row of recessed lights placed in a line down the center of the staircase, consider switching out your trim kits in favor of gimbal-style recessed lights that can be aimed at artwork or family photographs to line the stairway.
Pro Tip: Use light only where you need it. 

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5. Don’t create excessive light and uncomfortable glare.  Glare is a visual impairment caused by several factors including overly-bright lights, locating bright and low lights in proximity to one another, exposed bulbs, direct light, and can be experienced as a very unpleasant and uncomfortable phenomenon.  Anytime you can see an exposed clear glass bulb; you are at risk of creating glare.  Here are some classic glare mistakes and how to avoid them:
•    Don’t: Hanging a pendant light at a height above a seated bar area so that the exposed bulb is in the direct line of sight to the person sitting under it
o    Do: Hang the pendant lower, use a frosted bulb, use a low wattage bulb or place the pendant on a dimmer switch, or use a short bulb so that it is tucked up entirely inside of the pendant.
•    Don’t: Installing high-wattage security or porch light that floods your neighbor’s home or outdoor living space.
o    Do: When choosing an outdoor light solution, consider where the light will fall and how it might deliver light into your neighbor’s home and yard.  Always select outdoor lighting that does not have exposed bulbs (such as a glass lantern style) and does not send any light upwards (Nighttime sky pollution is a real effect, and there is no need to pay to light the sky.)
•    Don’t: Using an exposed bulb desk lamp in a dim room at night.
o    Do: Turn on an overhead light to decrease the intense contrast between bright, exposed, direct light in an otherwise dark room. While using task light is smart because it provides direct light where you need it most, the exposed bulb will produce more direct glare to your eyes than is necessary and will cause eye fatigue.
Pro Tip: Eliminate areas where unshielded light is substantially brighter than the ambient light around it by using frosted bulbs, shades, dimmers, and light fixture designs that provide indirect or diffused light to reduce uncomfortable glare.

6: Don’t limit your control of light.  Dimmer switches are amazing inventions that serve many purposes.  They allow you to control the mood and atmosphere in your space by reducing brightness.  Many homeowners do not know that using a modern triac dimmer switch to dim your incandescent lights by 50 percent can reduce your energy use up to 40% and make your bulbs last 20 times longer.


There are health and quality of life enhancements that dimmers provide.  A current topic in the news is how the light from screens are disrupting healthy sleeping patterns. Blue light from light bulbs and electronic devices suppress melatonin levels (which get you in the mood for sleeping) and are tricking our bodies’ internal clocks into thinking it’s daytime and time to be productive. But dimming lights at night is the best way to allow your body to produce the melatonin it needs to fall asleep fast and deeply.    Consider, dimming the lights as you watch TV, ascending the stairs with lights dimmed just enough to create a safe path, getting undressed in low light conditions, taking a bath in relaxing light, and, finally, brushing your teeth in light that is just bright enough so that you can place the toothpaste on your toothbrush.  According to scientific studies, this would create the optimum environment for a healthy night’s sleep.

Pro Tip: Place dimmers everywhere (yes, including the bathroom) to enhance the atmosphere, reduce energy bills, increase the lives of your light bulbs and help provide a good night’s rest.

7. Don’t mix and match color temperatures within the same room.  Most homeowners grew up in an era where a light bulb was a light bulb.  And then, things started getting fancy, and you could go to the store and buy soft white light which was more pleasing for indoor residential use.  From there, the options have skyrocketed, and now you can purchase a light in any color, and even some that change colors!  With all of those options, it’s easy to fall into making this mistake of creating specific areas of the room appear dingy.
For example, when your recessed lights emit light in the warm end of the spectrum, and you add LED under-counter task light in the cool end of the spectrum, your countertops will be brightly-lit for tasks, but the addition of this “blue” light will instantly make your “yellow” light appear dingy.  When selecting lighting for an entire room, select light of the same temperature.  If you prefer soft white light, then match all the lightbulbs in that room with the soft white light you prefer.  

If you have an open concept floor plan where the living room, dining room, and kitchen are all located in one room, ignore all the pre-canned online advice that says you should place cooler lights in the kitchen and warmer lights in the living room and instead, find a proper middle ground temperature that works well in all three locations – I find that something close to 3000k works well and doesn’t appear too yellow in a kitchen with white cabinets, countertops, and backsplash.  The last you want is to have a gleaming white kitchen and light it with overly-warm light from adjacent spaces which makes your gleaming white appear yellow. 
Pro Tip: When layering lighting or remodeling and adding additional lighting features, make sure that the color temperatures within the room matches.  For example, if you have soft white light in the recessed fixtures, make sure that your new pendant light is also soft white.


by: Angela Garvin