A Brand New Look at Lighting

On February 25, the IES San Francisco Section presented an excellent program with Angela McDonald and Faith Jewell, both of Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design (HLB) in San Francisco. Entitled Elevating Brand Experience: Lighting Techniques, the talk uncovered some surprising aspects of lighting design.

When approached by IESSF President Marissa Tucci with a request to present a program, Angela and Faith thought it would be challenging and interesting to offer something a bit outside a typical lighting program format, on a subject that perhaps many practitioners don’t think about so often.

I was interested in the program as a marketing and branding consultant- for most of my earlier career I was involved in brand identity, research, and management and created brand programs for dozens of companies as well as designing and conducting hundreds of customer interviews. I started out on the design side and eventually realized that I’d rather be doing the most important initial work- making direct contact with real-life end users in a serious effort to determine what problems were most worth solving with design. To me this became the most important part of design. And because I couldn’t find anything else that really made sense, I created my own special theory of branding that involved five dimensions- category, character, benefits, difference, and credibility. I was quite fond of it naturally, but trying to get beyond pride of authorship I also think there was some rigor in my methodology that I picked up from a wide variety of sources, kind of a connective innovation.

As introductions to each project, Ms. Jewell and Ms. McDonald presented a bewildering variety of definitions of “brand” and “branding” from a range of thinkers – none familiar to me except Leo Burnett – who seem to have emerged since I last took a serious look at the whole thing (which was probably about a decade ago). Unfortunately, any real consensus about what constitutes a brand, or rigor in researching and measuring it seems to be as elusive now as ever, which is a bit disappointing but understandable. For me, statements like “every individual becomes a media entity” and “create your own personal brand” have diluted the operating idea of trade identity and company or product reputation that we used to work with. I was able to tease out some underlying themes though, having to do with “storytelling” ( another overused and potentially meaningless conceit) and experience. Of course I do believe that we have a hardwired instinct for narrative, and that this is part of how we deal with the word cognitively, so this is probably what people are referring to when they talk about “telling a story” through a space, a garment, or an ice cream cone. And the quality of customer experience, to to use the programmer-driven acronym UX, is especially crucial in the retail environment today as companies face a range of challenges, including figuring out the relationships between online and in-store sales, managing customer loyalty, and charting product roadmaps.

Ms. Jewell and Ms. McDonald have done a masterful job of digesting all the brandspeak that they have no doubt encountered with their teams on a wide variety of projects and using only what made sense to create wonderful design, and for this I heartily commend them. I’m a bit too close to it to be neutral, but none of what is to me monumental ambiguity in brandspeak seems to have gotten in the way of good design for them, indeed much of it seems to have helped. And they also demonstrated that we can greatly extend the experience and meaning of “brand” in the built environment through lighting, which is kind of amazing and like all great design, inevitably elegant once you see it.

The first example of this magic – I have to call it that – is their lighting of the Mission Street PG&E substation located at Eighth Street and Mission in San Francisco. Buildings like this are, from a New Urbanist perspective, death to the street, as they take up entire blocks or large portions of them, offer no visual relief or even windows, and tend to make pedestrian traffic wither. But historically, electrical substations are, to follow the logic of Ms. Jewell and Ms. McDonald, kind of a “brand” statement by the utilities, almost like temples to the God of Electricity erected by the organization with a kind of ultimate power over civilization- the “power” company. The statement subliminally could be “remember where your power comes from,” almost like the Egyptian monuments to the Sun God Ra. The earliest buildings for electrical generation in cities were horrendously dangerous and polluting plants powered by coal gas and because they were DC based, could deliver power effectively within a one mile radius, and so were also inconveniently numerous as well. Once the alternating current standard allowed the pollution generated by electrical generation to be exported safely outside city limits, power became clean and safe, Edsion’s propaganda campaign against AC nonwithstanding, and buildings that were needed in the city limits could become iconic, propaganda devices meant to convince people to use power and most importantly, to buy the growing number of devices that consumed it. Hence our industrial consumer based economy was quickly born. I may be overreaching a bit here, but in the early part of the 20th century, private utilities and companies like GE were actively involved in erecting monuments to electricity that drew heavily on classical monumental architecture and ancient deities.

The Mission Street Substation, designed in 1948 by William Merchant, is one example of such monumentalism which, according to SPUR, tends to defy human scale. And the building was not done without regard to aesthetics or some measure of civic pride. Ms. Jewell and Ms. McDonald realized this and made the most of the building’s inherent aesthetics, lighting it in a way that encompassed whatever original lighting may have been done for the building. The use of low angle grazing light to bring out the dramatic aspect of the local artist Robert B. Howard’s WPA-style bas-reliefs "Power" and "Light" is brilliant. And the designer’s restraint in foregoing typical rainbow color changing gimmickry in favor of a more dignified approach is quite refreshing. My experience as a longtime San Francisco resident is that of suddenly seeing a rundown, underappreciated landmark shining in renewed glory, probably better than the original. Honestly, it’s a relatively modest project, but this building is one of the best single examples of the transformative power of lighting alone I’ve ever seen. It’s so successful because the designers understood the historical context and aesthetic intent of the original building and used new technology to bring out the best qualities of the building, sending a positive “brand” message. A triumph!

Another brilliant project presented by Ms. Jewell and Ms, McDonald was the Jins Eyewear store, which addressed an important aspect of branding- how you can help a brand to adapt to changing conditions and customer preferences. Jins Eyewear, a Japanese eyewear company, developed a strong brand over the years that relied its store interiors on a lot of wood in that referred to the highly evolved craftsmanship of Japanese carpentry and was popular with a male audience. Eventually this became a liability as more women began to be targeted. The design team devised a look for the stores that was gender neutral and still used wood finishes in ingenious ceiling fixtures that provide task, ambient, and decorative lighting all in one as well as referencing traditional Japanese wood craftsmanship. The resulting experience of the stores is greatly improved while retaining the valuable brand equity of the stores .

Jins Eyewear's elegant lighting and integrated design approach delivers a superior customer experience.

Jins Eyewear's elegant lighting and integrated design approach delivers a superior customer experience.

It’s still hard for me to understand the function of narrative or “storytelling” in branding, because the way our brains are hardwired to work is that we seek explanations for everything whether or not they make any rational sense or not. We simply have to make up stories to explain our experiences, and when we can’t we let other people (even people like Donald Trump) make them up for us, or default to an explanation of something simpler than the real important thing were trying to explain. This is a fascinating thing to look at, and also very difficult to measure and manage.

Experience though, is a bit different in this regard. As a branding person back in the day, I, like everyone else, constantly faced the fact that 50% of what we did worked, we just didn’t know which 50% it was. I always wanted to do better than that and so was attracted to the idea of really listening to people’s experiences, which was something design teams rarely did. Not only are teams like those of Ms. Jewell and Ms. McDonald asking questions and listening more, we’re now able to measure the unconscious parts of experience that drive behavior. This is increasingly feasible today in the built environment, especially in retail. We are increasingly able to measure customers’ movement, emotions, buying decisions, and experience with rich data gathering networks built on lighting and heavily influenced by lighting. This is changing everything about retailing, and lighting is at the center of it in many important ways.

This presentation showed me that while it remains difficult to quantify and measure, the “brand” experience as we understand it is heavily dependent on lighting in new and surprising ways – not just in commercial consumer products but with community organizations and other service based businesses as well – and that it’s impossible to separate design efforts into different disciplines. They all have to work together just like each ingredient in a great recipe prepared by a master chef must harmonize. It behooves lighting designers to know more about branded environments, and how this definition can be expanded to include improving customer experience in the built environment. It’s also important for clients and their design teams of architects, interior designers, graphic designers, and even IT people to learn about the transformative power of lighting and to integrate it fully into their design projects.