Circles on a Plan: Layout is Not Design

Lighting layout is driven by the geometry of the ceiling; lighting design is something entirely different.

lighting layout is driven by the geometry of the ceiling; lighting design is something entirely different.


I MET MY FIRST CUSTOM INTEGRATOR only a few years ago and unknowingly began a process that would completely transform my business. The integrator continues to teach me about his business in professional technology design and integration but has surprisingly taught me quite a bit about my own work as a lighting designer. Sometimes what he asks or says rolls around in my mind for years, like the statement above, and I come to understand something profound.

Prospective clients show us lighting layouts nearly every day of the week, so often that I have begun to categorize the most common red flags. We see four cans and a fan in builder-grade spec homes and high-end custom homes. We see recessed downlights between the island and counter in almost every kitchen. We see light fixtures down the middle of closets and pantries, vanity lights centered above the mirror, and room after room with perfectly spaced recessed downlights. These are just a few of what I have jokingly begun to call the Nine Deadly Sins of Lighting Layout.

Yet lighting layout is what most professionals do. Lighting layout, at its most fundamental level, is driven by the geometry of the ceiling and by centerlines. Lighting design, on the other hand, is something entirely different. Lighting design is driven by the geometry of the human eye and the decidedly non-geometric factor of the human experience. One approach will give you light, the other will give you a better life.

“The most common misperception is that lighting layout is the same as lighting design. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.”

David Warfel

circles and fans

Your alarm goes off and you wake up in your bedroom to the start of a new day. How is your bedroom lit? Four cans and a fan? Check.

Bedroom after bedroom and even living rooms and offices and family rooms often feature this most common of lighting layouts. A ceiling fan (or decorative fixture) is perfectly placed in the center of the room. Four recessed downlights, often called cans or pot lights, are neatly arranged in a square and hopefully placed far enough from the fan to avoid strobing shadows. This time-trusted approach is built into thousands of homes every year and gives light to millions of homes already built. The unspoken, perhaps even unknown, driving force behind this approach is the “we’ve always done it this way, and no one ever complained” statement.

It’s easy to poke holes in that logic. We’d still have whale oil lamps overhead if we stopped innovating. We’d still have stretched animal hides over window openings instead of glass if we stopped advancing technology. Imagine if we decided to stick with compact fluorescent bulbs instead of moving forward to the LED?

But what is wrong with four cans and a fan? Nothing is wrong with the fan, but the four cans are constrained to the geometry of the ceiling and have little to do with what goes on below. The light directly under the cans most often lights the carpet better than anything else in the room. In a bedroom, a person choosing socks will most likely have to turn away from the dresser, hold them up to the light, or approach a window to tell if they are blue or black. Why? Because we spilled light on the carpet instead of where it was needed.

magic mirrors

Next, if you are like me, you shuffle into the bath and begin your daily grooming routine. Flip on the light in most baths and you will find a purpose-built bathroom light fixture placed directly above the mirror. Like the carpet in your bedroom, this approach also puts the best light in the wrong place when it fully illuminates the sink but leaves shadows on your face.

This makes it a magic mirror: we look older and more tired with light that comes from above. Unfortunately, this is the kind of magic we don’t need, and the shadows under our eyes and darkness under our chin make grooming more difficult. Even worse is a recessed downlight directly over the sink: your faucet will shine but your face will not.

Head into the closet to grab clothes for the day. Where are your closet lights? Centered down the middle? Why? What is so important on the floor?


Your day is off to a bad start, and it does not get much better in the kitchen. The intern that drafted the circles on your plan neatly arranged a row of recessed downlights between the kitchen counter and the kitchen island. A builder once told me “that way they will light both the counter and the island.” He was correct, except for when someone is using the kitchen. Then the downlights are perfectly placed behind the human, who then casts a shadow on the work surface. The builder should have said “that way they will cast unwanted shadows on both the counter and the island.”

geometry vs. humanity

Room by room, our houses are lit with carefully aligned fixtures. It is as if we set aside everything we know from inviting and relaxing hospitality spaces like hotels and restaurants, where layers of light welcome us. Instead, we take our residential lighting cues from gas station canopies and big box discount stores, where neat and tidy grids of light are cheap and bright.

That’s lighting layout, and by now you are hopefully thinking “there must be a better way.” There is. We call that design.

human perception

I was not that great at math when I was in school and am grateful that my computer and phone will do most of it for me now. But I loved geometry; something about bisecting circles and drawing out angles appealed to me. Geometry is a critical tool in lighting design — I have nothing inherently against centerlines — but the geometry of the human eye cannot be neglected in favor of ceiling geometry. Does the individual who laid out your lighting know the difference between near field and far field vision? Do they know the angle at which overhead light becomes discomfort glare? Do they know the radial degrees of our foveal vision? Can they even define the term?

There are only two light meters that truly matter in lighting design: your eyes. As lighting pioneer Peter Ngai said: “Everyone has a psychological appetite for brightness. When you enter a room, it will either be satisfied or unsatisfied.” It is the geometry of the eye and the interpretation of your brain that make that decision.

technology revolution

Another hallmark of lighting layouts is the fixture symbol key. Take a look and you will likely find circles that equal “recessed downlight” or perhaps “4” recessed downlights.” That is often the sum total of detail given for a particular fixture, as if a circle and a description will help you or your electrician choose the right fixture out of the thousands of options. What are you most likely to get? Whatever was done on the last job.

This reality sadly ignores another modern reality of the lighting profession: we are in the midst of a technology revolution. I mentioned compact fluorescent bulbs earlier; who could have predicted their lifespan as a design solution would be so short? Manufacturers invested millions — even billions — in the technology, and now it is completely gone. You can still purchase recessed downlights designed in the 1970s, as if technology has not advanced at all. Yet it has, and simply going to a smaller fixture is not enough to keep up with the times. 1970s technology, like lighting layout, will light our homes. 2020 technology, like lighting design, will help us live better lives.

So what can you do about it? You can only get a Lighting Design from a Lighting Designer. Lighting design does its best when it is focused on the client, the people who will occupy the home and their geometry. Then you will see that everything is different. Imagine your new story with lighting design.

a better life

You wake gently to the morning as your shades automatically rise up and the cove lighting above softly mirrors the sky. Smooth light from four sides of the mirror helps you look your best. Light around the perimeter of your closet and seamlessly recessed into the shelves puts light where you need it and keeps glare out of your eyes. Light on the kitchen counters is bright for preparing breakfast while the rest of the kitchen is a little darker to reduce strain on your eyes. You don’t notice that the recessed downlights on your ceiling do not form a perfect grid, because instead of bending your neck to look up you are focused on the photographs you took of your hike in the mountains. You see what you want to see, you see what you need to see. And you feel good.

The most common of misperceptions is that lighting layout is the same as lighting design. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

David K. Warfel