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Shining a light on wellness: A dialogue with a lighting design innovator

Xingying Peng has harnessed her unique background in theatrical lighting to pioneer architectural lighting solutions

Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash
Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

Opinions expressed by Digital Journal contributors are their own.

Xingying Peng stands out in architectural lighting for her innovative designs and thought leadership on human-centric lighting. At The Lighting Practice, Peng has harnessed her unique background in theatrical lighting to pioneer architectural lighting solutions that prioritize human experience, sustainability, and technological integration. This conversation explores Peng’s journey, her design philosophy, and her vision for the future of lighting design, offering a glimpse into the mind of an award-winning designer who is setting the trends in lighting design.

Path to architectural lighting

Q: Your journey from theatrical lighting design to becoming a leading figure in architectural lighting at The Lighting Practice is unique and inspiring. Can you share how your theater background has influenced your approach to architectural lighting design, particularly in creating human-centric spaces?

Peng: Moving from theatrical to architectural lighting felt natural because light affects humans consciously and subconsciously. In both theatre and architecture, lighting is part of a story, and the lighting designer helps tell that story. I simply carried over the storytelling concept from theatre to architecture, where the story is the human experience of the space. For too long, architectural lighting has been purely functional, especially for healthcare facilities and offices. For all my projects, I design for the users and connect with them, improving their experience in the space.

This involves deeply understanding how people use and live in these spaces. Architectural lighting is about creating an atmosphere that supports function, comfort, and well-being. An adequate lighting design considers colour temperature, brightness, and glare, but an innovative lighting design goes further to consider how the users control and interact with the lighting. I strive to make spaces that draw people in and make them feel good. This focus on human experience links my work in theatre and architecture. Regardless of the setting, light can transform the human experience.

Human-centric design philosophy

Q: As you said, your work focuses on how lighting affects people, especially in physical and mental health. Could you talk about a design challenge that changed how you approached your own design and how you overcame the challenge?

Peng: I recently completed the lighting design for an inpatient healthcare project, where the building scale was so large that it’d be difficult for the staff and patients, who either work long hours or stay for up to weeks there, to feel at home. I believe that lighting could help enhance patient recovery, support staff efficiency, and, at the same time, create comfort for all users. I took an innovative approach and integrated all tunable white lighting systems throughout. It’s still new and rare for a project this scale to implement all-tunable white technology. By changing the colour temperature of the lighting throughout the day in different programming areas of the hospital, the lighting adapts to the patient’s circadian rhythm and the staff’s work cycles, reducing stress and enhancing sleep for all.

Tackling this challenge meant working closely with medical experts and the building users to understand what different areas in the building needed — from patient rooms to surgery areas. Guided by my own research on human-centric lighting, I incorporated specific user preferences on the qualities of light. The project highlighted the importance of flexibility in design. It demanded a blend of innovation and sensitivity to the needs of healthcare establishments, ensuring that the lighting was not just functional but also conducive to recovery and efficient work environments.

Sustainability in lighting design

Q: With sustainability being a critical focus in your designs, how do you balance the aesthetic and functional aspects of lighting with environmental considerations?

Peng: Sustainability in lighting design can be a complex challenge. Traditionally, sustainability in lighting is often reduced to limiting the wattage. My approach is to view sustainability as not a limitation but an integral part of the design process, which has helped a lot of projects win awards and sustainability accolades, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and WELL Building Standard. With most light sources being LED nowadays, meeting energy codes has become the bare minimum for sustainable design. To create innovative lighting designs, I always look for recycled material in lighting fixtures and consider the carbon emission in sourcing by going with local manufacturers as much as possible.

For the CRISPR Headquarters project in Boston, which won the 2023 LIT award in workplace lighting design, I intentionally sourced most lighting fixtures along the U.S. East Coast and Canada. Most lighting fixtures were made from recycled material, and the project was over 30% better than the already stringent energy code. Incorporating natural light was another key strategy. Maximizing the use of daylight reduces reliance on artificial lighting, lowers energy consumption, and improves the users’ well-being. I adopted automated control systems that adjust light levels based on occupancy and daylight availability to maintain consistent lighting quality throughout the day and across different building areas. This project exemplified how sustainability and design can go hand in hand. In fact, they complement each other beautifully. I ended up creating a visually appealing space that is also environmentally conscious.

Future of architectural lighting

Q: Architectural lighting is constantly evolving as technology evolves. As a front-runner in the industry, what trends do you see shaping the future in the next decade?

Peng: Architectural lighting is getting to a really exciting point where technology, caring for the environment, and health considerations all come together. One big trend is smart lighting systems that give us user-friendly and granular control over lighting. These systems allow local and global control based on schedule, occupancy, and specific user preferences. This adaptability allows us to create energy-efficient spaces that are responsive to people’s needs.

Another trend is the growing awareness of lighting’s impact on health, especially on circadian rhythm. Ongoing research in this area drives the development of lighting solutions that can enhance well-being and productivity, especially in workplaces and healthcare facilities. As we progress, we’ll see a greater emphasis on holistic lighting designs that consider light’s environmental, physiological, and psychological effects. This holistic approach, combined with technological advances and a commitment to sustainability, could define the future of architectural lighting, creating healthier, more sustainable spaces that are more in tune with what people need.

Advice for aspiring designers

Q: Reflecting on your career and achievements, what advice would you offer to aspiring lighting designers who wish to impact the industry, particularly in navigating the complexities of sustainability, technology, and human-centric design?

Peng: I would say to embrace our field’s multidisciplinary nature and broadness. Lighting design is a mixture of art, science, and technology, affecting everything from how a space looks to how it makes us feel.

Stay curious and be open to learning — from the latest technological trends to simply how different lighting affects how you feel in your own body. Engage deeply with each project and understand its unique needs and challenges. Don’t be afraid to experiment and push boundaries because innovation comes from exploring uncharted territories. Remember, lighting design aims to enhance human experiences, making them more livable, enjoyable, and sustainable. By focusing on these core principles, you can create meaningful and impactful lighting designs that really make a difference in our world.

Illuminating the path forward

Xingying Peng’s insights into architectural lighting design reveal a challenging and rewarding profession. Besides making a name for herself, Peng has demonstrated the profound impact that thoughtful, innovative lighting design can have on spaces and their users. Her commitment to sustainability, technological advancement, and human-centric design is a guiding light for the industry’s future. Moving forward, Peng’s vision for a better-illuminated world offers inspiration and direction for the next generation of designers.

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