The Dr Don Slater + Mona Sloane Interview


It’s something we’ve all been waiting for – although perhaps we didn’t even know it. As lighting designers, a sound understanding of the lives of people we are lighting for is a critical part of a well-considered design – but how much do we truly know what people think and feel about light?

‘Configuring Light / Staging the Social’ is a multidisciplinary research program of social science interventions into the configuration of light, led by Don Slater, Mona Sloane (both of London School of Economics) and Joanne Entwistle (Kings College).

The research agenda describes light as “both critical material and infrastructure for social life that is registered across a wide range of contemporary concerns including environmental issues, health and well-being, technological innovation, creative industries, urban planning, aesthetics and heritage”. In simplistic terms it poses the question to a wide group of stakeholders that since light is incredibly important to us, and touches and shapes everything we do, shouldn’t we be thinking and talking about it more? 

Sarah Adams, illumni’s European Editor, talks to Don and Mona about the ideas behind it, the aims of the program, and it’s deliverables

Berlin - Copyright Dante Busquets
Berlin. Photography by Dante Busquets

Sarah: If you’ll forgive me, from a lighting person’s perspective this project seems to be such an obvious, and important, idea that I’m really surprised it hasn’t been done before…

Don: That’s also true from a social science side. I tell people what we are doing and some people go “What?” and then “Oh….I wish I’d had that idea….” The idea germinated when we were in Copenhagen in 2009 and there was a design exhibition on light there, and we were walking around thinking this is what we have to do.

Sarah: You lead your website with the statement, “Light has been largely invisible in the social sciences” Why do you think this has been the case?

Don: Some answers lie in social sciences, some are to do with the way things like architecture and city planning work, and some that have to do with the nature of light as infrastructure.  The whole point of infrastructure is that it is taken for granted, until it changes or doesn’t work, and then it becomes visible. Light is even more that way because it’s a constituent feature of any engagement between people, any experience of the world. We’ve certainly found in research we have done so far one of the biggest challenges is to get people to articulate anything to do with light. If you actually want people to say what they think about light or to recollect their experiences, they find it fearsomely difficult.

Mona: There is actually no language for light, and interestingly enough that feeds back into the intellectual landscape. If you think about science it basically focuses on perception through light, not of light as a thing in itself.

Don: The title ‘configuring light’ comes from our thinking about light as a material. I think we have actually been thinking not about why has it been invisible but why it has become visible now.

Sarah: That was my next question – why has it come to your attention now as social scientists?

Don: There’s a growing awareness across the board, I mean it’s no coincidence that there is an UNESCO International Year of Light coming up. Coming from the physics side, performance side, design side…you get this feeling that there is an agenda coming together.


New York City. Photography by Lukas Krohn-Grimberghe

Sarah: The speed in development of technology is helping– lighting technologies were typically slow moving until digital developments, and people did not really have cause to have to consider them the way they might now….

Don: That opens a conversation and brings light into view. If you think about it, when we are having big cities like Los Angeles and New York changing to LED – how does that affect our sense of cityscapes? The heritage, the history of a place is all affected by the choice of lighting.

Sao Paulo - Copyright Dante Busquets

Sao Paulo. Photography by Dante Busquets

Sarah: Unfortunately it seems that there are many instances where a change of technology is based on single driving criteria like energy saving. In an urban context atmosphere, colour, appearance, legibility and many other things that affect the way people perceive and use a city are often not being properly considered.

Mona: Yes, though it could also turn around and work the other way. I was having a conversation recently with a manufacturer who said, “The technologies for exterior and interior have begun to merge through LED. Urban lighting used to be a very separate thing – the infrastructure and technology for interior lighting was very different, but now these lines are more blurred” – so actually there are potentially more opportunities to work with than before.

Medellin - Copyright D Slater

Medelin. Photography D. Slater

Sarah: This is where I find your project so interesting – because it seems that many people involved in making decisions about lighting are not fully exploring possibilities available, and also not even trying fully to understand the implications or consequences of their decisions in a wider context. Lighting Designers do try to consider these things, but they may not have the breadth of knowledge or expertise to be asking the right questions in some areas……

Don:  Input from lighting designers is becoming more valued and listened to, and therefore more central to things like urban design. Technological change only experts understand helps enable that. But that also brings questions such as “What kind of expertise do they have?” And “What sort of knowledges of the social?” Consequences, impacts, measurements are all very sensitive terms. Quite often the expectation of social research is to measure “what is the effect of this?” We are more holistic than that – it is a way of looking at the world, which has been lit, and exploring what role lighting plays in it.

Mona: I think one of the consequences we are looking for is simply that debate is triggered between the different parties involved in the configuration of light and that we gain a better understanding of the contexts of their assumptions of the social space they intervene in.

Sarah: So is it fair to say that the program is as much about generating dialogue between stakeholders as actual content? Can you help me to better understand your deliverables from the research?

Don:  It’s definitely a program not a project. We are building up a portfolio of projects that look at light as a material in the context of the social. The program is an umbrella that offers a space for different kinds of collaborations – both academic and also for practitioners – like the work we have done and continue to be doing with Speirs + Major. In terms of deliverables I think it’s probably equally diverse. Our strongest focus at the moment is in exploring the relationship between social research and design work. We are creating a manual for designers that will assist them to use social research in their design process.

London - Copyright Catarina Heeckt

London. Photography by Catarina Heeckt

Sarah: A methodology?

Mona: It’s about getting designers to open up their minds and be reflexive about their own knowledges and assumptions. It’s both a way of thinking and a toolkit.

Don: It’s not just a bunch of methods. We want lighting professionals going into a particular brief to question what they think they know, and what social assumptions they make. Most designers already do this, but the manual will help to make it more rigorous and legitimate – so that other people will be more inclined to listen to them. It’s about exploring the kind of questions that make your assumptions more challengeable with the result that you can do more interesting work.

The crucial 3 questions become

  • What do you know as a designer?
  • What can you know better? Can you plan a piece of research so you can actually really get to know as much as possible about the space you are designing?
  • How do you integrate social knowledge into the design process? Who should be talking to whom?

Often when people think ‘social science’ they are actually thinking economics – where they want numbers, e.g. footfall, or they are thinking of psychology – in terms of ‘how does doing this affect peoples thinking?’ Actually thinking about the social is thinking about life practices. In the context of the urban, we are asking questions about how different people use the city, how they make sense of the city, how a change in the visual appearance of that street might alter the way in which they go about using it.  Lighting has a massively disproportionate influence on how they use the city. But you can only get at that by actually going and talking to people in a systematic way.

Sarah: I believe many lighting designers do approach their work in a people centered way …but I suppose they may be thinking only in restricted ways based on their own assumptions.

Don: One of the joys of working with lighting people we have found so far is that they have a fine-grained sense of people’s everyday practices and how very small changes can make a major impact on a space.  It’s not necessarily rigorous or developed because there’s not really been anyone trying to develop it and then too often it’s not listened to. Our background for Configuring Light is largely ethnographic, so it’s about the absolute detail of how people put their lives together.  With architecture and urban planning it can be very easy to see a space as an abstract rather than a place that’s actually come into being because of people moving through it. With lighting it is much harder to ignore that.

Sarah: Although it has to be said that lighting can be approached in that way, especially if it is applied as a kind of cosmetic or basic functional layer, late in the process…

Don: One symptomatic area of tension we have found is over the word ‘aesthetics’. Aesthetics can mean a sense of just beautifying something which exists as a finished form, or it can mean the ‘feel’ of a space, the atmosphere, the ‘practice’ in terms of what users make of the space and also how it comes about and how the space is curated.

A sense of aesthetics is something that most designers have – the whole sensory experience. It’s about disconnecting the idea of aesthetics from beauty. It’s not about being a static viewer, about it ‘looking pretty’.

Derby - Copyright D Slater

Derby. Photography by D. Slater

Sarah: So was it your thinking on how social research might be integrated into the actual practice of lighting design that led you to form a working research partnership with Speirs + Major?

Don: Yes, in Derby, working with senior designer Satu Streatfield. The complexity of what makes up the thinking behind the lighting of a small city is phenomenal. We were looking into the financial arrangements, the existing lighting, the regulatory structures, tourism, and digital regeneration, how building schemes fit together – all so we could get the wider context. And at the same time we were interviewing different kinds of stakeholders –ones that the council and also Speirs + Major were already interested in but also ones that they hadn’t thought of.

There was a decisive moment in the project when Speirs + Major set up a lighting demo in one of the squares. It was crucial from the most fundamental social point of view because if you ask most people what they think about light, what they say is “I want more light because that will make me feel safer.”  Derby is actually lit to motorway standards, but this has a knock on feeling of lack of safety as all the surrounding streets descend into cavernous darkness. So when they showed how levels could be lowered and features highlighted, people were saying that they really liked it and they actually felt safer. It’s a mutually educational process.   It is quite trendy now in social science to think about method as experiment, play, and creativity. Lighting is perfect for this, since people find it hard to talk about. There are times that I would really like to just chuck out all our methods and just do that demo again – just allowing people to play, and not in a controlled way, but an open way. I’d love to develop that.

Whitecross Estate - Copyright Catarina Heeckt

Whitecross Estate. Photography by Catarina Heeckt

Sarah: So how are you going to share the outcomes of your research in practical terms?

Mona: We just got HEIF5 Knowledge Exchange and Impact funding from the LSE to do a big project which has a lighting workshop at its core. We are working on Peabody’s Whitecross Estate in Islington, and partnering with the Social Light Movement to create a five day workshop in October where we are actually going to pilot our research in design manual. Participants will get to play with light, as well as work through training in social research design, and then they will research and design lighting interventions for the estate that they will present to the Peabody, the Whitecross community and other stakeholders. We have designed this event to scale it up and take it to different places and people.

For this project, we are also developing website where we are keeping the public and the Whitecross community up to date and where they can get involved.

To kick it off we are hosting a preliminary night walk in September – so that we can get to know the space and the community can get to know us.

The workshop will form the basis for a documentary where we follow three sets of key characters – including a lighting designer. This will look at the before and after, and how participating in the project changed what their design work. This, together with photographs and workshop outputs, will form the basis for an exhibition, which we will host in January as one of the first UNESCO International Year of Light events in the UK. Our technical sponsor for the workshop, iGuzzini, have asked us to bring that to Rome in 2015, and we are also considering bringing it to Sydney, since we are also going to be there for the illumni Future of Light Summit.

Don: From there hopefully a book will follow and we would also like to build up a kind of online database of best practice to raise awareness of what it means to think social about light.

Sarah:  Are there other strands of research also going on?

DS: Yes. Other activities include our ESRC seminar series – we’ve already had the first seminar, which was fantastic, which offer a platform for sharing and discussing.

Mona: Jo [Joanne Entwhistle] is launching her own research project called “Staging the Home” which investigates lighting in the domestic realm. She’s going to work with lighting buyers in department stores. She is looking at big retailers and how they interpret new lighting technologies and stage lighting in the home of the future, asking them questions about their understanding of how consumers think about changes in lighting technologies.

Sarah: There’s a lot of confusion with consumers about the developing technologies in lighting…

Don: Yes. Talking to lighting manufacturers I hear things like “We KNOW it’s all about smart homes.” But how do we know? Why do people want a connected home? What do they want to do with it?  Actually no one knows.

In fact they are jumping on a bandwagon that they just think they have to be on.

They have looked at user experience type research or psychological research where the researchers has asked “What is the effect of doing x?”, whereas we would ask questions like “What are home practices?” and “How do people rethink their practices in relation to new technological possibilities?’ We would look at how the mediators of this -lighting buyers- make sense of and respond to this.

Finally there is my baby – Lighting in the Global South. This extends what I’ve been doing up to now which is working with technology development – Internet and mobile phones, but now it’s about light. We have got a number of possible partners in Colombia, Nigeria, and Vietnam. All of these places have light master planning going on – but at the same time there’s a lot of movement in terms of projects and businesses cropping up to provide off-grid lighting. You can actually see tensions developing and you can tell those stories through light. These light-based interventions offer an all encompassing sense of the social in that there’s the actual light; there’s the understanding of how that might fit into peoples domestic lives, work practices and so on – but its very clearly a social enterprise model as well. It’s about training people up into selling and capacity building, so it’s about learning.

Mona: You can make a lot of different debates more tangible through light. Development, planning debates, even domestic abuse…. all become more tangible when you look at them through light.

Don: Light is hugely important in its own right but it’s also hugely important because it links into everything else, so as a nosy sociologist it allows me to poke my nose wherever I want to go, and to tell all kinds of larger stories through the lighting story.

Sarah: It really does touch everything. The connections you can make through light are so diverse.

Don: We call it a “life the universe and everything project” A lot of our work of the last year has been on following the ideas, networks, people, and mapping it out. And now we are forming our work into clear shapes.

The Configuring Light team are looking for participants from lighting design, urban planning, and architecture for their 5-day workshop Urban Lightscapes Social Nightscapes from 13-17 October.  For more details and how to apply:

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