Spot on

Spot on

Features - Design/Build

Going from bulk lighting installer to custom designer means working hand and hand with customers.

February 28, 2012
Bernie Granier
Industry News

As a bulk lighting installer, estimates are easy. You provide a fixture count and leave that estimate on the door for the homeowner, no meeting required.

No custom designs necessary. For some, that’s perfectly adequate and all that’s needed. But, what about that special homeowner that wants more than just a standard bulk-lighting install but does not know that a custom designed alternative is even an option? Are you prepared to provide an in-depth design or even the option to do so? If the answer is no, than you may be missing out on valuable opportunities to expand your client base as well as your expertise.

Here are important steps to take when creating custom lighting designs for clients.

Learn the client’s vision. As you advance to the project’s design phase, it’s important to take into account not only the architecture and landscaping on the property but also the client’s goals and desires. Often times, the client will already have a vision in mind, and as a responsible designer, you should take the time to learn what that is in order to provide the best possible design that will make that vision a reality.

Of course, this does not mean that we always give the customer exactly what they describe. More often than not, a client will not be fully educated on the many lighting options and techniques available, thereby unknowingly limiting themselves on what can be achieved. The main goal is to listen to what the client desires; not how they suggest you achieve it.

Lighting designers can help clients discover hidden potential in their landscape by defining spaces the client couldn’t previously envision.

While we will politely listen to their take on how we should achieve their goals, we will also take the time to then educate them on the preferred method of application to obtain the desired lighting effects. After all, we aren’t going to create a runway of path lights down a sidewalk or driveway when moonlighting from the available trees will provide the needed lighting but with a superior effect. As the professional designer, it is your job to expose them to the difference and effectively communicate why your way is the right way.

Get it right – the first time. In order to accomplish this goal, you should make it a point to meet with all the involved decision makers during your initial site visit.

Take the time and ask the required questions so you can establish the goal. Is their primary concern safety, or to beautify their environment? Do they want to draw attention to an area or create privacy?

For example, the swimming pool pictured above was designed and landscaped in a way that was intended to create privacy, without making it feel closed off or overwhelmed. As such, it was important to carry this plan through in the lighting design. In order to accomplish this, we made it a point to light all of the bordering plant material in such a way as to fashion a wall of light that would stop the eye of those looking in from outside, while at the same time creating a lot of depth and drama when viewed from the poolside and lounging area, without being glaring or harsh.

To accomplish this, it’s imperative that you physically walk the property with your client and ask questions about how they use their property to be sure that you are designing from their viewing perspective. For example, if they’re going to be inside most evenings in a specific part of the home, you’ll want to view the landscape as it’s seen from inside this area as well. This allows you to create complimentary lighting in the landscaping as it will be viewed from the interior of the home, with the viewing window acting as a frame.

Time is valuable, so be sure you are focusing your efforts on the correct areas. While it may take some extra time, find out what parts of the landscape the clients most enjoy and, maybe even more importantly, what they don’t. The last thing you want to do is spend a great deal of time getting the lighting “just right” on a piece of statuary or some specimen planting, only to discover after the fact that it’s something that the client hates but has not yet had an opportunity to remove.

Discover hidden potential.Often times, a client will only focus their attention on the obvious areas. Take this opportunity to help your customer discover and define spaces that they may not have used much in the past, simply because they could not envision how it could be enjoyed.

The picture to the left is one of our clients’ properties and is a perfect case in point. By day it was a charming area, although lackluster in its usability, because at night it became a black hole isolated from all other activity.

However, we saw something very different, something that was just begging for attention.

We made the wall fountain the focal point by highlighting its stonework and water basin while washing the vines in the planters on either side, sending shadows along the walls and draping the area in soft, romantic lighting. Because of this change, the client now sees this area as a relaxing, inviting grotto with a bistro table and drinks for two, not a forgotten corner.

Match the personality. Now that the technical questions and obvious tangibles have been hashed and rehashed, there’s one final element that many designers fail to consider: The client’s personality type. Above all other criteria, this should play the front and center role in your design.

This approach is not some New Age gobbledygook, but rather sound common sense. Submitting a design that is going to boldly light the property of a client whose demeanor is one of understated elegance is not likely to be successful. You must incorporate this element into the application that will properly and artistically address the lighting desired.

Set yourself apart. This is not always an easy task, but as a professional custom lighting designer, and not a bulk lighting installer, it is one that is seen as a much welcomed challenge. After all, what designer does not live for the challenge that will be marked at completion with “ooos” and “ahhhs,” the real validation of a success?

So, when you receive a call from a homeowner who wants something out of the ordinary, but asks you to leave a fixture count estimate, find excitement in knowing that it’s an invitation to begin the process of illuminating the distinction between a bulk lighting install from custom designed lighting. 


The author is a lighting designer a StarShine of Texas in Houston. In 2011, he won four awards of merit from the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals, including Best of Show, for the project pictured here.