Lighting design: Expert guide to getting your lighting right

A lighting scheme in an open-plan living room and stairway with exposed brick walls
(Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

A mistake made by far too many is to leave lighting design as an afterthought — failing to plan for it or to leave any money in the budget to do it well. 

While it might be relatively easy to complement an existing lighting scheme with freestanding lamps, your hardwired lighting design ideas will have a massive impact on how you use a room and on how it feels.

Get it right, and when the night falls you’ll have a home that’s comfortable to be in and functional to use, but get it wrong and the whole atmosphere of the space will be off. 

When we talk about lighting design, we don’t just mean choosing the right fixtures and fittings, but ensuring there is enough lighting of various types, highlighting and interacting with your space in the right way. Lighting may even affect your health, so the stakes are high in creating an excellent lighting scheme for your home. 

In this guide, we break down the basics of lighting design, explore wellness in lighting and how to utilise smart lighting effectively, as well as examining whether hiring a professional light designer is worth your time. 

Creating a lighting design: Where do you start?

Good lighting design ideas are about much more than just ceiling lighting. There are, in fact, three main lighting types used in lighting design — it is important to understand and familiarise yourself with the various terms used for each. 

In the majority of rooms, it really is best to consider using a combination of all three types in order to create a ‘layered’ lighting scheme. 

  • Ambient lighting: Also called general or background lighting, this is the lighting that gives overall illumination to a room, such as ceiling lighting ideas. Sources include large pendants, recessed downlights, and even wall lights in some cases.
  • Task lighting: This provides extra, targeted illumination to those areas where everyday activities take place, such as reading, cooking and working. Floor, table and desk lamps are all good sources of task lighting, as are those incorporated into cooker hoods and vanity mirrors; however, ceiling downlighters may be considered task lighting too as they are functional, rather than ambient.
  • Accent or mood lighting: This is used to highlight objects or architectural features you wish to draw attention to, such as artwork, cabinets or sculptures. Directional spots on tracks, low-level chandeliers and recessed and hidden LED strips are all good examples

In order for your lighting to be easy to adapt to the time of day and the mood you are trying to create, it is useful to fit dimmers and ask your electrician to install your lights on separate switches so that each ‘type’ can be independently operated.

How much light does a room need?

Although it might seem complicated to work out how much light a room needs, there is actually a simple calculation that can be used. Work out the size of the space in square metres and allow roughly 25 watts per meter (250 lumens). 

Bear in mind that for the scheme to be a success, this light shouldn’t come from a single source, but rather from a combination and balance of different lights.

The more light sources you have (that are controlled separately via individual switches or smart lighting systems), the more your room can adapt to a variety of needs and create different moods. However, too many and you’ll find your lighting scheme is too complicated, with some lights becoming redundant. 

Experts agree that, as a rule of thumb, you should ideally aim to use a minimum of four light sources per room, with a mix of the different types of lighting described above. 

blue bedroom with low pendant lights and en suite bathroom with wall lights

Bedrooms will benefit from layers of light that allow the space to feel both restful as well as providing good task lighting when getting ready in the morning. Here, Hadana Glass pendant lights in natural brass, from där lighting, have been used as bedside lighting. (Image credit: dar lighting group)

How do I design a lighting plan for my house?

Many people design their own lighting plans. However, it is crucial that you begin by assessing the uses, size and natural light levels in each room. If, having done this, you don't feel confident in tackling this task, an interior designer, an electrician or a specialist lighting company can come up with one for you.

A good, thoroughly-considered lighting plan allows you to begin to shop around for the types of fitting you need early on as well as being an important reference for your electrician, who will need to know the location and type of fittings and switches. 

You should begin planning and making provision for your lighting scheme at the same time as you are planning the plumbing.

A successful lighting scheme takes into account each possible use of every room — your kitchen lighting ideas, for example, will be meeting a very different set of criteria than those for a bedroom. 

Begin methodically, ‘walking through’ your plans, or house in the case of some renovations, and in each room, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What will this space be used for? Consider all possible uses of each room. Will the kitchen double up as a dining or homework space? Will a spare room also be a study?
  • Will there be pieces of furniture that you want to highlight? Maybe architectural features such as fireplaces or artwork that you want to draw attention to in any of these rooms? This will determine your accent lighting.
  • Who will be using this room? It is interesting to note that someone of 60+ years generally needs 15 times more light than a 10-year-old.
  • At what time of day will the room be used the most? For example, if you only use rooms in the evening for relaxing, then setting lights on a dimmers is a good idea.
  • Where does natural light enter the room and from what direction? Don't forget that lighting isn't only required at night time, as at various times of the year when light levels are low, you'll require artificial light to supplement throughout the day. 

Once you have the answers to these questions, draw a plan of the room to help you determine the best points for lights to be situated.

On your plan you should mark down permanent fixtures, such as windows and doors, alcoves, fireplaces and other heat sources like radiators. Next, mark the direction in which occupants of the rooms are likely to spend most time facing, for example the television, a desk or the cooker. 

Mark where light switches will be most conveniently placed, concentrating around doorways and at the top and bottom of stairs. Finally, have a think about where you plan to site major items of furniture, such as beds and sofas.

Use your findings from your ‘walk around’ to mark where you would like each light source, be that a pendant, side lamp or downlighter, to be located.

contemporary white kitchen with large island and low pendant lighting

Your kitchen lighting scheme needs to take into account how the space will be used — kitchen islands, for example, tend to look great lit by low-slung pendants, while under-cabinet lighting adds interest to the space and can provide task lighting above a hob. Marcus Pendant Lighting from DelightFULL has been used over this island.  (Image credit: DelightFULL)

Do I need a lighting designer? 

Many people find the services of a qualified lighting designer invaluable, although this is also a job many interior designers are happy to take on too.  

If you're renovating a relatively standard house, it's likely that you'll be able to create an effective lighting scheme without the help of a design professional, especially in a moderately sized room. 

However, when creating a large new extension, professional help may be worthwhile to perfect your lighting scheme, while in a self build, it can be essential. 

As a percentage of your overall budget, this service may be more affordable than you'd imagine. A lighting designer may cost between £500 and £5,000 depending on the size of your project and can bring all kinds of ideas you may not have considered, such as staircase lighting ideas and smart lighting. 

There are many benefits that will come with hiring a lighting designer, including:

  • Experience in creating both simple and complex lighting schemes
  • Expert product knowledge 
  • Consideration of light colour, brightness, angle, shape and shadow

The best time to hire a lighting designer may depend on the project. In a renovation, a lighting designer should be brought on board before rewiring, to ensure that lights are situated in the right place at this point. 

In a self build, you may want to bring a light designer on board earlier, as part of the design brief. In many cases, your architect may be able to recommend one they have worked with before. 

living room with open fire and mood lighting

Bringing on board a specialist lighting designer such as John Cullen Lighting will ensure your home is given a more thoughtful and nuanced lighting scheme.  (Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

What does 'light colour' mean?

Artificial lighting temperatures range from warm ‘soft whites’ (2700-3000K) to ‘bright or cool whites’ (3500-4100K) and finally ‘daylight’ (5000-6500K). Each temperature range creates a different effect and can impact our mood. (Studies suggest that emotions are experienced more intensely under bright, harsh lighting, which can have a negative impact on our moods.)

When it comes to cool light vs warm light, bear in mind that soft whites create a warm, cosy feeling. These work well in bedrooms and living rooms as they are calming and can help to us to relax, which is key to our mental wellbeing.

Bright and cool whites work best in bathrooms and kitchens. They create a more energetic feeling and help to give better contrast between colours.

What are lighting IP ratings?

When it comes to bathroom lighting ideas, you need to familiarise yourself with IP Ratings. 

In the world of electrical safety, bathrooms are divided into 'zones'. Each zone is based on how close it is to the water sources in the room and each of these zones, any lights you fit will need to have a certain IP Rating to ensure they are safe to use there.

Light fittings will be labelled with the IP rating so you know which bathroom zones they can be used in.  

large bathroom with dividing wall and twin basins with mood lighting

Care needs to be taken when installing bathroom lights as you need to ensure their IP Rating is suitable for the bathroom zone they are being fitted in. This stunning bathroom features layered bathroom lighting using Lucca uplights, Oslo floor washers and Polespring downlights from John Cullen Lighting (Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

How many lighting circuits should I have?

While it is always a good idea to speak to a qualified electrician about installing your light fittings, it does help when coming up with a plan to have at least a basic understanding of how lighting circuits work.

Lighting circuits are radial. This simply means that they are linear power circuits where the cable leaves the consumer unit and runs to each outlet (or fitting) on the line before terminating at the last.

Most houses will have at least two separate circuits, one for upstairs and one for downstairs, but it is a good idea to have more than this in reality. At the very least you need to ask your electrician to install your lights so that you can operate each type or ‘level’ of lighting separately.

How should I light a low ceiling?

A stumbling block for many people comes when working out the best way of lighting low ceilings

According to Sian Parsons, Senior Lighting Designer at John Cullen Lighting: “Low ceilings can make a space feel smaller and darker, so using lighting to help increase the feeling of height is essential. 

“Uplighting to wash light off the ceiling and back down into the space is very effective. It can be difficult to position wall lights in low rooms, so do consider using floor recessed or plug-in uplights or open shaded lamps to help.

“Keep lamp shades light in colour to maximise the light output and ensure that your surfaces give maximum reflection (matt white walls are simply the best!) to help boost the overall reflectance of the light sources that you use.”

country living room with low beamed ceilings

In rooms with low ceilings, it is best to use lamps and wall lights in place of pendants, which can make the ceiling seem even lower. (Image credit: OKA UK)

What building regulations apply to lighting design?

Installing low-energy light sources in a new build home is now a requirement of the building regulations which state that 75 per cent of the lights in a new home must be ‘energy efficient’. 

This means that light fittings must produce a total of at least 400 lumens, have a minimum efficacy of 45 lumens per watt and be over 5 circuit watts. Fittings under 5 watts are excluded from the overall count, so too is any exterior lighting. 

Fluorescent and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), LEDs or discharge lamps would conform to this, whilst fitting low-energy bulbs with bayonet or screw-cap bases do not.

What smart home lighting options are available?

If you are wondering how to design a smart home, bear in mind that smart homes need smart lighting — and it need not be a complicated or expensive extra. 

“For feature lighting, zonal lighting and rooms with many downlights, the best way to manage it would be through a home automation system, with connected switches and sockets, controlled by a mobile app or with a smart speaker, such as Alexa or Google Assistant,” explains John Sheerer, founder of Lightwave.

“Systems vary in price and ease of installation. Look for one that allows control of all lighting sources, including outdoor, and is retrofittable using existing wiring. Modular systems offer the flexibility of being able to start with one room and then expand to other areas of the home later.”

Alongside installed smart meter systems, modern internet-enabled systems offer the ability to control lights by app or smart assistant. These can be as simple as Wifi-enabled lightbulbs that don't require pre-wiring into the home, and can be added into an existing lighting scheme. 

smart tech lighting system

Installing a smart lighting system need not be complicated — Lightwave supply a range of options. (Image credit: Lightwave)

How can lighting affect my wellbeing?

”There are happiness and wellbeing benefits to be gained from good use of artificial lighting," states author Ben Channon in his book, Happy by Design (RIBA Publishing). "Danish lighting designer Poul Henningsen devoted much of his career to designing glare-free and uniform illumination, which has been shown to reduce headaches and improve productivity."

Your circadian rhythm is basically your 24 body clock, something dictated by the way your body interacts with light, releasing hormones that either induce sleep or wake you up in the morning. Natural daylight is, of course, the basis of your circadian rhythm, while artificial light from your home's lighting and technology can be disruptive of this. 

A lighting design scheme that mimics natural cycles of light is known as a biodynamic (or human centric) lighting scheme. These smart lighting systems use gradually changing colour light to wind down or invigorate as required, in a cyclical process. 

bathroom lighting

Turn your bathroom into a relaxing retreat with clever mood lighting, as seen in this bathroom from Duravit.  (Image credit: Duravit)
Natasha Brinsmead

Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Editor and has been a member of the team for over two decades. An experienced journalist and renovation expert, she has written for a number of homes titles. She has renovated a terrace and is at the end of the DIY renovation and extension of her Edwardian cottage. She is now looking for her next project.