There is a light festival taking place in Copenhagen right now. That’s a valuable reminder of lighting, among the most uncertain aspects of design.
Last night as I wandered around the vicinity of Christiansborg Castle, a bright green laser beam divided the sky. The beam stopped on the spire of St Nikolai’s church, a shimmering emerald hue, and it made me imagine Dr Evil demonstrating the power of his laser to destroy ancient buildings unless the Danes paid out one…million…kronor. I mention this because I very much want to make a link via art to the perhaps neglected business of car tail lights. The light festival makes us a little more alert to light and makes me understand that tail-light design deserves some attention. The light festival uses art to demonstrate the effects of different types of light.
Light´s tricky to deal with. Direct light is, after all, an immediate phenomenon in that it is not amenable to accurate representation in other forms: a photo of light is an object that reflects light; a drawing is not even remotely close to the real thing and at best only maps out where light may be seen in an area. A film image of light depends on having made the light in the first place and even then seeing an image of a light shown on a screen loses the context; it obscures the actual nature of the original light by replacing it with cathode ray light or liquid crystal light or some form of plasma medium.
Because of these problems, working with light seems like a one-hit affair. Like some other important aspects of design, lamps are tricky to get right, especially when the technology changes. And it’s changing now.
Recently, I saw the indicator lights of an Audi A6 in action. The concept is that the light comes on and flows in the direction indicated rather than merely blinking off and on. One might think this is even more effective than an orange light blinking on and off. The idea must have started with words, then a diagram which moved to a prototype which was then converted to producible concept, the thing we see. And now it´s in effect it´s unsuccesful. How did that happen?
The geometry of the lamp is unremarkable; the effect is distracting as – for me – I was slightly distrurbed by the flow of the orange area from one side of the lamp housing to the other. In a sense, it is a verbose way to say “the car is moving this way” versus the economy of a light going on and off on one side of a car. Inherent in the location of the light is the information “the car is moving in the direction of this side”. The dynamic illumination is adding nothing new. The dynamic light is already located on the side of the car, that by convention, indicates the direction of planned movement.
You may think design semantics is an irrelevant bit of theory but a sensitivity to this might have alerted Audi to the over-kill of the left lamp blinky-flowing left. Furhther and more pertinent, perhaps some art sensibility may have left Audi to figure out a better way to use OLEDS.
In Dublin I saw what I recall was a Land Rover, where the indicator blinked on and off, an LED and not a halogen source. The LED has a very abrupt on/off quality because, I presume, the fade is very short and the resultant persistence of vision effect is abbreviated in comparison to traditional bulbs. This gave to the light an unexpectedly brittle, sudden, abrupt quality I found unpleasant. Jerkiness is another way to describe it.
Again, had LR (or was it Jaguar) spent some times with an in-house light artist they might have learned that such jerkiness is unpleasant. My contention is that an engineer was tasked with deploying the new technology and no artist was involved. At least it looks that way. And here I´d s suggest that if an artistic/aesthetic approach had been taken to the new technology then Audi and LR (or Jaguar) might have avoided the odd effects seen in their new lights.
I am really here yet again going on about the value of artistic sensitivities to industrial design. Quantitatively those lamps work, qualitatively they show a want of awareness of subjective factors.
It is probably an unavoidable side-effect of technological change that you win some and you lose some. And you only understand what you have when it’s gone or about to go. The aesthetic character of earlier light sources is that their attack and fade was sympathetic to the human eye’s own performance; the LED is faster and also more sudden.
My insights on surface transitions is that humans prefer smoothness; the same goes for acoustic transitions (musicians work against this from time to time).
Light is probably no different: a smooth transition is easy on the eye.