Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach, the recommended way to light a space is by utilizing different types of fixtures, each fulfilling a distinct function. Considering how an area is used, as well as its size and design style, will help determine what works best.
There are three basic types of lighting—ambient, task and accent. Layered throughout a room—especially multipurpose ones—they work together to achieve a rich and flexible lighting design.
Ambient lighting provides overall illumination and is meant to create a general and uniform lighting level. It’s the first layer of lighting and sets the tone of a space. That’s why it’s typically soft or diffuse, and often dimmable to accommodate day and nighttime settings.
Ambient lighting is especially important in hallways and stairs for optimal orientation and visibility. It also is useful in kitchens or home offices, where fixtures with wide light beams provide a consistent level of lighting.
There are several types of ambient lighting:
• Ceiling-mounted or recessed fixtures that direct light downwards
• Wall sconces and floor lamps, which wash the walls and/or ceiling with light
• Cove lighting, floor lamps and pendants that bounce light off ceilings and walls
Although it provides general illumination, ambient light is not ideal for task work or to showcase specific elements in a space, which are the role of the next two types of lighting.
This direct, intense illumination is ideal for detailed task work, such as reading and writing at a desk, grooming, and preparing food. It’s focused on the particular area where the task is performed and is brighter than ambient lighting. Effective task lighting is glare free and strong enough to prevent eyestrain.
Examples of task lighting include:
• Recessed and track lighting
• Under-cabinet lighting
• Floor, desk and table lamps
• Bathroom vanity lights
Task lighting is key in the kitchen, where under-cabinet lighting or pendants increase visibility on countertops and food preparation areas. Table and floor lamps provide useful task lighting in living areas and bedrooms, and can reinforce the room’s desired design style.
Sconces, vanity bars and pendants can be deployed in bathrooms to improve visibility, especially close to the mirrors.
Intended to highlight a specific object or area, accent lights are typically three times as bright as ambient lights. Accent lighting draws attention to a feature, such as artwork, furnishings or architectural details, converting them into focal points. Adjustable fittings are preferred for this type of lighting, as they allow precision focusing on small areas or objects.
Common accent lights include:
• Wall lights
• Recessed spot lighting
• Track lighting
• Wall-mounted picture lights
Accent lighting differs from the other types of lighting in that its primary objective is aesthetic, creating a point of interest for the viewer. It adds style and drama to a space, and is especially suited to living and garden areas, entrances, and anywhere the goal is to display special features. Recessed ceiling lights, track lights or wall-mounted luminaires are very effective in living or common areas as they can be angled and directed to create a highlight.