What does it mean to be qualified? Being educated? Having professional work experience or membership in a professional organization? Passing an exam that proves proficiency? Depending on your role in the lighting profession, your opinion may vary.

Ever since the Texas House Bill 2649 incident in May 2009 that threatened lighting designers' ability to practice in the state of Texas if they were not licensed, the issue of what constitutes a lighting designers' qualifications has been at the forefront of discussions within the industry. The International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), with input from the Professional Lighting Designers' Association (PLDA), has formed a task force to investigate the issues surrounding the establishment of a credentialing system and the process that would entail. Chaired by Australian lighting designer David Becker, the six-person task force is still in the early stages of evaluating the issues behind this heated topic.

But first, a word about licensing versus credentialing. A license to practice one's profession is generally governed by health and safety issues. The architectural profession is set up to place graduates on a course to take the registration exam and obtain licensure once they graduate and complete a period of internship. Licensure, as opposed to credentialing, is administered state by state. Credentialing is a “method for maintaining quality standards of knowledge and performance, and in some cases, for stimulating continued self-improvement. Credentialing confers occupational identity.”

Given that lighting functions as a consultancy to the architectural project, licensing would not be appropriate for lighting designers. It negates the structure of a lighting designer's practice—working on a large volume of projects simultaneously—and it would also prevent designers from working outside the state in which their firm resides. Credentialing, on the other hand, provides a way for lighting designers to distinguish their skills and qualifications without the legal aspects associated with licensing.

But this is not the first time the profession has grappled with this issue. The National Council on Qualifications for the Lighting Professions (NCQLP) exam was established in 1991 to create a testing format that would acknowledge an individual's baseline competency to practice lighting. The exam carries with it the title of Lighting Certified (LC), and although the exam was originally set up with the intent to provide lighting designers with a way to distinguish themselves, somewhere along the way everyone and anyone, particularly those in the employ of lighting manufacturers, began to take the exam. No one can really say why the LC exam veered from its original course, but over the past several years it has been a serious bone of contention between lighting designers and lighting manufacturers, especially when it comes to the issue of who should offer design services. On average, about 200 people a year take the NCQLP exam (at the end of 2009, nearly 2,000 people had successfully completed the exam), but lighting designers question the meaningfulness of the designation.

At the IALD Enlighten Americas Conference in Westminster, Colo., in early October, task force chair David Becker along with credentialing consultant Judith Hale presented a status report on the task force's activities to date. It was agreed that the industry is at a crossroads and there needs to be a clear definition of what and who a lighting designer is. It was suggested that credentialing would validate the profession and elevate it.

And that leads to the larger question surrounding this issue: If implemented, what does credentialing accomplish? Why do lighting designers feel it important to distinguish their services from the services of, say, a lighting manufacturer, or anyone else professing to offer lighting design services? What is different about how a lighting designer goes about his or her work? (Designing with an unbiased set of product offerings certainly has something to do with it.)

At its core, the issue of credentialing is not so much about the criteria involved for evaluation, but about the lighting profession defining its own sense of worth. It's time for the lighting design community to get over its inferiority complex. There is a body of work created over the past 50-plus years that speaks for itself, including the long-term partnerships between lighting designers and architects, where lighting designers have been respected for their design and technical skills.

Addressing the issue of qualifications by adding another label or exam—and the additional paperwork and expenses that come with that —isn't the way to go. Rather, if lighting designers, many of whom are members of the IALD, and whose professional organization is built around the mission of design, want to clarify their place, they would be better served to rejuvenate efforts to have the organization and it's acronym be recognized and valued— to be akin to what including “AIA” after one's name means to an architect. Aiding this effort would be the IALD's continued push to grow its membership, as greater numbers carry more weight when wanting to be heard.

As the lighting design community addresses the issue of credentialing, lighting designers shouldn't loose sight of what they have accomplished or how far the profession has come. The decisions made now probably will not impact those practitioners who are in the later stages of their careers, but it is of vital importance that these designers lend their experience, expertise, and institutional memory to figuring out a solution. However the design community decides to proceed with the issue of credentialing, it needs to stop being a stumbling block for future generations and the longevity of the lighting design profession.