Architects and lighting designers are no longer restricted to practicing their craft in the immediate vicinity of their local city or state. The dynamics of globalization have changed all that. Today, it is just as easy for a firm to be working on a project halfway around the world, as it is to be just a few blocks away. What are some of the issues facing architects, lighting designers, and manufacturers as they enter the realm of global practice? What are the cultural influences on the design process when working abroad?

Cultural Understanding and Communication

Brian Stacy, Senior Lighting Designer | Arup Lighting
Being able to get a Starbucks coffee when I get off a plane in Kuwait, and knowing that my drawings got there via FTP, is only a small part of global working. The moment that we neglect to try and understand the nuances of the widely different markets around the world, we set ourselves up for failure. It seems that established markets have their specific ways to understand, while developing markets may or may not follow established methods. Like with any business, figure out how everyone involved is trying to make his or her money, and you can see a clearer path through the overall process. And make sure you know the local customs for greetings.

Jeff Miller, Director | Pivotal Lighting Design
It's an illusion that it is "just as easy" to work far away as it is locally. Work goes beyond the production and transmittal of electronic documents. The creation of a lighting design depends on a real knowing of the client, along with a close integration of the design and construction team. We can process dots all day, but that does not lead to real understanding. While we can now share information quite readily anywhere, anytime, the digital revolution often is an obstacle to real communication between clients, consultants, and the user population. We can share information at a distance, but not much of ourselves. Without the willingness to engage on a one-on-one basis, your design is doomed, and your business could be at risk. To be successful working abroad, the lighting designer has to make a commitment to learning and listening, on every level. Talking through e-mail and FTP sites just doesn't compare with the real thing.

Light as a Universal Language

Ken Flower, Lighting Designer | Dreamscapes
The key thing that true globalization offers is the potential for cross-cultural harmony. As a designer, and in particular with reference to architectural projects, I believe my role is to offer the project a different (or a series of different) perspectives based on how architectural surfaces can become lighting surfaces, and how those surfaces can emotionally enter a conversation with the occupants. In other words, my role is to offer a sort of paradigm shift whereby spatial environments gain from the input of other disciplines. The whole often becomes greater than the sum of the parts, and when it does, it provides a wonderful serendipity. It's all too easy to be insular. Likewise with different cultures. By encompassing all that global and cultural history offers, we have the opportunity to provide new and exciting environments that can cross the boundaries that so often separate us. I believe this is the way of the future.

Martin Krautter, PR Manager | Erco Lighting
In fact, the business of architecture and lighting design has globalized during the past years at an amazing speed and scale. For manufacturers, this also offers great opportunities. Erco, for example, offers lighting tools and products that are context-neutral, meaning that they will work in any cultural surrounding for different technical spaces around the world, regardless of voltages, frequencies, and safety regulations. With Light Scout, there is a multilingual information platform that offers everything the designer needs to know for specifying a product anywhere in the world. We are proud to say that we are able to help architects and designers in any country make use of light in a creative way, which is what we consider a kind of universal language across all cultural borders and barriers.

Specification Solutions

Wolfgang Egger, President | Zumtobel Lighting USA
American designers have always worked on projects in other parts of the world. The process of managing these projects has gotten easier thanks to the internet, but creating a global design specification or finding suppliers who can provide the right solution halfway across the world can still be a challenge. It is important to find suppliers who can deliver a consistent global solution, or who have "feet on the ground" where you need them. We are increasingly contacted by corporate clients who need both our global design and production capability, as well as our regional knowledge.

Jonathan Speirs, Principal | Speirs and Major Associates
Yes, it is easy to work around the world, and our many international clients certainly seem to be more than happy to ship myself and my colleagues halfway around the world to contribute a lighting vision to their projects. Obtusely, it can be argued that the world is not getting smaller, it is getting larger, because it is easier to get to more places. However, I believe that with significant concerns growing over global warming, flying around the world will become a major issue. We have to develop more efficient methods of working at long distances--video conferencing should be much better and something that occurs as easily as turning to a colleague in your studio and chatting about an idea or a technical detail. Communication is key, whatever the project type or destination.

Depending on where projects are, the attitude to specification protection varies. In the United Kingdom we are beginning to see "specification creep," although it doesn't seem to be a major issue as of yet. As for the Middle East, every specification on every project has alternates submitted by agencies to swap their products for the ones specified. We have found that the best way to try and deal with this is to ensure that every "substitution" offered has a warranty letter from the managing director of the manufacturing company guaranteeing that their product is "fit for purpose in the specified location"--heat, saline environment, light distribution, lamp life expectation in their housing, etc.--with full production of lighting calculations to demonstrate that their product performs EXACTLY the same as the product they are aiming to substitute, along with a full working sample for proper comparison with the official specified luminaire. This puts the onus on the agencies to obtain complete project architectural details, finishes, and drawings from the electrical contractor, and obtain the alternative manufacturer's underwriting of their product for that specific project.