James White

This article originally appeared as the Lighting Design Professional column in the May 1988 issue.
This article originally appeared as the Lighting Design Professional column in the May 1988 issue.

Original text has been edited and excerpted from the 1988 original

Rapidly growing acceptance of professional lighting designers throughout the world has, for the first time, raised the question of licensing. Many lighting experts believe their work and knowledge is worthy of special recognition. They look at their years of training, experience, and expertise and wonder why they aren't licensed as other professionals are.

The design of electric lighting and daylighting for buildings in the United States, admittedly, is undertaken by persons with a wide range of job descriptions. Lighting design for buildings is also undertaken by quite a few non-licensed professionals and artisans.

A great deal of building lighting is designed by sales representatives for lighting manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers. More lighting is designed by salespeople for utilities, stores, showrooms, and suppliers of every description. Finally, there's the “in-house lighting consultant/designer/ expert” found at many manufacturers and distributors of lighting and related products.

IS LIGHTING A COMMODITY? The apparently minimal qualifications needed to design lighting … suggest that lighting should be considered a commodity. If it were, there would be virtually no need for concern about the title or certification of a “lighting designer.” Lighting design would remain an art, something to be done by anyone with a knack for it.

But commodities are scrutinized when changes in society, often propagated by technological advances, make common things complex. Automobile mechanics are an interesting example. Because of the increased technical complexity of automobiles, certification and licensing are now required for mechanics. The assumption is that the consumer can no longer judge the competence of the service rendered.

Lighting is going through this type of rapid technological advance. The field has completely changed in the past 10 years. In commercial lighting, superior color, better glare control, and a 100 percent increase in the efficiency of sources and luminaires have become available since 1975. A lighting education five years or more old, unless bolstered by continuing education, is obsolete.

CERTIFICATION VERSUS LICENSING It is important to distinguish four major concepts involved in the identification and regulation of a profession. First, the certification process does not involve government. An independent peer organization … certifies that an individual meets established and impartial criteria.

Second, in licensing, state government regulates certain services and practices by requiring practitioners to possess a license granted by the state. Licensure is based on requirements similar to those for certification.

James R. Benya: In May 2009, the Texas state legislature nearly passed a law (Texas House Bill 2649) banning the practice of lighting design by anyone other than a licensed architect or engineer. Apparently, a state senator had had a dispute with a lighting designer and sought revenge through legislation. A last-minute response by the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) and others in the lighting community placed the legislation on hold, but the matter is not dead at all.

Meanwhile, the Oregon state legislature is pondering the licensing of interior designers. Those supporting the law include the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), a professional organization like the IALD. Those opposing include the Interior Design Protection Council (IDPC), a political action group of interior designers and product vendors. The law would offer both title and practice protection to those who meet certain qualifications, one of which would be to pass a technical examination, most likely the one given by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). Practicing interior design without a license would be against the law, and many now providing these services would have to take a test for which they are unprepared.

When I wrote this article in 1988, I noted the similarity between lighting design and interior design in our parallel quests for recognition. The similarity remains, as the Texas and Oregon issues vividly demonstrate. Now, lighting designers have also felt the threat of legislation, and we don't seem to like it much—for good reason. We are not really ready for it.

My article asserted that we “certify first.” Within four years, the National Council for Qualifications for the Lighting Professions (NCQLP) was formed by the IALD; the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) created the Technical Knowledge Exam (TKE); and the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) created the Certified Lighting Efficiency Professional (CLEP) program. NCQLP introduced the Lighting Certified (LC) examination in 1997 and acquired the TKE question bank in 1998, effectively ending the TKE. Today, the NCQLP remains an independent certification body. More than 2,500 persons are LC, and CLEP is still an active program within AEE. As a profession, we've taken the first step.

But later in my article, I warned of the pitfalls of licensing, which is the issue that interior designers in Oregon and lighting designers in Texas are now facing. Like interior designers, lighting designers seem to want official recognition and some of the privileges that licensing affords. But we remain torn on whether to shoot for the examination-based licensing faced by architects and engineers, or whether to fight to prevent regulation at all.

Several times the IALD has commissioned credentialing committees, with yet another effort now under way. To me this is déjà vu. The principal objection to using the NCQLP test as a criterion for IALD membership is that LC can be held by anyone from a lighting salesperson to a designer, and LC alone does not certify the “design” competence of the person. This is true. The problem is, IALD members seem to want a credential that places IALD members on a pedestal. The current proposal is a design committee review of the candidate's portfolio, much like the process for professional-level membership. But this alone won't work: It could be a violation of antitrust laws for a professional society to be its own certifying body, since there is no assurance that the process will be objective. Also, a state cannot require a limited-access certification or membership in a particular professional society. Anyone who wants to be called a “lighting designer” should be able to work in any manner with any employer.

There is an immediate need to identify practitioners who can produce competent, energy-efficient lighting designs. If the lighting industry can do this, the reward could be some type of title protection and limited practice protection for those who make the grade. This is probably as close to ideal as a credential for lighting design is likely to get. So I think it is time to seize the opportunity; lighting design should be a partially regulated profession. The industry should step forward to renew and reinvent the NCQLP, including certifications of specialty beyond the basic LC. Such specialty certifications could include architectural or theatrical lighting design as well as key technical areas such as sustainability and lighting controls.

With these certifications, we would stand a chance of getting title protection in states that wish to regulate lighting design. We would be ready for Texas. In addition, I would push for limited practice protection. For instance, permit lighting energy code forms to be signed by certified lighting designers as well as by architects and engineers. Residential lighting design would be exempt, and architects and engineers would be permitted to design lighting as always.

It's funny how after 25 years, so little has really changed. As I wrote in 1988, “For their part, lighting designers and consultants must be willing to submit to the certification process rather than avoiding it and putting it down. It is the only way to make the system really professional.”

James R. Benya is a registered professional electrical engineer and a professional lighting designer with more than 35 years of experience. He has lectured and taught extensively.

Third, a state may grant title protection to licensed practitioners as a means of informing consumers that an individual practitioner is indeed licensed in a specific field. Under such protection, civil engineers may not call themselves electrical engineers, … but may practice electrical engineering.

Fourth, under practice protection, however, a state may restrict actual practice to certain specifically licensed individuals. In some states with earthquake concerns, for example, only structural engineers are permitted to practice structural engineering; in others, it is legal for architects, engineers, and contractors to provide structural engineering.

AN ACT TO FOLLOW Interior designers have set an important precedent—particularly the designers represented by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the Institute of Business Designers (IBD). Over the past decade, ASID and IBD have certified Professional Members through an independent examination conducted by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). Recent versions of the examination have been very tough, intensely testing knowledge of codes, building materials and systems, and related technical topics.

Now, … ASID and IBD are seeking licensing and title protection. Some states have already passed this legislation, but it is still an uphill battle. Opponents contend that consumers can easily detect bad interior design, and they ask how it would benefit the public to license a class of practitioners that isn't causing any trouble. Interior designers, however, argue that their service is both an art and a science.

The road to licensing interior designers has been blocked by an array of practitioners in related areas who, through title protection, would lose the freedom to expand their own businesses. Architects are notable in this group: [the American Institute of Architects] (AIA) has been one of the greatest opponents of ASID and IBD licensing programs.

The experience of the interior design profession is frightfully close to that which lighting designers might expect. Both lighting design and interior design have the same fundamental shortcoming: a historical lack of accredited, generally accepted curricula of higher education.