Duncan Jackson (left) and Eoin Billings (right) at work in the firm’s Chicago office.
Seth Lowe Duncan Jackson (left) and Eoin Billings (right) at work in the firm’s Chicago office.

A funny thing happened when Billings Jackson Design (BJD) set out to create new check-in desks for Terminal 2 in Heathrow Airport. They got rid of the desks.

Eoin Billings and Duncan Jackson, founding partners of the eponymous London-based industrial design firm, were asked to create a single desk that would please more than 23 airline operators as well as thousands of passengers. Most people wanted something similar to what already existed, but that design didn’t exactly work. The designers conducted ergonomic and observational studies and found the setup failed to serve passengers and check-in staff. “We didn’t draw anything, we didn’t give the clients renderings to prove our point, we showed them physically,” says Billings, director of BJD. “We made a check-in desk out of cardboard and asked them to use it. It demonstrated how badly the existing desks worked.”

The firm’s solution got rid of the traditional desk in favor of a modular kit of parts that allows each airline to tailor its check-in area according to company and customer needs. Completed last year, the system has since earned high marks from airlines and passengers alike. “We transformed the space together, with them,” Billings says. This, he says, demonstrates how BJD works. “We go at the solution from the point of view of the customer.”

This human-centered approach is one of the reasons BJD has flourished into a powerhouse industrial design firm, one that has developed a strong portfolio of lighting products over its 23-year history. With additional offices now in New York and Chicago, the firm has a reputation for cutting-edge products that come in on time and on budget and have a seemingly prescient understanding of the marketplace.

Fifteen years ago, for example, BJD created Tecton for global lighting manufacturer Zumtobel, which is recognized for its lighting solutions for indoor and outdoor lighting applications. Tecton is a continuous-row lighting system that has remained a top-selling product line, in part because it has easily transformed from fluorescent to LED, and in part because it creatively resolved lighting challenges for a specific set of end user: retailers. “We asked: what do retailers want from their lighting?” says Jackson, head of the firm’s Chicago office location. The answer was a high-tech luminaire capable of handling things like data transfer for point of sale, but was also simple to install and maintain.

Zumtobel’s Tecton fixture was designed specifically with retail applications in mind.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design and Zumtobel Zumtobel’s Tecton fixture was designed specifically with retail applications in mind.

Neither of BJD’s founders has a background in lighting or studied lighting design. Rather, Billings studied industrial design and Jackson studied engineering and furniture design. This is, perhaps, their greatest strength: They bring an outsider’s perspective to the process.

They also bring a comprehensive understanding of how buildings work. The first luminaire they designed was for the Royal Automobile Club in Bristol in 1994, a project led by Grimshaw Architects. Lighting was integral to the architect’s strategy for the building from the very start. “They wanted a suspended system and were using a concrete soffit as the reflector,” Jackson says. “There wasn’t anything that we could use at the time that would fit [with] the architecture, so we designed it. That was our first foray into understanding how lighting products integrate into buildings.”

Next, Billings and Jackson developed a set of exhibition cases with concealed, interior illumination for Grimshaw that could be used as a traveling display for the architecture firm’s work. BJD reached out to Zumtobel to help in the development. “We met with a very talented lighting designer from Zumtobel and it was his responsibility to help support the lighting design that we developed for this exhibition,” Jackson says. “We designed and built the exhibition with his help in about eight weeks, and after that, Zumtobel came to us with a brief for Tecton.”

BJD began the Tecton design process by running a strategic workshop with representatives from various departments at Zumtobel: technicians, salespeople, and marketing staff. “We want to understand every aspect of the marketplace we’re working in,” Jackson says. This goes for all of the fields in which they design, including architectural interiors and lighting, transit and urban planning, wayfinding, and healthcare. “We regularly ask clients: ‘Before we design, what do we need to know? What is your business model and how do you make your income? What are the paths to getting your product out?’ And clients say that they’ve never had a designer ask these questions before.”

An early concept sketch for Zumtobel’s Tecton fixture by Billings Jackson Design.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design and Zumtobel An early concept sketch for Zumtobel’s Tecton fixture by Billings Jackson Design.

When Billings says that they “go at their solution” from the point of view of the customer, this seems like an obvious approach—design for the end user. But when one parses exactly what he means, their unique process reveals itself. The “customer” may vary at any given moment. If one designs a consumer product, and it is only designed to be beautiful and functional, then a singular decision has satisfied only one design criteria in the overall chain of decision-makers. The fixture may be well designed, but if it’s cost prohibitive to ship, or if the contractors in the field don’t know to spec it, then it doesn’t matter how successful the design is. “You have to understand the building industry in absolute detail,” Jackson says. “In the lighting industry, it’s almost like the product has to be sent out into the world with a whole lot of DNA to help it get specified. When we start, we always ask: What are the obstacles to specification?”

Their process involves asking a lot of questions and trying not to make assumptions. “I’ve always had a tendency to be the person who sticks his hand up in the class and asks the question,” Jackson says. “Everyone hates it when they don’t understand. I don’t have a fear of appearing to look stupid, because you always learn. When we work with clients, we tell them that they are the experts, and we are expert at recombining knowledge.”

It comes down to understanding not just fixture design—materials, aesthetic, and technology—but also manufacturing, distribution, contracting, and building maintenance. Everyone, then, becomes BJD’s “customer.”

With Tecton, BJD developed a high-volume, adaptable luminaire suitable for a variety of interiors, particularly retail. Although the fixture’s initial price point was slightly higher than average, it disassembled for easy shipping and took 45 percent less time to install than comparable lighting systems. The full life cycle of the light, in other words, provided a cost savings. “We added economy to the overall system,” Jackson says.

To assist Zumtobel in communicating the overall cost savings with the selection and specification of Tecton, BJD produced a video showing comparative times for installation. “It was complex communication, but the proof is in the pudding. That product is still highly successful 15 years later.”

BJD delivers not just product design, but also a creative consideration of how products are manufactured, distributed, installed, and maintained. Martin Werr, director of new product innovation at Columbia/P2 Lighting, a division of Hubbell Lighting, says this is what makes BJD unique in the industrial design field. “We’ve had bad experiences with industrial design firms in the past,” Werr says. “You find some firms with a great aesthetic sense, but they come back with designs that can’t actually exist in the real world. What’s great about [BJD] is that they understand the drivers of the marketplace—how specifiers think, how engineers work. They know what motivates buyers, they understand architecture; they understand electrical and mechanical requirements of a light fixture. They get that.”

A rendering of the Liteweave luminaire used during the product development process.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design A rendering of the Liteweave luminaire used during the product development process.

Billings and Jackson have a name for what Werr describes: applied industrial design. Their company literature defines it as “strategic decision-making through production to delivery.” The two of them coined the phrase after they first met in London back in 1990. They were both working at Grimshaw on a furniture design project for Herman Miller. The pair saw a gap in the marketplace of business-to-business industrial design. “People would go into a catalog to spec pieces for a building, but not much attention was being paid to it at the time because the components of what went into a building were considered unglamorous,” Jackson says. “We felt there was an opportunity to do better, to create products that were better, not just in how they looked, but how they functioned and were installed. We focused on the whole life cycle and cost of a product.”

Once the duo discovered this shared passion for upending process and for addressing the complexity of industrial design for the built environment, they left Grimshaw to open their own firm in London in 1992.

Today, speaking with the two of them is a bit like being a guest at a boisterous dinner party. They are lively and full of anecdotes, yet quick to question one another on a specific detail. “People from the outside think we’re having an insane argument, but we’re quite frank with one another. We’ve always been that way,” Jackson says.

They have also always been quick to grasp the potential of technology. For example, they recognized how solid-state lighting (SSL) presented an opportunity to control light as never before.

Concept sketches illustrate early iterations of the Liteweave luminaire.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design Concept sketches illustrate early iterations of the Liteweave luminaire.

Concept sketches illustrate early iterations of the form and end-cap treatment for the Liteweave luminaire.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design Concept sketches illustrate early iterations of the form and end-cap treatment for the Liteweave luminaire.

The latest example of this is Liteweave, a luminaire that they have just completed for Hubbell Lighting. Officially released to market in January, Liteweave uses low-power, low-brightness, flexible LED light sheets wrapped in such a way that the luminaire creates a seamless light source with no visible frame. Covered in an optical plastic lens material, the individual LED pixels blur and overlap creating a surface that has the look of wicker, or fabric, inspiring the Liteweave name. “Not only is [Liteweave] visually fascinating, it’s comfortable to look at, and it creates a 3D effect from a flat surface,” says Werr. “It changes appearance as you move past it, and it has a depth to it that is quite amazing.”

Concept sketches for the Liteweave luminaire.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design Concept sketches for the Liteweave luminaire.

Concept sketches for the Liteweave luminaire.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design Concept sketches for the Liteweave luminaire.

Werr met Billings and Jackson several years ago at Light + Building in Frankfurt and was impressed with their work, so he kept an eye out for a project where he might bring them in. Then he saw the flexible LED sheets. “The lighting industry in the U.S. is terrified about pixelization, but with this technology, the LEDs were much smaller than normal, and it takes the brightness of a single point of light and spreads it across a larger surface area,” Werr says. “I immediately called Billings Jackson.”

Werr says that it’s unusual for lighting conglomerates in the U.S. to bring in outside designers like this. “My brand has hired outside industrial design firms on two or three occasions over the past 20 years, those firms were generalists and did not specialize in lighting, and they always disappointed,” he says. “By hiring BJD, I’m regarded as a bit of a renegade hereabouts.”

Study model of the Liteweave luminaire.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design Study model of the Liteweave luminaire.

Werr challenged the designers to create a suspended fixture for an environment such as a school. The luminaire needed to predominantly provide downlight, with only a small percentage of illumination directed onto the ceiling. “About two weeks later, they came back with a concept that frankly knocked my socks off,” Werr says. “They did something I had never seen: They used the curvature of the sheet in a compelling way by folding it and wrapping it around the fixture.”

Final version of the Liteweave luminaire.
Courtesy Billings Jackson Design Final version of the Liteweave luminaire.

Liteweave does just what Werr requested: It provides 70 percent direct and 30 percent indirect light in two lumen packages with low input wattage and high efficacy. “We have engaged them now on another project,” Werr says. “On top of all of their understanding of the various aspects of design and marketability, they also have very strong project management skills. What really impresses me is they always keep their eye on affordability.”

And that, says Jackson, is part of the firm’s founding philosophy. They have a saying around the office: “It’s rude to spend someone else’s money without knowing what you’re doing.” •