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Combining Form and Function: Task Lighting Isn’t Just About Getting the Job Done

A desk sits in front of a window with a laptop, desk lamp and several plants

For years, task lighting was utilitarian. It was a device slapped on a desk for those toiling into the night or working in a windowless office. It was a tool spreading light over a table for accountants, architects or other professionals. It’s still a tool, but today’s task lighting plays an elevated role contributing to overall lighting design. It has advanced with attractive forms and LED lamps. The modest task light now does more for the user who seeks individualized, controllable light in the office, manufacturing floor or other workspace.

“There is a rediscovery going on when it comes to task lighting,” said Sergio Silva, design director for Humanscale, a manufacturer of lighting and ergonomic office furniture based in New York. “If you don’t have control with your ceiling or overhead lighting or not seated next to a window, you want control over the lighting at your desk. It’s a newer awareness. This need is also being recognized by employers seeking a healthy, functional workspace. LEDs have certainly made ‘task’ more effective, energy efficient and attractive.”

Pablo Pardo is founder and design director for Pablo Designs in San Francisco. “Changes in ceiling lighting has partly driven a relook at task lighting, too,” he said. “New fixture design, integrated lighting ceiling systems and suspended fixtures have transformed choices beyond lines of troffers in open offices. Innovation has extended to task lighting, too. It can now be part of the lighting design and it can move with you, which makes it attractive.”

When an electrical contractor must deliver a specified degree of light to a space, task lighting could potentially reduce the amount of light needed at the ceiling level, saving on costs. Silva calls this “dual-source lighting.”

“Task allows you to be more specific in your lighting and be energy efficient,” he said. “I would agree task lighting is now more of an integrated lighting discussion.”

The broad influence of LEDs

LEDs have, in effect, reintroduced the task light to the lighting marketplace.

“I think the advancements in the technology [LEDs] as applied to desk lamps has helped create demand,” Silva said. “Studying the user experience allows you to see what advancements make sense for a desk lamp. For instance, adding dimming gives users more control in their environment. I think lumen [brightness to the eyes] levels impact the end-user the most. Set the right lumens and you make the task lighting less disruptive to the end-user, namely eye strain and glare. In my research, the lumens will disrupt circadian rhythms.”

Humanscale and others have focused on the lighting assembly of their products to improve lamp illumination and address glare.

“With a lot of LEDs, there is an area of LED chips that fire up on a grid,” Silva said. “Each casts a shadow. The resulting light on a desk could feature a many as nine shadows muddying up the illumination, creating visual clutter and noise. Our light assembly eliminates multiple shadows, providing even lighting distribution, and is anti-glare designed with a filter.”

The company’s task lights, Nova, Horizon and Infinity, are also manufactured without Red List chemicals.

Humanscale, Pablo Designs and others are also looking at how task lighting could play a contributing role in concert with tuned overhead lighting to promote a healthy circadian rhythm for occupants.

“We do have body clocks,” Pardo said. “When you walk into the office, natural light helps provide the benefit of being outside. Now you can tune LEDs so they act like natural light. The better we can replicate this light, the better off we will be. If I can control a lighting source by color, most people won’t know the benefit, but they will feel it.”

OttLite Technologies Inc., based out of Tampa, Fla., markets a line of task lighting called Workwell. “You see a movement with certifications like WELL, Fitwell and aspects of LEED,” said John Sheppard, CEO and president of OttLite. “The commercial sector has really become attuned to healthy lighting. We wanted to address this growing need.”

During its research phase, company reps went to China and returned with a chip OttLite licensed, which became the building block for its Workwell LED. They refined the LED lamp by variously increasing and decreasing different color spectrums (e.g., blue and red) until they produced a healthy white light close to natural daylight. They also applied research and development to reduce eye strain and glare.

 “We are offering something users didn’t know they wanted until we introduced it to them,” Sheppard said. “We wanted light that promoted productivity but allowed users to better see colors. Now markets other than offices have noticed. Healthcare providers, for instance, discovered our lighting. Dermatologists liked how the task light was set at 96 CRI, providing a more natural daylight illumination, which helped in treating patients with skin conditions. One customer asked if we could create a hand-held device from the task light, which we have done. Our technology then expanded to replacement lighting for overhead fluorescents.”

For its part, Waldmann Lighting Company, Wheeling, Ill., created a circadian-friendly floor task light that extends the lamp fixture over a work surface. Equipped with the firm’s “biodynamic” VTL lighting management system, it was designed with direct, controllable, glare-free lighting. The Lavigo fixture’s indirect light component adjusts light color and intensity to simulate daylight, and the direct light component continuously dims, maintaining personal control features. The floor task light can also communicate with other Lavigos within a space.

The desk lamp that multitasks

“We are seeing a renaissance of task lighting but as a hybrid,” Pardo said. “Now it’s a tool to also charge you mobile devices, to personalize the light source in areas of dimming and operation. More and more smart sensors are being incorporated into the task light. This builds in efficiency beyond the LED lamp. It also builds value.”

While one common feature has been a task light base with USB ports for phone charging, bases with induction charging is something new.

“Wireless charging is becoming hugely important,” Sheppard said. “People are always looking to charge their phones. We were one of the first to offer wireless charging as part of the task light base accommodating both iPhone and Android phones. We did have to overcome a challenge with our metal base that blocked Qi charging. We upped our wireless to 5 amps capability and will double that later this year.”

Pablo Design is introducing induction charging capabilities to a new line of task lighting as well.

Other additions to task lights include memory functions to program light operation, with Waldmann’s PARA.MI as one example. Others, such as Humanscale’s Element, incorporate occupancy sensors.

Bringing the feel of home into work

Lines are blurring. There is a definite residential look emerging in commercial product design, and task lighting is a prime example of this shift.

“You are seeing office task lighting borrowing from the home both in aesthetics and form,” Pardo said. “It’s visually striking. I’ve seen it used as a lobby design element introducing an aesthetic throughout the office space. You are also seeing beautiful floor lighting adopted for the office that serves as a standing task light.”

Pardo suggested lighting communal office spaces such as conference rooms might combine task and floor standing lights to support limited overhead lighting. In open offices, areas of retreat or quiet zones may not need as much light and could be exclusively lit through task lighting.

A minimalist look is also noticeable in several contemporary task lights. Visible power cords and cables can be housed in a lamp’s base, such as in the Workwell Twist. The arms of the task light can offer ergonomic 360-degree articulation. Even the lamp head can swivel, such as with Pablo Design’s Pixo.

“There’s no question [that] as industrial designers we want to achieve a harmonic between utility and beauty; something that works well and is intuitive to use,” Pardo said. “For me, task lighting is a performance driven tool. It’s no different than other tools in the workspace. We strive for a minimalist design and a task light that takes up less space on a desktop removing visual clutter, which is especially helpful in tighter working quarters. Versatility is also important, whether it’s an arm that can move horizontally and vertically, or a task light that can be detachable and clamped to the edge of a desk. You design something that stands the test of time.”

Like Waldmann, Pablo also has floor lamps serving as desk lamps, sometimes adaptable as both with its Circa, Brazo and LIM lines.

“When it comes to our task light forms, sleekness, color and wood tones are popular,” Sheppard said. “The discussion of health and wellness gets us in the door, but product looks are also a determining factor for customers. Having multiple finish options helps, too.”

Pardo feels that task lighting and its design is also part of an integrated lighting conversation.

“A lot of lighting is leaning toward customized solutions,” he said. His firm is working with Haworth, Holland, Mich., to strategize how task lighting might be integrated into their office furniture systems.

Sheppard shared he recently met with several electrical contractors who recognized that keeping up on the latest advancements in lighting products is what gives them an edge with clients. Task lighting is now one of those advancements.

“In conversations with Google and Apple, we learned ergonomics and health and wellness in lighting is something they feel they need to look at when it comes to task lighting,” he said. “Finding products that are multi-functional with healthy light output is now a prime consideration. Task can now be seriously and thoughtfully unified into a lighting project.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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