Why Do We Need Light Here?

“Why do we need light here?” It’s a simple question, but – regrettably – one that’s seldom asked. When it is, the answers all reinforce the observation that “light is for people.”

In the home, for example, lighting is needed to help people prepare food, read, play games, and move about safely, among countless other activities. In offices, factories, and other places of work, lighting helps people perform their visual tasks faster and with fewer errors. In retail environments – from grocery stores to department stores – lighting helps highlight items on sale, enhance their appearance, and give more visual discrimination to consumers. And the list goes on.

Fact: Everywhere lighting has been installed, it’s there for a reason. Obvious? You’d think so…but it’s not as obvious as one might suppose.

If I’m installing light to help people, it only stands to reason that I’d want to install that lighting that helps people the most. While this applies at home, it has even more application where lighting is used to support people at work, given the cost of labor vs. the cost of lighting. Consider a hypothetical business that employs 100 people who perform visual tasks eight hours per day, five days a week. Assuming an average pay of $25 per hour, including salary/wages and fringe benefits (e.g., insurances, retirement-plan contributions, paid time off), the business’ annual labor costs would amount to $5,200,000. The annual cost of the lighting energy consumed to support the workers’ task performance? Probably in the neighborhood of $6,000 or less, on average.

Were one to assume that “light is light” – i.e., that all light is more or less the same – it wouldn’t matter what kind of lighting were designed and installed. But common sense and our own experience tells us that all light is not the same. Some of it may provide ideal support for what we do, but others can do the opposite. For example, when direct or indirect glare makes seeing difficult, slowing us down and leading to more errors being made (glare is the uncomfortable or even visually disabling sensation experience at night, when an oncoming vehicle’s “high beams” are on).

Given lighting’s importance to people, we should want to make the lighting as good as it can be. After all, if better light helps people to work faster and with fewer errors – as countless case histories have demonstrated it does – the financial impact would be significant: Just a 1% productivity improvement would be worth $52,000 per year, about ten times the cost of energy. Which leads me to ask, how many billions of dollars in improved productivity go unclaimed because, more often than not, people select the least expensive lighting they can find? Many people equate costs solely in terms of how much a system costs to buy and/or operate, as if lighting’s purpose were to cost money…when the exact opposite is true. The time to learn that lesson is before an existing system is changed or a new one is designed – not afterwards. And once that lesson is learned, every lighting project should begin with just a single question: “Why do we need light here?”

To learn more about lighting’s impact on work, play, education, and just about everything else we do – as well as lighting’s role in health care – visit the National Lighting Bureau’s website. All the Bureau’s research materials and publications are available free of charge.


International Year of LightJohn Bachner, Executive Director of the National Lighting Bureau.

John has been involved with the Bureau since 1976 and has authored hundreds of published articles about High-Benefit Lighting®. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University.

The National Lighting Bureau is an independent, IRS-recognized not-for-profit, educational foundation that has served as a trusted lighting-information source since 1976. The Bureau’s services are made possible by the generous funding of its sponsors; professional societies, trade associations, manufacturers, and agencies of the U.S. government.

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4 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Light Here?

  1. Would so very much love to know how this subject can be taught in a basic way to young people with challenging behaviour. ..Thank you

    • Hello Gwyneth,
      The global IYL2015 website is set to go live in about two weeks and will include a section focusing on teaching optics to kids which you may find useful. Meanwhile, the Optical Society (OSA) created Optics4Kids.org to teach kids the importance of optics in ways they will understand. It also provides great resources and activities for adults looking to educate children on this particular subject. Hope this is helpful!

  2. Having read this I thought it was extremely
    enlightening. I appreciate you spending
    some time and effort to put this short article together. I once again find myself
    personally spending way too much time both reading and leaving comments.

    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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