Design Critique Study #2

Award Winner 2020
Kyle McKelvy of Oregon Outdoor Lighting
Oregon City, OR, USA

This beautiful photo won two separate awards—one for the Intrigue category of Affective Lighting Design and one for the Public-Use Spaces of Landscape Lighting Design.

The ELLI Design Critique Study will discuss the photo in terms of what is captured by the photographer within the space or landscaped setting. The first part of this study will address the scene’s composition, as it relates to the lighting applications applied by the designer. The second part will address the ‘affective’ value of the setting—the “experience” or feel of the space.

If you are a lighting designer looking to learn how to understand what you observe, then I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions before we begin this critique. The first thing you should do is to take notes on what you initially experience when you first see a photo or when you are on the project site viewing a scene for the first time. It is very important to be aware of your feelings and to what you mind is saying to you.

For example: If your mind seems confused or it has several questions about what you are viewing, then something is wrong in the design. In addition, if you experience some sort of emotional response, then that is a powerful indicator that this is something special. Whether or not the emotion is planned for, take notes on how this might have been achieved.

As discussed in the Design Critique Study #1, we must first assess the setting by its compositional elements—balance, contrast, emphasis, pattern & rhythm, unity, and movement. These provide a basic measure in determining whether a design is good or not.

Balance is the visual interpretation of gravity within the designed space. If the work shown is balanced, then the visual weight will be distributed evenly across the composition. These thoughts can be applied to the design of the landscape as well as to the lighting design.

If we look at this setting, it’s large and somewhat expansive because it opens up into the sky and through this forested landscape. And even though there are several large trees being illuminated, it all feels fitting and balanced to this grand space. There are trees to the left and right of the pond area, so this fulfills the balance across this span.

There’s a nice balance of light and dark from front to back, and even though it may seem dark through the center at the far distance, we still observe the sky and stars at night.

Contrast can be viewed in two ways, the first by the arrangement of opposite elements (light and dark, rough and smooth, large and small, etc.), and the second by the difference in luminance or color, which makes an object distinguishable. Landscape lighting usually works with two forms of contrast: light-dark and cold-warm contrast.

I especially love what Kyle and his team did here with the contrast. Not only did they provide for enough light with the darkness, but they did it with the cold-warm elements, too. You can see the fire at the fire pit (very warming), but candle lanterns are dispersed across the pond (cold) to provide a warm element. You should also notice the soft warmth of the tree trunks and inner-canopy areas of the trees—there is no uncomfortable ‘glare’ issues or ‘hot-spots’.

The emphasis of a scene is the same as its focal point. Typically, it’s an object or area that draws attention, as it is set apart against its surrounding.

The beauty of this scene is that the emphasis might be a little more challenging to define. I believe it’s the combination of two parts; the first being the fire pit as the main emphasis, and the second is the view/space as a whole. Imagine walking into this setting from another part of the property and it just opens up to this grand view—very impactful with great ‘affect’.

As a side, learning note, we should all appreciate this lighting design for the fact that the water feature (pond) at the center was not highlighted to be the primary focal point. Why? Because if that were the case, then the feel of the whole space would have been somewhat compromised. The attention would have concentrated towards the pond and not the space as a whole—the experience of the setting. This is an important take-away.

Pattern & Rhythm
A pattern is a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement. Rhythm is a strong, regular, repeated pattern, and it has a feeling of organized movement. Typically, a pattern can lead the eye towards a destination point. It should be understood that it can be used to lead the eye towards an emphasis.

Here’s another interesting aspect to the composition, there is no real distinction in pattern or rhythm. This provides a calming effect and slows one’s thoughts down. This is very fitting for the mood or ‘affect’ of the space, which will be described in the Affect section.

If we look for any sort of pattern, then maybe one could say the four chairs in front of the fire pit, but in my opinion, all this does is provide a purpose and statement for the space—“please sit here and enjoy”. What a beautiful vantage point to observe this nature.

Unity occurs when the elements of the space work together in such a way that the resulting look is balanced and in ‘harmony’. If we consider our initial thoughts when viewing the scene, then we shouldn’t have any questions, confusion, or unrest with our thoughts as we view a scene. Everything should feel comfortable.

Being that all of the compositional principles were achieved, and the space feels very comfortable, it would be classified as harmonious and in unity.

Movement is the impression of action in one’s work. Visual movement is dependent on the other principles of composition, as well as the movement of the viewer’s eye when experiencing the space. Does the eye jump from one area to the next, in somewhat confusion, as if searching for understanding, or does it rest calmly at the emphasis of the space?

Observing this scene, I found my eye worked in a triangulated effort…the fire pit and from one set of trees across the pond to the next tree grove, and then back to the fire pit. After this, they moved beyond and to the far distance. So, my experience was limited and very comfortable.

This is the second part of this critique study, and in my opinion, the most important quality for a landscape lighting designer to achieve—the “experience”. Affect relates to emotion and what emotional state is evoked as the viewer experiences the space.

This space provided two emotions—Contentment and Awe. I classified this winner to the Contentment category because there is slightly more feeling there versus Awe, but still…the space is wonderful for being fascinating on many levels.

Of all of the things I experienced when observing this scene, it was comfortable, and it felt safe. If one were to walk throughout these paths and areas, then none of these areas felt threatening. Also, the warmth of the fire and candles provide calm and comfort, as well. With all of this said, we can find the ‘affect’ of Contentment.

As I mentioned above, I experienced a sense of Awe because of the openness of the space. The night sky and stars can be seen, all from a wonderful viewing point. Most scenes of Awe are experienced by a powerful view, and when the mind pauses to contemplate how amazing it all is.

Please note the essence of enchantment by the candle lanterns. This provides an added element of delight, which counters the affects of darkness or fear. So, as we look at the darkness leading off in the distance, it might make some feel uncomfortable with the hidden mysteries not seen. The candle lanterns reduce this fear—an excellent use by Kyle and his team.

Once again, every designer or person experiencing landscape lighting at night might experience different feelings. However, you should learn to recognize the various emotions typically found in landscape lighting designs. The reason this is important is so that you can re-create a type of emotion for spaces. Through practice, you’ll learn what characteristics of nature and lighting are necessary to provide for this. Not only will you become a better designer, but you’ll out-perform your competition—it’s a huge competitive advantage.