Project 4 — Lighting Engines

With the first semester coming to an end, our final project was to create a lighting engine that “ produce[s] and modulate[s] light for personal use in the context of the first year design studio”. Lights—specifically lamps— are always something I have taken for granted and never thought twice about, so when prompted with this task, I immediately started thinking about all of the variables that contribute to how useful a “lighting engine” is—the warmth of the lightbulb, the form of the lampshade, if it was hanging from the ceiling or lying flat on the table, how it looks when it is turned on and when it is turned off (active and resting states), and much more.

However, before worrying about experimenting with all of the different factors, one thing was certain: I had to go to Home Depot to secure all kinds of lightbulbs.


Before starting my exploration, I wanted to look at some of the lights around campus and study their forms and purposes.

Ambient lighting

Depending on the purpose of the light, the form followed that purpose—for example, if the purpose of the light was to provide lighting for working and viewing conditions, the light would usually have an exposed portion that allows the light to concentrate and “escape” from. However, if the purpose of the light was to light up a hallway, the lights were usually diffused and dimmer—for example, the hallway lights around Margaret Morrison were dependent on the reflection of the light off of the ceiling rather than a single concentrated ray of light.

However, some of the lights around campus had a more decorative purpose — their structures created patterns, adding to the aesthetic appeal of the lights while also serving their purpose of lighting a large hallway.

How could I combine form and function together, using the different types of paper and the warmth of lights to create a lighting engine that lights up the studio space while also looking visually appealing?


To define the purpose of the lighting engine, I thought about what I would change about the lighting in the studio, and I decided that it would be beneficial to have a light that had a softer tone for a more comfortable mood. The purpose of this light is: to provide ambient lighting for my workspace during late nights in the studio. As a result, when picking the type of lightbulb to use, I chose a lightbulb with a softer, warmer tone.

In addition, when thinking about some of the papers that I wanted to experiment with, I thought about how some papers could be used to diffuse the light—to alter and spread the intensity of the light— as well as some papers that could be cut and used for the light to concentrate and “escape” from. Thus, I chose a really thin rice paper, thicker printer paper, and drawing paper as my thickest paper.

Original lightbulb

. The rice paper is the most effective in “diffusing light” and acting as a method of creating a less harsh shine from the bulb.

. The printer paper is an effective means of evenly spreading out the light, with no dramatic gradient on the paper.

. The drawing paper alters the warmth of the light to a yellow-ish hue, and has a very dramatic gradient—it does not spread light well.

From understanding some of the characteristics of the papers, I started exploring how I could potentially use them to create certain structures from them (if it should be kept whole, which should be cut, how I could implement layering).

Thinking about how I could show some of the forms that exist within the paper and how I could demonstrate the forms, I started piecing multiple layers together.

From this, I understood how I could combine the papers: thicker printer paper can be used as an immediate “color changer”, printer paper can “expose” the light from the cuts, and the rice paper can be used to evenly “diffuse” the light.


Part 2: Sketch Models

Following the exploration of papers, I wanted to utilize some of the “features” of the papers I explored to create models with special attention to the element of surprise going from the on state to the off state.

Thinking about how light brings about the structures of the papers inside of the lighting engine, I thought a lot about the overlap of structures within the paper—the use of cuts, the size of paper, and the methods used to overlap (completely cover, stacked, etc).

—Through the use of light created through the slits within the thick drawing paper, the shadows created interesting patterns on the lighter rice paper depending on the position of the lightbulb. The optimal position for most patterns is a lower angle.

—I found myself leaning towards structures that kept the original form of the paper (using large square pieces and keeping large planes) rather than making cuts within the paper and strictly utilizing the overlap and slits within the structure to bring out certain patterns and shadows.

Moving forward, I want to combine the use of large, whole sheets of paper to create a structure, thinking about the edges of the pages and overlaps to create unique forms in both the off and on states.

Part 3: Modeling

Wanting to build off of the idea of large, whole sheets of paper, I continued to investigate with the “roly-poly” model I created. Working with some of the feedback I received in class, I understood that:

  1. I had to think about how to hide the sockets of the bulbs, as the protrusion of the socket is distracting and takes away from the lighting engine
  2. How to ensure that there were no instances of a “bare” lightbulb—with the lightbulb being exposed from the bottom, it made users feel uneasy underneath.
Notes from class

As a result, when creating a model, I thought about how to create an effective junction between the light socket at the paper, as well as a diffusor the covered the lightbulb. Not wanting to create another structure for the junction, I thought about how to make a tighter fit to cover the light socket; as for the diffusor, I extended the form of outside covering, so light could still escape from the slits.

The form, however, still needed work. The purpose of my light was ambient lighting, and the sharp edges did not look comfortable or relaxing—rather, it seemed more like a social gathering light, catching people’s attention.

As a result, I thought about how I could create a sleeker form, as well as add to the function of comfort.

Thinking about a variety of different forms I could make the sheaths, I was inspired by the natural form of roly-polys: not only were there a variety of curves within their structure but there were also a variety of sharp edges meshed in-between.

From the two models that I created, I was more drawn to the curved model—the round shape was easy on the eyes and created a sense of movement within the form, whereas the sharp edges on the tapered model would lead your eyes to the edge and stopping at the corner, creating a sense of tension within the form.

In addition, the diffusor peeking out also added to the structure—it seemed as if there was more to the structure, extending to the insides of the lighting engine.

When the lighting engine is on, the different materials in the paper are able to spread the light — it is the brightest in the middle (due to the use of thin rice paper), and the light spreads throughout the paper, seeping through the thicker Bristol paper. This ultimately adds to the element of surprise and unexpectedness to the lighting engine.

Part 4: Revision


After feedback given in class, I learned that the way the light was handled and the form made the lighting engine too inclusive and directional — it seemed like it was made for an individual person. Although the light is for my individual use, with regards to ambient lighting, I also wanted to light up the environment around me rather than for the lighting engine to act as a spotlight. For this reason, I worked to utilize the material and form in a way that would make the light more diffused and spread out, as well as less directional.

In addition, the gradient was also too dramatic — the difference in shade between the right and left sides of the lighting engine was very extreme. By extending the form on the left side and having the lightbulb influence both the left and right sides in the same fashion, the form would be more symmetrical and also spread out the light more evenly.

For these reasons, I experimented with a variety of papers to have the light brightest as the center and then spread out most evenly to the sides. Rice paper followed by construction paper and then Bristol paper blocked the light from spreading to the ceiling, however, it allowed the light to spread throughout the space below it, being brightest at the center.

Furthermore, to have the form seem less directional, rather than having the right piece cover up the left piece, I had the pieces overlap, resulting in the form having no clear “front” or “back”.

Through the use of the slight angle of the two pieces, it also adds to the sense of “unexpectedness” within the lighting engine—though it is seemingly symmetrical on the side, when looking straight at lighting engine, it is completely asymmetrical.

Part 5 — Final Revisions


During the final revision class, I received feedback on how to make my lighting engine “cleaner” —having the intentionally symmetrical elements appear more symmetrical, while the asymmetrical elements more closely follow their form by paying specific attention to the craft and measurements.

The rice paper is not rigid and flaps down, providing a difference in form against the very structured Bristol and construction papers. To improve the symmetry of the form and have the spacing between the sheaths the same, I attached the two pieces of my lighting engine at a smaller angle, more clearly bringing focus to the curves.

When placed in context, the light performed its function well. It effectively provided a bright spot to work for the individual, while also spreading out around the environment to add to the sense of comfort—something greatly needed during late nights in the studio.

Part 6 — Reflections and Takeaways

Light disperses around environment

This project was the most difficult project for me: not only was there the importance of how the object interacts with an individual, but there was also an emphasis on the object within a space, or how it interacts with the environment. Having to figure out how the materials and form would best achieve this purpose — how to have the light brightest at one spot and disperse, best handle the harsh light from the lightbulb, or how to have the form appear symmetrical while also asymmetrical to add to the element of surprise — was a lot to think about at once.

However, lighting engines was a good project to end the semester with, as it meshed all of the skills from past projects together; I was challenged to use all of the skills I had accumulated over the semester: the sketching and documentation of ideas, revisions and close attention to the interaction of the product with the individual and space to ultimately build on and refine ideas.

Throughout the semester, I was able to continually see my jumbled, manic thoughts when the project is first introduced become messy sketches on pages in my sketchbook become a janky first iteration become a cleaner, more informed sketches in my sketchbook become a cleaner more informed second iteration. This process repeats many more times until finally, the originally jumbled thoughts become a useful, final product.

Although it still needs more work, I feel like I have improved my design process, now having a better sense of how to approach and dissect a seemingly daunting and complex project.



Design Student @ Carnegie Mellon University

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