The multi-award winning Michael Grubb Studio, in Bournemouth, UK, is a design practice with a varied international portfolio. They follow a creative, dialogue led process that results in innovative lighting solutions that address the way we perceive buildings, structures, environments and how we interact with them. This interview is part of a short series call “The knock-On Effect of Tech”. We are asking designers about the real impact technology is having on lighting design practices across Europe, and their processes. This week we spoke to Michael Grubb, founder and creative director, about how technologies have impacted his work, lighting design and the need to keep evolving.
What impact have the technologies made available to you in the last 5 years had?
The whole world has changed with regards to technology in the last 5 years, not just in lighting. We have always been concept driven in terms of the work that we do. Your vision is enabled by the technologies available to you.
In the past, we came up with ideas that sometimes could not be delivered due to the limitations of the technology available or they were unviable due to cost. Today, developments in technology enable us to find a solution whether it is hardware, software or luminaires.
One of the biggest shifts we have made in the last five years is in relation to controls, gone is the simple ‘on/off’. There has been a blurring between what used to be considered traditional architectural lighting with theatre, entertainment, exhibition and promotional lighting. It’s effectively now a large melting point allowing you to achieve want you want.
Clients want lighting to be more dynamic, interesting with greater flexibility. This is the big area where we are giving clients more control of their lighting, particularly in terms of commissioning. We can now remotely deliver the end result if that is the right solution for the project.
How much have these technologies impacted the sustainability of your work?
To some extent it has always been there – technologies just make us more effective. We don’t have a dedicated statement on sustainability because, to me, it is just good design. It should not be an extra – it should be a given.
From the control point of view, we do a lot of work with Lush Cosmetics, they have spas that are amazing! We have built our own control systems for them. In this case, it is not about the impact of technology on sustainability, it is about ethics because we have made them all open source.
Once upon a time, in the control world, everything was hidden in a box and you couldn’t access it physically, or get near the code – the Big Boys had all the control. Now, people are sharing information and software– joining things up and collaborating, it is no longer an all or nothing situation.
When I first started out, coding was certainly not part of the conversation. Now, the idea of coding is rapidly becoming part of the process.
With that in mind, what will you see happening in the future of lighting design?
In terms of where we will be in 5 years’ time, I hope the next generation have been able to go through training and education to know the skills that are needed. There are so many courses available around the world and programming needs to be on the syllabus. That is how new lighting designers will stay ahead. It does not mean that all lighting designers have to be experts in coding, but they will need a level of understanding to recognise what is needed, when, and how to access it. And importantly, who they can to go to for help with code and software.
I started out in lighting 20 years ago when it was a niche industry. Today it is far more complex and there are sub-niches within our own industry. It is a huge opportunity but equally a challenge. Where once we used to deliver the work with a fixed tool box of skills that were fairly well know, even by one person, today it is much more diverse.
If money was no object, I would have expert specialists in graphic design, programmers, specialists in BIM (Building Information Modelling) and researchers…the list would go on. The reality is that lighting designers have always had to be jack-of-all-trades in the lighting industry, being creative whilst knowing a bit about lighting science and its impacts. It’s an amalgamation of technology and creativity made all the more important by significant advances in technology.
In 5 years’, time, we will have teams of inside specialists within teams. People will need to be collaborative. We don’t know where technology will be in 5 years, no one does, but the skill sets will need to be expanded. Even the software used from the desktop is becoming more complex. It used to be CAD and a bit of Photoshop. What’s available today is vast. Technology is not just driven by the end result in the light scene. It’s a part of how we win work, how we share ideas, how we take clients on a creative journey, how we share information – it is touching every part of the creative process before we even get to the design itself. It is not all about the end result.
Do you use technology to manage these processes?
It really varies from client to client. One of the things that I have been trying to promote is not being too reliant on technologies. You hear this about lighting products all the time – just because you can change the colour does not mean you should, it applies to the creative process too. Just because we can use all these technologies, I don’t feel we always have to.
We have become too reliant on the machines. I read last week that children are losing their ability to use their imagination because they are too absorbed in screens and are not playing. I believe as adults we are falling into this trap too. We have found that, especially with the younger generation, when we are in a creative meeting as soon as someone has put an idea forward, everyone is on their phones trying to find examples! It kills the conversation. We now have phone free creative conversations – we go to the tech when we are at the right point to use it. The new students coming through, across all design sectors, are not having these real conversations. They can use technology in theory to make communication more efficient, but it does not make it more creative. Use the tech when you really need it but have healthy breaks from it, then it can even have a deeper impact.
The challenge with the creative process is that everyone’s different but the common denominator tends to be technology. Therefore, everyone falls back on it. At Michael Grubb Studio we have a statement, “Think. Play. Produce”. We have different areas where people can talk and think, where the creative process takes place and where they can play with the technology to see how they work – production is then the end of the process. Most offices are focused on production, all about the output, the final moment of the creative process. That’s not how it happens. You have to think and play with ideas before your production process begins. Technology is very driven by the final process of production. You have to carefully consider the balance between time, money and quality – especially when working on projects with a fixed budget.
The industry is heavily focused on ‘smart cities’, have new projects been coming your way that you have had to factor this future focus into?
We haven’t had that many people proposing future thinking briefs – they are usually very safe. For a number of reasons, firstly because they don’t have a huge understanding of lighting and the opportunities and potential available to them. Secondly, I think the person arranging the brief does not want to take the risk – The smart-city guinea pig doing something too quickly or too soon.
If on occasion we do receive such a brief, we review it and may advise the potential for a larger project that connects to how future environments will work. If we lead it as lighting consultants, using the science and the art of lighting, it gives them the confidence to let us proceed with it.
There has however been a shift, especially in street lighting and LED roll-out. There are more smart technologies used in the up-keep and maintenance of them, less so in other areas. With Lush Cosmetics and Spas, we are creating lighting scenes to match treatments that are all triggered by MP4 music files. Previously this technology did not exist – we built our own system and this is future proofing their lighting. We can continue to tailor the lighting to new MP4 files to match each new treatment at the spa in the future, and up load them. The terms ‘smart’ are great for the marketing teams of the Big Boys in lighting manufacturing. The principles are inherently incorporated within most of our projects – but we do not need to band it around. That’s not to say it is not valid, but often things are sold that are not required, not new or important. Michael Grubb Studio is not led by the technology. It’s led by ideas. We believe most solutions are out there– if they are not, we can build it ourselves.
One challenge about finding a solution yourself is that once a project is completed, functioning and finalised you have to establish who is going to be responsible for the ongoing operation and maintenance of it. Potentially you have inadvertently become a supplier and an IT help line if you are not careful. Equally, I have been thinking about how to incorporate it into our fee structure.
You pitch for a job along the traditional lines of lighting design, factoring all the usual billable services. If the brief takes on a new route, involving software for example, it’s unfair to then start billing your client for a service that they do not expect. We might have to look at broadening our services in the future.
This brings us perfectly to my final question; how will your practice evolve in the coming years?
There will need to be a change in how lighting designers value and adapt the scope of their work. If we start billing for services clients do not expect, such as coding, then we will not look competitive. The lighting industry has a responsibility as a whole, that will be in everyone’s interest, where we try to agree on a general work method to make us all equality comparable. In the UK, the number of lighting designers has exploded. There will need to be specialist in side specialisms. The jack-of-all-trades will not be achievable anymore. We will definitely be seeing more niche lighting consultants, as I said earlier.
It’s the unknowns that excite me. We do not know where lighting design is heading. That is good because it would be dull world if we did. Personally, I don’t want to get too big because we are uncertain of the future and we have to be agile. If I am honest, we don’t like the big manufactures because they are too slow to react when we have questions or problems. It is easier to be a middle size company, we can react quickly and that is how the world works today.
Technology has enabled us to control all of our own media output now too. This enables us to respond and connect with our clients more effectively and at speed. This gets our message out how we want to and when we want to, helping us to work more effectively with clients whilst making sure that technology work for us.
Image 1: McLaren F1, 2018 launch. Michael Grubb Studio was given the opportunity to work on the Launch of the McLaren MCL33 car for the 2018 Formula 1 season.
Image 2: AUB, UK. Arts University Bournemouth is recognised as a well-established education provider in Art, Design, Media and Performance.
Image 3: Museo Lavazza, Italy. A sensory journey through global coffee culture, explored through the 120 year story of the Lavazza family and their continued dedication across five generations.