The Lighting Tree: Alison Gallagher

Alison is a senior lighting designer with Arup, London. She has also served on the national committee of the Young Lighting Professionals (ILP) as the Architectural Lighting Representative

What was the fascination with lighting that drew you to into this career?

Alison Gallagher

Like many in the industry, I entered the world of lighting by chance rather than design. I had not long moved to London from Perth, Western Australia – I was fresh from studying a BA in Product Design at uni, had no work experience and no contacts in the UK, and was fortunate to get a job as a trainee lighting designer.  Before getting the job, I must admit I knew little of lighting nor the potential and opportunity here, though it was probably within my first week or two that I knew this was the career for me.

I definitely felt like lighting found me rather than me it. What has kept me absorbed these past 12 or so years is that Lighting Design encompasses spaces, objects and effects; that the phenomena of light is something that one can’t see until it interacts with something else. There is also plenty of complex creative and technical problem solving but with the quality of the human experience at the heart of what drives the design.

There are lots of aspects to creating good lighting design; is there any one aspect of the process that means more to you than anything else?

For me it’s strong concept development. This is the starting point for all projects; developing a strong idea or thread of thought that is present in every aspect of the design. The initial strategy and rationale is something that I return to again and again at all stages throughout a project – to ensure that I am delivering what I set out to achieve in the first place and that the Client and Architect are getting what they expect. Analysis, simulation and detail development are all essential parts of the design process, though they’re not as meaningful if  not effectively aligned to deliver the overarching concept.

I guess we should also ask, for balance, is there anything in the process that you’d prefer to avoid and pass onto someone else in the studio?

Lighting Control Schedules. I really enjoy developing lighting control philosophies for a project, it gives me a chance to really think about how spaces might be used on a day to day basis, and how people interact with the lighting. However, I am not a fan of producing detailed schedules, they can be really tedious – particularly if it’s a large-scale project. I’m very happy to pass these on, and grateful to those that complete these on my behalf!

What or who are your influences when it comes to light creation?

It’s hard to say, if we are talking about the ‘who’, then I am most influenced by my colleagues and collaborators –

  • those that coached and mentored me through my early development; picking up shortcuts, illustration techniques, best practice, strategies that always work and the free thinking to push boundaries stepping outside typical lighting design conventions.
  • those I’ve had the privilege to teach and guide; I have found when I pass on my knowledge to junior colleagues that I also absorb a lot.
  • I’ve been very fortunate to work with a wide range of different clients, architects, landscape architects and artists, each with a unique style and process that has influenced my design vocabulary.

And if we are talking about the ‘what’ – I have a strong visual memory, though I’m not sure where it comes from – film, art and other things I’ve seen perhaps. When I’m developing new designs I often have an idea of how I would like a space to look, it feels like it comes from a memory, though it’s always hard to pin point the origin.   

Tell us something about the you that exists outside of lighting.

This past year I have taken up kayaking. I have progressed from spinning around in a boat that I couldn’t control, to heading in the direction I intend (more often than not), and even progressing on to moving white water. To be clear – I am still very much learning – I capsize frequently and have become very proficient at self-rescue. I’ve really loved developing a new hobby that I had zero experience in and seeing myself develop over time, particularly since it is about setting a course, then using skill and technique to go with the flow – a good metaphor for life, really.

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