How I became a Lighting Designer

Sam Coles

My name is Sam Coles and I am an accidental Lighting Designer.  My design career began in quite a different direction with a BA Honours degree in Textile Design where I concentrated on textiles for interiors.  In the middle of 1999 I was made redundant from a job in a fashion and textile design software company that I loved.  I’d worked there for about 6 years and it was a bit of a shock – even though times were tough I thought it would keep going.  I needed to work whilst I decided what else I was going to do so I started temping.

I knew that I wanted to carry on doing something with a creative element so I enrolled in a distance learning course to get a City & Guilds qualification in Interior Design.  By 2000 I had a distinction and started to use my skills by offering my services free of charge to friends and family.  In February 2001 I visited a recently opened local lighting showroom to see what they had for a friend’s bathroom.  I got talking to the assistant who was trying to find out if I was a “tyre kicker” or if I was going to buy something.  Through the course of this conversation she decided that the owners might want to speak to me as they were looking for staff.  A couple of weeks later I was working there at the weekends whilst I finished my temp contract and by June I was working full time running the place during the week and working with the owners at the weekend.

When I started working there I had absolutely no knowledge of lighting at all – I just knew that I liked it and was intrigued by how it could transform spaces.  The business had no training programme just “take some catalogues home and learn what’s available” plus listening to the owners speaking to customers.  After a bit they suggested that I did the Lighting Association Retailer Training Programme which was far more about running a lighting showroom than teaching anything much about lighting.  But I did it anyway and passed with flying colours.

Over time the owners decided that they wanted to expand their offering to include Interior Design services so for around a couple of years I provided a colour scheming and soft furnishings interiors service alongside the lighting.  This, along with my degree and an avid interest in architecture and all things design has given me a broad breadth of experience, from use of colour through to detailed knowledge of period and contemporary architecture and design.

A few years into my lighting career I decided that I wanted to learn much more about the technical side of lighting design and I wanted a formal qualification in it.  I enrolled myself in the Lighting Industry Federation Lighting Certificate and then their Advanced Lighting Certificate and I passed both with top grades.

More recently I have been proud to be an integral part of some award winning design and build teams, providing the interior and exterior lighting expertise for projects that have won a What House? Gold Award for Best Luxury House in the UK, a UK Property Awards (part of the International Property Awards) for the Best Residential development in Hertfordshire, a British Council for Offices Regional Award for the refurbishment of a listed building in central Birmingham, and the London Evening Standard New Homes Award for Best Luxury Home.

“So what’s the point of all this Sam?!” I hear you ask!  Well it’s to show you that I ended up as a Lighting Designer by accident and knew nothing about lighting when I started.  Everyone has a life full of first times and then by practicing what they have learned they get better at it.  I had a first time that I needed to help a customer choose the right lights for a room in their home.  I had a first time that I went out to a client’s home to provide lighting design advice (and I totally busked that one, believe me!).  I didn’t know anything about lighting at one point but I know a hell of a lot now.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 17 years working on the lighting for many different types of homes, from listed ones that are hundreds of years old through to new builds of so many different types.  Many of them have been luxury homes and it’s been amazing to see “how the other half live”.  However, there have also been many times over the years that people on much tighter budgets, such as self-builders and renovators, have contacted me asking me to work for them and for a variety of reasons they have not had the budget available to hire me.  This makes me really sad because they are hardworking people wanting to create the best home that they can have for their family and themselves.  They recognised that the right lighting would have made a massive difference to their homes and I wasn’t to help them in a way that was economically viable for all of us.  Some of them might have come across someone who offered a cheaper more basic level service and others would have probably been stuck with two rows of downlights in every room.

Previously to being in lighting design I spent 10 years designing computer based training courses, workbooks and user manuals in a wide range of technical subjects with around half of this time delivering face-to-face training on computer aided design software.  This combined experience gives me the ideal background as a lighting design educator and trainer and I am now merging the two paths together.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this and currently a couple of new services are in the making that will make my lighting design service more inclusive so I can help out many more people that I have been able to.  If you are a self-builder, renovator, undertaking a small project or are a long way away from Bedfordshire, one of these services may be just the thing for you.  If you know someone who meets that description and you think they’d like to find out more please pass this on to them.