Get the Lighting Right: 5 Mistakes to Avoid

by Eugene Kok

Interior designers are often called upon to give input about lighting in residential environments. In trying to tackle a lighting dilemma, many fixtures get specified in living areas, kitchens and baths that waste energy and do not get light where it is needed most. These ineffective specifications are often repeated as homeowners are unsure of lighting solutions and tricks of the trade. But sometimes, knowing what not to do can help make you look like a pro. One vital choice is that you select lighting options that are timeless such as barn lights. It is always good to think long-term.

Below I list 5 common lighting mistakes to avoid, and how to do it right.


This kitchen gets it right. It has the perfect amount of layered light over the island, as general overhead light and for task lighting under cabinets.

Mistake 1.

Installing recessed downlights everywhere.

This is one of the most common errors that interior design professionals see. Builder spec versions of can lights can be very inexpensive, and people often assume that laying them out in a regular grid gets light everywhere. Unfortunately, this is not so. The optics of inexpensive can lights often allows only slightly more than half the lumen output of the lamp to escape.

In addition, can lights, unless they are adjustable or wall wash fixtures, typically don’t put sufficient light on vertical surfaces, which is where the eye perceives light. With an array of cans, we might waste nearly half our watts and still have a space that feels like a cave because the walls are dark.


This bathroom gets it right. Mirror sconces and overhead cans on a dimmer create the right effect.

Mistake 2.

Using downlights over the vanity without adding lights on the side.

Standing directly under a downlight, without any light at the sides of the face, creates exaggerated and unflattering shadows. In the bathroom, using a downlight over the sink is fine to accent the expensive polished nickel faucet you’ve specified, but it’s insufficient for tasks like shaving, tweezing, and applying makeup. For this, we need light at the sides of the mirror at eye level to minimize shadows and provide even distribution. This can be achieved with sconces flanking the mirror.


This hall gets it right. Dimmable wall washers and overhead lighting creates a mood while lighting a pathway.

Mistake 3.

Using incandescent or halogen sources without dimming.

While we are all finding ways to retrofit lighting with more efficient, longer lived light sources than incandescent, it is still a viable and important part of lighting in a residence, provided it is dimmable. By dimming, we decrease energy and heat output, and we lengthen lamp life. With the recent price hike in the electricity, dimming is now rather a must.


This room gets it right. This space shows how one can effectively highlight show pieces, read a book and illuminate a hallway. You simply know it when lighting is done right.

Mistake 4.

Forgetting to incorporate ambient, task AND accent lighting. Interior designers understand that all well-designed spaces incorporate different types of light.

Ambient light is general lighting for walking around, conversing, and identifying objects. Task lighting provides higher, more concentrated lighting for tasks such as chopping vegetables, shaving, or reading. Accent light is used to highlight artwork or architectural features, such as the beautiful glass tile you’ve specified in the bath or the ceramic collection your client will showcase in open shelves in the kitchen.

Combining all three types of light gives greater functionality, interest, and likelihood that you will have sufficient lighting.


This space gets it right. Some light fixtures, as shown in this space, create a win-win effect. This fixture has style while providing necessary task lighting for the desk area.

Mistake 5.

Decorating with light.

Interior designers think about light as an actual dimension, imagining the distribution and output from each fixture, as well as the quality of the light and colour. Decorating with light fixtures, or choosing fixtures based on how they look rather than their light output, performance, and distribution often results in a waste of energy and less than optimal light output. For assistance with architectural light fixture choices, consider hiring a professional lighting designer who can transform your space through light, while providing adequate task lighting and often saving energy.