Light is a powerful architectural design tool, and good outdoor lighting design bridges art, architecture, and technology to enhance and create a cohesive spatial experience. Architectural lighting encompasses three main concepts the building aesthetic, ergonomics and functionality, and efficient use of energy

The lighting design creates and organizes light into a coordinated system using natural light, artificial light, or both together, to serve and enhance the user experience. It can influence the mood, enhance textures, increase spatial awareness, and focus on architectural features, among others. With the invention of electric lighting in the 1800s, lighting design eventually forayed further from workplace settings to the outdoors and how architecture is perceived.  

The effect and ambiance of rooms, facades, textures, objects, and vegetation depends on the type of lighting features and is an important aspect to lighting design. 

Accentuation or a focal glow can be used to emphasize vegetation, particular objects, or elements using directed beams of light. These bright beams on a focal point provide the right contrast to catch the eye in a dark environment. The focus object stays in the brilliant bright light while the surroundings fall into its shadows. 

Accent lighting creates points of interest and can be used for facades, entrances, arcades, and objects and can be achieved using projectors or directional luminaries. 

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Outdoor Lighting Design, Accent Lighting on NYPL Lions ©ERCO

A ‘wash’ is a general and even fill of light and color across an area. Wash lighting is used to illuminate larger objects or zones using a wide beam of light distribution. It can be implemented using multiple luminaries in fixed positions that spread an even amount of light over a facade or a particular space. 

Wash lighting ensures safe movement on pathways and effectively highlights large objects and areas. The most common use of wash lighting is to highlight entrance facades of important public buildings.  

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Wash Lighting on NYPL Facade ©ERCO

Wall grazing is the method of positioning a luminary close to a wall to highlight its texture and architectural character. This greatly enhances materials like natural stone, wood, fabric, mosaic, and brick, among other highly textural elements. 

Positioning a fixture close to the base of the wall creates a gradation of brightness on its vertical axis. It is a unique way of manipulating how surfaces appear to the eye.

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Outdoor Lighting Design, Wall Grazing ©

This type of lighting is used to provide context to an outdoor space. It improves the perception of the space by adding points or lines of light. The light serves as signage often used along stairs or pathways to ensure safety. Illumination of the surrounding is of secondary importance in orientation lighting design. 

It is used for the identification of steps, entrances, routes, and architectural lines and is achieved using luminaries like floor wash lights, wall-mounted downlights, and recessed floor fixtures.

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Orientation Lighting ©

Luminaires are used to fulfill different lighting requirements as discussed in the different types of outdoor lighting. For external lighting, design luminaires are usually permanently mounted fixtures.

The accent and illuminate a narrow area or a particular object. Projectors are also offered in different beam angles and light distributions that can be rotated symmetrically. Projectors also come with cut-off angles that limit glare and discomfort. 

Floodlights are luminaires with a wide beam light distribution. They provide even illumination of objects or larger areas with a focal emphasis. Floodlights also provide optimum beam alignment through lens adjustment. They’re also mainly used for sporting events and stadiums that help players gain better visibility.  

Wall washers have a wide-beam characteristic that lights up vertical surfaces. They can be recessed or mounted which may be rotated or tilted. Grazing light wall washers that greatly enhance texture on surfaces can be placed at a short distance off the wall. 

Facade fixtures, as the name suggests, are meant as luminaires for facades. They are defined by their mounting location rather than their light characteristics. Facade fixtures may have narrow, wide symmetrical, or asymmetrical light distribution that can be distributed through a single or a double light aperture. Floor wash lights that are wall-mounted and have a wide beam are ideal for the illumination of high traffic routes and outdoor spaces. 

Mainly used for landscapes, pathways, and open areas, bollard luminaires have a wide beam characteristic as well. They provide an even light distribution to ensure safety in outdoor pathways. These luminaires are free-standing and must conform to their surroundings for a successful lighting design. 

The right illumination of any architectural element during nightfall has the power to change the atmosphere of a city. They are used as focal points of interest that establish spatial reference points.  

The most basic form of lighting design for outdoor spaces is to rely on adjacent structures to provide ambient light. The focus of this concept is to enhance the form of the structure rather than providing illumination to the outdoor space. It can be a successful lighting design concept when paired with the right interior material palette. 

Warmer wooden interiors would provide a glow that draws the focus towards it while also emitting light into the outdoor entertaining areas. It provides the right contrast to the exterior facade to make it visually stunning. The lantern effect can also be seen in outdoor pools that are lit from within. The pool emits a large plane of luminosity that lights up its adjacent spaces with a soft glow.  

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Outdoor Lighting Design, Lantern Effect © Ezio Manciucca

Light layering is the concept of using all the three main components of lighting design

ambient light, task light, and accent light. It provides a mix of dark and light pockets that seem most natural and pleasing to the eye. The adjacent luminous architecture provides ambient lighting for the outdoor spaces while individual lounges or tables can be provided with task lighting, and other landscape elements can be highlighted using accent lighting.

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Light Layering © Mariko Reed

Color and temperature define the character of the light from its source. Color is a significant component of visual perception and is defined by its hue, saturation, and brightness. For landscapes, slightly cooler temperature lights, around 4000K, are used to illuminate vegetation to mimic moonlighting, while warmer color temperatures, around 2500K to 2700K, are used to highlight architectural elements. 

Outdoor Lighting Design, Color & Temperature © Jorg Hempel

This is the most natural form of lighting, and when planned or designed well, can light up the entire outdoor area. The temperature of organic firelight is warmer than incandescent light and hence makes for warm and comfortable gathering spaces. Screens may be placed to control wind conditions and can also be used as a design element to layer light and provide color as well. 

Fire ©

  All over the globe, electrical lighting has replaced moonlight. Cities have established new rhythms and luminous attractions for the new work-life balance. Irrespective of where the sky is observed from, particles in the sky reflect these urban light emissions and affect birds, astronomers, and our ability to view stars. Most of Europe and the United States live under polluted night skies that mainly come from wasted and poorly targeted outdoor lighting. 

There are four main principles for a dark sky-friendly lighting design. Minimizing the amount of illumination, minimizing the area of illumination and shining light only where it is needed, minimizing the duration of illumination and installing automation, and using long-wavelength lights will all help in preserving the dark night sky.

Outdoor Lighting Design, Light Pollution © Christina Seely

Types of Outdoor Lighting 

  • Accentuation
  • Washlighting
  • Wall Grazing
  • Orientation Lighting

Luminaire Groups

  • Projectors
  • Flood Lights
  • Wall Washers
  • Facade Fixtures
  • Bollard Fixtures

Lighting Concepts

  • The Lantern Effect
  • Light Layering

Color & Temperature

  • Fire

Light Pollution


Rashmi Nair is an architect, interior designer, and fashion illustrator who is an ardent lover of all things design. She strives to be sustainable in design and life and strongly believes in the ‘Less is More’ idealogy. She enjoys exploring museums, reading, making lists, and a hot cup of coffee