The power of inconspicuous design

The lamp post. Possibly one of the most inconspicuous objects in public space. The fact that there are still well thought-out theories behind the design shows what’s gained with the German Design Award. Koos Munneke and Antony Weinbeck at Spark design & innovation share what’s needed to develop an aesthetic, though low-key luminaire.

You were given the task to develop a smart luminaire. How does that process work?

“We are creative souls, but work towards one solution in a structured manner. Following a process that corresponds with the principles of industrial design. For instance, we start off with an idea phase in which the first outlines are made. Next, we develop the sketches into visuals. The design and size are assessed using foam models. The more functional features are tested using prototypes. Next is the engineering of the product. An iterative process, in which we design, build, test and validate. This way we constantly produce new input that we incorporate into the designs. That circle is completed several times. Eliminating risks as a result.”

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Antony (l) and Koos in Spark's workshop with the first models of the Alexia luminaire.

Did you find any golden tickets during this creative process?

“Sustainder believes that a luminaire is capable of so much more than just providing light. Straightaway during the prototype phase of the Alexia, we sat down with Sustainder and the other developing partners. That’s when, for instance, the cassette was born. The idea was: the smart functionalities of the luminaire need to be updated. The software remotely, the hardware on site. How are we going to get that done in the luminaire? That’s when we came up with a system that can easily be replaced externally. The cassette is one of those discoveries you come up with together while brainstorming. It’s the result of wanting to solve a challenge both functionally and visually.”

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Through a smart cassette system, the luminaire is easy to expand with sensors.

What do pay notice to when you start to design?

“If you know you are designing a luminaire for a lamp post, you’ll start looking up more when you are walking outside. That’s when you’ll realize that there is already a vast variety of different lamp posts and luminaires. You also notice what does and doesn’t work well. During the inspirational process, we create mood boards, we look at different landscapes and try to orientate at a wide range. A luminaire should not be too conspicuous, because people should not be bothered by it. It is a device that’s meant to make public space more pleasant and safer. Therefore, we must design something that doesn’t stand out, but is pleasant to the eye. It should be a pleasant addition and not cause any clutter.”

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The final design of the Alexia luminaire.
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From sketch design to technical model in Spark's studio.

How did you translate that into the luminaires?

“There is a great deal of technology in Sustainder’s luminaires, although we had to prevent that we would design a luminaire that would look too futuristic. One that would scare people off. We wanted to show technology in a friendly manner. According to the principle ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’. The luminaires have round curves and especially no harsh lines. People can see it’s a luminaire and it does at least what people expect it to do: provide light and help them along in the dark. This speeds up people’s acceptance of the fact that it is capable of so much more.

At the same time, you want to make a cool product that everyone would love to see in their own city. You won’t succeed in doing so if they look the same as all the other luminaires. Although neither will you if you go all experimental, because no one will want to buy that. The story and functionalities should be make sense for everyone. Winning the German Design Award emphasizes that.”

How do people recognize a Sustainder luminaire?

“We knew there would be more luminaires in various shapes. This is how we came up with a ‘design language’. A shape affinity. Typical are the curves, almost total lack of straight lines, friendly appearance and slim design. They’re not conspicuous, but if you watch closely, they represent the next generation of luminaires.”

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What were the brain teasers?

“The luminaires are a combination of smart technology and cutting-edge design. Uniting as many functionalities as possible in an as efficiently possible manner. But, for example, also the right street lighting effect, thermal management in the luminaire, the watertight integrity and the cost price. It seems like stating the obvious, but these are complex matters to need to be taken into consideration. Each stakeholder has his own agenda during the process and we try to bring it all together. That may not be at the expense of the design. We kept an eagle eye on this.”