“Lighting designers must have an open dialogue with architects, clients, contractors, and communities to be successful. What makes a better designer is being a better collaborator,” says MFA Lighting Design program director Glenn Shrum, in describing his perspective on his field.
Early in his career, Shrum worked as an architect; he later transitioned to lighting design after discovering creative opportunity in light’s profound effect on space, a passion he explored in a studio art master’s program. Shrum joined the faculty of Parsons’ School of Constructed
Environments in 2009 and now serves as assistant professor of lighting design. In his role, he combines his impressive professional experience from leading his own lighting design practice, Flux Studio, with curricula designed to develop students’ collaboration skills and awareness of factors including
sustainability and social impact.
Shrum aims to equip students with the tools they need to combat stereotypes about the lighting design industry and thereby foster their own success and elevate the field. He cites the common scenario in which lighting design is a programmatic afterthought or the job of a lighting designer is
misunderstood by clients and colleagues alike. To address these issues, Shrum has developed courses and other learning experiences in which students collect lighting-related data and communicate their findings on matters such as how individuals feel in different lighting conditions. Aiding students in that
effort is Parsons’ Light + Energy Lab — the only one of its kind in New York City — which contains both a heliodon for studying direct sun conditions and a diffuse sky simulator to represent cloudy sky conditions over full-scale models. With tools like the Light + Energy Lab, Shrum’s students explore the
capacity of lighting to foster physiological and emotional well-being in environments ranging from single rooms to entire cities.
Shrum believes that these communication and collaboration skills enable designers to effectively advocate for lighting schemes with project partners unfamiliar with the subtleties of lighting. He explains, “You might know how to compute complex calculations and draft exactly where lighting
should go for optimal results, but if you can’t communicate with the rest of a multidisciplinary team, you won’t get the plan you envisioned.“ And because designers must accommodate various marketplace pressures and the shifting priorities of collaborators, such skills have become increasingly valuable.
In a broader context, Shrum encourages students to look beyond pragmatic requirements and aesthetics to see light as a tool designers can use to help address problems and benefit communities. He points to a recent project completed by Flux Studio, lighting for Baltimore’s Henderson-Hopkins K-8 public
school, as an example. Baltimore’s first new education building in 30 years, Henderson-Hopkins came with a limited budget, challenging Shrum to reimagine the typical lighting design scheme. Using a combination of daylighting and electric lighting, Shrum and his team devised a design brief focused on socially
responsible and sustainable lighting to ensure safety and facilitate learning. Much of the success of the lighting plan came from prioritizing need and social progress over convenience while employing artful diplomacy. Shrum says, “You have to fight really hard to change things. But now more than ever, designers
need to reframe client briefs in ways that enable design to address broader needs of the communities they serve.”
Parsons’ Lighting Design program was the world’s first master’s program of its kind, and its alumni continue to lead the field. By working alongside professionals like Shrum, current students gain invaluable experience in assessing real-world problems before they graduate. The program’s hands-on
approach to learning may explain why such a high percentage of MFA Lighting Design students finds full-time employment in their discipline in the United States before graduating. “There are so many jobs in lighting design. The demand for our program’s graduates is far greater than the number we have,”
says Shrum. And in Shrum, students have a passionate champion as they launch careers in the field. “I'm an evangelist,” he says. “A lighting evangelist.”