When I grew up there were just two sorts of mechanical engineer, the one that worked on your car (often mistitled) and the professional one. That’s a little unfair to car mechanics, but I don’t mean to be. A mechanic is indeed a skilled person, but the term engineer is often attributed to people who don’t deserve it.
“Mechanical engineering is the discipline that applies engineering, physics, and materials science principles to design, analyse, manufacture, and maintain mechanical systems” – Wikipedia
Before you throw this aside with derision, hear me out. I, like many designers, feel the skills, experience, and qualifications I hold have been hard earned, perhaps I also benefit from a little talent too, but like many I find lots of young talent snipping at my heels and claiming to be a lighting designer, or indeed a lighting engineer. Often, I get asked why it is anyone can be called a lighting designer and all too often I get asked how anyone who works for a lighting manufacturer can ever claim to be a lighting designer at all. The world it seems is all about claim and counter claim and the rush to the top.
So, why this discussion and why get so hot and bothered about the route to becoming chartered as a lighting designer? Well for one, I think professional recognition is vital to our profession. How can you prove your reputation to clients? Either you show them a superb portfolio, or you gain some letters after your name and prove your competence on an ongoing basis.
The first method for me is a route to the second, but it lacks something. Whilst a portfolio demonstrates your creative side, perhaps your technical ability, even your ability to pull off large and complicated projects, it does lack some basics. Where does it demonstrate learning, pushing your boundaries, training, and developing others, management ability, giving back to the community and so on? Honestly? You could demonstrate all these things in a portfolio, or you could become chartered and leave your portfolio clean and artistic to demonstrate your creative side. In fact, perhaps that’s my point. CEng demonstrates competence at the highest level and the route to CEng isn’t that difficult if you have that competence. Of course, you have to argue the semantics of whether you’re an engineer or a designer, but in my mind, there is very little difference, indeed one cannot function successfully unless you have some element of the skill sets that make both.
designer /dɪˈzʌɪnə/ noun
a person who plans the look or workings of something prior to it being made, by preparing drawings or plans
|synonyms:||creator, deviser, producer, inventor, originator, planner, author, artificer, fabricator;|
engineer /ɛndʒɪˈnɪə/ noun
a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.
|synonyms:||designer, planner, builder, architect, producer, fabricator, developer, creator;|
Perhaps the definition suggests you can be and engineer who designs, but as a designer cannot be an engineer, but that’s just non-sense. If we were to define a lighting engineer, it would include design at its core:
“Lighting engineering is the discipline that applies engineering, physics, materials science, anthropology and human physiology principles to design, analyse, manufacture, control and maintain lighting systems” – Iain Macrae
So its clear to me that lighting design is just a key part of being a lighting engineer and a lighting designer is just a specialist within the field of lighting engineers. One for instance that does not design or work on the manufacture of luminaires but applies those that already exist, or specifies the performance required of those desired to exist.
As a lighting designer, or engineer, can you become professionally recognised by a professional body? The answer is of course yes. In my case the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) was the chosen organisation, the Society of Light and Lighting (SLL) being an integral part of why CIBSE exists. I must admit, I left my application for too many years as I worried that, even with a qualification in Mechanical Engineering, I would not be possible to be recognised for my lighting career.
As CEng MCIBSE FSLL there are certain codes of practice I have to abide by. One of those is to tell clients openly where my expertise applies. If you find me claiming to be an experienced mechanical engineer (or mechanic for that matter) then that wouldn’t be professional. Lighting is my chosen career and my specialist area and that is why I achieved CEng. If you ask me about mechanical engineering used in luminaires or how they fit mechanically into a ceiling, wall or floor, that would also be included.
It’s not as simple as just being a lighter, or even an experienced one. The registration process for the Engineering Council checks a wide range of core competencies, most of them based on your working experience, they can be summarised: –
- The theoretical knowledge to solve problems in new technologies and develop new analytical techniques
- Successful application of the knowledge to deliver innovative products and services and/or take technical responsibility for complex engineering systems
- Accountability for project, finance and personnel management and managing trade-offs between technical and socio-economic factors
- Skill sets necessary to develop other technical staff
- Effective interpersonal skills in communicating technical matters.
Not only does that sound a sensible skill set for any client to seek in a lighting designer, it also reminds me of many of the world’s top lighting designers.
So, how to apply. Well for one thing, the application is certainly easier than getting to the point of applying. If you think becoming CEng is easy, or should be, then forget it. If you can reasonably read through the Engineering Council competencies and find yourself saying yes to most of them, then start the application. If you find the answer to most is no, then simply be a specialist, be that mechanic, excellent at what you do but not the fully rounded professional at the top of the game, OR, focus in on filling the gaps in your experience. Did I just build my part up as a fully rounded pro? I hope not, as a professional I know all too well where I still need to learn, and there is a lifetime of that to go yet.
Once you’ve got over the basic hurdle of being experienced enough, dig out that CV, put it together with the portfolio, highlight places where you demonstrate each of the competencies required and then you’ve done the hard bit of applying. Just a few pages of forms to go about who you are. Once you sit down to it, its just a few hours work if you keep your training records and CV up to date, maybe a few days if you have to start the whole thing from scratch.
Of course, you still have to stress about the professional interview! That dreaded hour long interview in front of your peers to see if you really are as good as you claim.
In reality it’s a lot friendlier than that. I’ve been to many worse customer meetings and been asked many more difficult questions. A short presentation to back up your application form, add in a few questions to check you really are who you claim, and you really did achieve all you claim and it’s over. The panellists are knowledgeable and polite; the only tough bit came at the end… “No, we can’t tell you if you passed!” was the answer.
Still want to be a professional, designer or engineer? Don’t worry about the title; I know some really great engineers and some equally great designers. Most of them have the competencies, the skill, the experience to make it easily through to CEng. Some need to decide that CEng is right for them, some need to wait for the title CDes or similar to become available, some need to lose their prejudice and recognise that professional recognition is good for them, for our customers and in the long term for lighting.
For those not up to the mark that CEng sets, try IEng but remember there is time yet, experience takes time. Grab a glass of Rioja with me sometime and we can discuss how to get there. In the meantime, continue the journey and make the lighting profession just what it deserves to be, professional.
(iainmacrae.com, First Published in the SLL Member Newsletter)