Shedding Light on Light Bulbs

Since Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879, designers have often used the familiar pear-shaped product as a graphic device to represent a “bright idea.” Think again, designers, because the European Union restricted the sale of incandescent light bulbs in favor of compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in 2009. It also targeted the phase out of Halogen bulbs by 2016. Cuba and Venezuela actually started phasing out incandescent lights in 2005. Other nations have scheduled phase out plans – Australia, Ireland and Switzerland in 2009; Argentina, Italy, Russia and the UK by 2011, and Canada in 2012. A late adopter, the United States will begin phasing out incandescent lights in 2012.

The reason countries are moving to CFL bulbs is that they last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs, use two-thirds less energy, and give off 70% less heat, according to energy experts. By their calculations, if every family in the U.S. replaced one regular bulb with a CFL one, it would eliminate 90 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, equivalent to taking 7.5 million cars off the road.

The changeover, though positive, is something that every designer needs to consider. Certainly, it will affect designers of light fixtures and building interiors – for instance, some lamp shades are designed to hook only onto pear-shaped incandescent bulbs.

The widespread adoption of CFLs will also affect the color of ambient light. CFLs have phosphors that emit too little red light, making skin tones appear less pink – and people look a bit sickly. Colored objects appear more muted.

Of course, some graphic designers will feel at a loss when they can’t fall back on the light bulb cliché –a curlie-cue CFL bulb just doesn’t say “bright idea” as quickly as an incandescent bulb.

Note: This satellite night view of earth shows both urban population densities and regions that use the greatest amount of electricity. If all the bright spots adopted more environmentally friendly forms of lighting, consider how that will impact energy consumption and climate change.