In the first few minutes of Joe Versus the Volcano, the 1990 surrealist rom-com, Tom Hanks clocks in for his job at an artificial testicle company, housed in a bleak, factorylike building overrun with flickering, audibly buzzing fluorescent tube lights that cast a sickly green pallor. As he makes his powdery coffee, he stares up at the lurid light, squinting, rubbing his swollen lymph nodes. Soon thereafter, he’s diagnosed with a “brain cloud,” a fatal condition — the implication being that his imminent death has been caused, in part, by the vibrating fluorescent tubes. Watching this scene, I gasped in recognition. This was me. I was Tom Hanks, slowly dying of a brain cloud because of bad office lighting.
To be clear, I’m not speaking specifically about the New York Magazine office lighting — our combo of LED overhead and natural light is not uniquely bad, but it is definitely bad in the way that all office lighting is bad, i.e., uncanny, freakishly bright and yet also not bright enough. (This is in large part why I prefer to work from bed, like Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. All three of us understand that in order to access the mind, you must delete the body, and the only way to do that is to be horizontal next to a warm lamp.) Every office I’ve ever worked in has had lighting that’s made me feel varying degrees of insane and depressed. Why? I decided to investigate.
My first call was to Dr. Mia Minen, associate professor of neurology and director of headache services at NYU Langone, with whom I wanted to discuss the robust psychological implications of office lighting. I asked Dr. Minen if bad lighting could kill you, and she paused for a long time. “No …” she said. She did eventually agree, however, that bad lighting could ruin the quality of your life. Dr. Minen confirmed my suspicions that office lighting was a common migraine trigger, explaining that the combination of staring at a screen and sitting under unnatural overhead bulbs is a killer for those with photophobia — light sensitivity resulting from or causing migraines. She said her patients complain to her about office lighting all the time, and she recommends that they put an FL-41 filter into their glasses prescription, which helps block out some of the more horrifying aspects of a fluorescent or LED bulb. Sometimes she’ll even go so far as to write her patients a doctor’s note saying they need special lighting accommodations at work. However, she will not go so far as to recommend that they work from bed 100 percent of the time.
Dr. Minen told me that another way bad lighting ruins people’s lives is by depressing them and recommends that any patient who feels emotionally decimated by their office lighting get a SAD lamp and also get the hell outside in the middle of the day, for God’s sake! “Fluorescent isn’t the best; natural light is better for mood,” she said. She added, disturbingly, that each wavelength of light affects the brain differently; for example, white, blue, amber, and red lights exacerbate headaches, and green lights make you look like Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano. (These colors aren’t visible to the naked eye, so if you want to know what color light your office is emitting, I’m sorry, you simply have to get a headache to figure it out.) I asked Dr. Minen if she had seen Joe Versus the Volcano, and she paused again. “No,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
After I’d established that office lighting could in fact dismantle your entire life, my next calls were to Gary Huswit — a filmmaker who recently made Workplace, a documentary about the redesign of the New York headquarters of consultancy firm R/GA, and used it as an opportunity to explore the history and future of office design more generally — and Ray Molony, the managing editor of Lux Review. Both men listened patiently as I complained about lights, then told me that offices and their accompanying lighting have mostly always sucked and made people miserable, which made me feel a little better. Ray insisted that things actually used to be much worse.
Back in the 1850s, offices were mostly dark little cave rooms populated by a handful of depressed men in brown suits working by gas lamplight. In the early-20th century, offices evolved to become the massive, open-plan, factory-inspired nightmares that we’re still grappling with today, albeit lit mostly by incandescent and then eventually fluorescent light, which were introduced in 1939. By the 1950s and ’60s, fluorescent tubes that threw light straight down onto people’s heads and flickered audibly were the dominant form of office lighting, which meant that everyone was fighting over offices with windows so that they didn’t have to suffer. “If you’re under the same flickering fluorescent light for eight hours, it’s going to drive you nuts,” said Gary, explaining the whole of the ’60s.
Arguably, things were at their worst lighting-wise in the mid-’80s, when desktop computers were proliferating and everyone was scrambling to relight their offices to avoid glare. They accomplished this via the heavily louvred Cat 2 luminaire, which made the office feel like Plato’s cave, before Plato turned around and realized he could light his cave better. “You’re too young to remember them, but they were terrible,” said Ray of the Cat 2’s. “I lived through the ’80s, and it wasn’t good. Back then, you had a black background on a computer with green lettering — and it was only Bill Gates and the development of Windows that changed everything.” Bill Gates made his computers primarily white-screened and black-lettered, which helped with the glare; soon, energy-efficient LED lights became more and more popular, popping up in the foosball-riddled tech-bubble offices of the early 2000s, even though, as Ray put it, “LEDs have continued some of the sins of fluorescence.”
Specifically, LEDs — which are still the primary office-lighting source in the U.S. — can slowly drive people insane by flickering at an imperceptible level, giving them headaches and, in my case, the lingering suspicion that reality is a subjective experience. Many offices are still lighting from the top down, creating that “cave effect” that Ray said could be improved upon if we lit the walls instead of the ceilings. And despite the advent of better computers, offices on the whole still haven’t quite figured out the problem of glare. “If the lighting installation isn’t well designed, they likely haven’t addressed the two big baddies: glare and flicker,” said Ray. On the whole, Ray agrees that we have been failed as a species: “I don’t think the lighting industry can congratulate itself for office lighting over the years.”
Both Ray and Gary stressed that the main problem with office lighting — outside of the fact that it makes everyone look like shit — is that it doesn’t account for our circadian rhythms. “People are not getting the boost of bright light that they need for their sleep-wake cycle to work properly,” said Ray. “We’ve only learned in the past 20 years or so that bright lights, especially the blue component, set our sleep-wake cycle.” In Gary’s Workplace doc, R/GA solved this by installing “human-centric lighting” that shifts in tandem with whatever is going on outside. “Artificial lighting in the office is not normal, to have the same amount of light all day every day is not normal,” said Ray. “There’s now a trend, which is to think about, Let’s have lighting that increases in intensity and is more in tune with what we expect as humans.” Unfortunately, most of us are not part of that trend. “The future has arrived, but it’s not evenly distributed,” said Ray.
It makes perfect sense to me that it’s taken 150 years for us to figure out how to light the space in which we spend most of our waking hours. The human race famously loves to work against its own best interests. This tragic fact is indeed addressed at the end of Workplace, when Nikil Saval, a now-state senator who wrote a book in 2014 called Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, suggests that the problem is not office lighting or office design, but the concept of offices themselves as a fundamental cornerstone of our productivity. He references WeWork as an unhinged example of the ways in which people will pay good money to put themselves in a simulacrum of an office environment, even when nobody is forcing them to do so. In other words, we have all been brainwashed by capitalism into thinking we must be miserable and dying of a brain cloud in order to create a product of value. “There’s a strong belief in the power of the office that lingers as a place to make people productive and create ideas,” Nikil says in the doc. “Until there’s a real social or political revolution that renders a lot of these ideas much more suspicious than they are, the office will be a feature of global capitalism for a long time to come.”
When I brought this up to Gary, we both laughed the wry laugh of two human beings permanently caught between the sharp, bloody teeth of American capitalism. “It is kind of a sad situation that we’ve found ourselves in,” admitted Gary. However, he was hopeful that the remote-working trend incited by the pandemic would convince the people in charge that the office was no longer a necessity and that perhaps in the future we would no longer need to sit beneath imperceptibly flickering lights, looking and feeling our very worst. “We’ve all realized we don’t need to be in one space physically to do things,” said Gary, as I listened intently from my perfectly lit bed.
More From This Series
- The Open-Plan Office Was an Auditory Disaster
- Remember the Office?
- The Infinite Semiotics of the Office Bathroom