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Beacons of Light: Dr Shelley James

Beacons of Light: Dr Shelley James

December 2023

DW Windsor is powered by people with a shared passion for light, committed to delivering outstanding lighting solutions. To celebrate those who share our passion, we've collected more individuals who positively impact our community and shine a light on our industry. Through this series of interviews, we are highlighting a number of unique and inspiring people who are leading the way as Beacons of Light.

An Interview with Dr Shelley James

Dr Shelley James is an international expert on light and wellbeing, TEDx and keynote speaker, WELL Advisor and Visiting Lecturer at the Royal College of Art. She is also a trained glass artist and electrician. Through her company, Age of Light Innovations, Shelley is on a mission to inspire others to harness the power of light to be healthier, happier and save the planet.

We met with Dr Shelley to discuss her passions towards light and wellbeing, including her philosophy towards healthy lighting and creating more sustainable environments.


When did you first become interested in lighting?

I have been aware of the effect of light since I was a small child. Born in Jamaica, I was always aware that when we travelled from one country to another, the environment was very different because of the light. I explored this theme through my first thesis in Textiles, considering the interaction between light, colour and culture in different countries across Europe.

Unfortunately, my first career in branding was knocked off course by a traumatic head injury which disrupted the processing between my eyes and brain. This led to a doctorate from the Royal College of Art on Optics and Illusions. From there, I went on to train as an electrician and started to work with scientists, clinicians and artists from around the world. However, this was all put on hold through the pandemic, so I set up a social media campaign to raise awareness of the impact of light on health, which led to the work I do today.

dr shelly james dww website articles author round

Dr Shelley James

Known as 'The Light Lady', Dr Shelley James is the founder of Age of Light Innovations and light concept advisor for the International WELL Building Institute. She has a PhD from the Royal College of Art and has certification in lighting design and electrical installation. 


Have you always wanted to work in the industry, or did you have other careers in mind, too? If you have worked in another career before, how have the skills you learned during that role transferred to lighting?

I’ve had at least nine lives so far, from illustration and textile design to branding and marketing, artist and electrician - and now consultant, public speaker, author and advocate for the lighting sector.

I’ve learnt many skills along the way - particularly the ability to build bridges between people and cultures. I’ve also learnt not to be afraid of asking ‘dumb’ questions, to be constantly curious and to find passion and interest in everything.


What has been your lightbulb moment during your career?

My lightbulb moments have been in conversation with people outside the lighting sector: we’re very good at preaching to the converted. But I get the biggest buzz when I sit in a room with a group of teachers and show them how light affects their students and the simple things they can do to help or chat with nurses in long-term residential care about how they can improve sleep and sundowning and cope with shift work. It seems so obvious to you and me, but most of them have never heard any of this before.

When I first started working in this field three years ago, we knew what the problem was, but we didn’t have any solutions. Now we are seeing real sustainable, affordable, practical solutions coming together. My ray of hope has been seeing the conversation about light gain traction; seeing that it is possible at this time is exciting.

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What is one of your biggest achievements to date?

My biggest achievement is that I’ve kept going and hearing from someone that something clicked for them and has made a difference. It feels like breaking new ground, and most of what I do hasn’t been done before. So, just staying healthy and sane and afloat is a daily achievement. It feels like a privilege to wake up every day with clients to serve.

Big milestones for me were achieving my PhD, the TEDx talk, and uploading a book onto Amazon!


What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your lighting career? How did you overcome this?

Knowing which avenue and sector to choose to work in. I am interested in so many: healthcare, education, offices, prisons, lighting for people, lighting after dark, and sustainability. My biggest challenge is being a generalist, being able to be broad but dive deeply at the same time.

There is a wonderful book called Range, which talks about the value of being a generalist, so I dip into that when I need some encouragement. I look to others who have made a difference in the world by maintaining this approach, inspiring confidence that it’s a valid route to go down.

Sometimes, it feels like an uphill battle - but I overcome that by putting in the hours; there’s really no substitute for hard work.

"I’ve learnt many skills along the way - particularly the ability to build bridges between people and cultures. I’ve also learnt not to be afraid of asking ‘dumb’ questions, to be constantly curious and to find passion and interest in everything."


What are you most passionate about when it comes to lighting spaces?

The need for darkness as much as light. It seems to me that light is just too cheap - if light costs as much for us, relatively speaking, as it did for our ancestors, we would be as careful as they were about when and where we use it.


How would you articulate your overall philosophy about light?

There is a principle in science called Occam’s Razor: the simplest solution is usually the best. This is the approach I take to lighting; when someone comes up with a complicated design with a complex interface that demands an app or a subscription, you have to ask: is this going to be around in five years, let alone 30? This complexity is a huge barrier to people adopting the simple, sustainable solutions that can make a world of difference to comfort and well-being. Faced with the risk of investing in something new, difficult and expensive, people shrug their shoulders and go back to ‘business as usual’. 

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What would be a dream project for you? If you could light any architectural or exterior space in the world, where would it be?

I am lucky enough to be working on many dream projects already! I have immense respect for the great lighting designers that I work with.

I am currently doing a research project with headteachers of schools for children with special needs. My dream would be for them to feel confident enough about their options and the potential benefits to demand better-quality lighting and fight for its value alongside the hundreds of other decisions they have to make. Another dream project would be prison lighting, where people have so little access to the outside world, and yet we know that lighting makes such a difference to behaviour, sleep, and so many of the things they struggle with.

My dream projects are to make a difference in spaces which are currently a bit marginal so that the people who buy the lights understand that lighting can actively help them to deliver their business objectives while also saving money and energy along the way – and then bring in great lighting designers to weave their amazing magic. 


What do you think is the number 1 skillset required to be successful in the lighting industry?

Integrity, passion and the determination to go above and beyond for your colleagues, clients and the wider community. To succeed, you’ve got to break the mould, be brave enough to ask the difficult questions and actively seek out people who have a different point of view. I hope the next generation of successful lighting professionals will see their work in the context of the overall ecology of the building and the environment, including controls, whole-life costing and light pollution.

"Everybody has a light and is a beacon in their own way. If you give someone a chance to tell you why they love light, they will always have an interesting reason and a personal story to tell. It’s a cliché, I know, but this sector really does feel like a giant village."


What advice would you give to those emerging into the lighting industry?

Follow your passion, whatever it is, and always keep learning.

As someone coming into the industry, it can be easy to be in awe of other people, but you need to dig behind received wisdom to find the primary sources so that you can make up your own mind. Stay true to yourself and find your own way of doing what you are interested in. In my experience, this is the best way to be in the right place at the right time - and have a great time along the way!

You must always have the humility to be a beginner; however established you may be, there’s always something new to learn from wonderful, passionate people in every corner of the industry.

The world is your oyster. We no longer need to be in one geographical zone to do things anymore, and if you find a team that shares your values and find ways to and find ways to add value, you will be surprised at just how much support and freedom you will enjoy. 


We recognise you as a Beacon of Light in the industry, but who is your Beacon of Light?

There are so many, from the established giants to the passionate, energetic and generous people at every level.

Everybody has a light and is a beacon in their own way. If you give someone a chance to tell you why they love light, they will always have an interesting reason and a personal story to tell. It’s a cliché, I know, but this sector really does feel like a giant village. 


Why is light, in general, so important to our health, and what is healthy lighting?

In the way that clean water and clean air are important, the right light at the right time is a fundamental need. We’re used to seeing people carrying a water bottle around - but they so rarely look at the lights and quibble at the cost of a better-quality product.

Just like calories, it’s the quality as much as the quantity that counts. Time for your body and brain to recover through times of darkness is vital, too. Quality of light and – just like our diet – our urban lives mean that we need artificial light alongside the natural nutrition of daylight.

For example, our daily routines stay pretty much the same throughout the year - we don’t shift our schedules to follow the sun and moon. We need to use artificial light - and simple techniques like black-out curtains at night during the summer - to keep us on track.

Healthy lighting is not complicated or expensive. Most of all, it’s not a product - it’s a way of thinking about how we can harness the power of light and darkness to support our lifestyle.


How do you believe the power of light can change the world for good, both in terms of people and planet, and what impact will light have on the future of our health and environment?

The power of light is that it has the potential to be a real force for good.

I often think of lighting as a ‘canary in the cage’: the way you think about lighting reflects a wider attitude to people and to the planet - are you buying the cheapest to ‘tick the box’, or are you treating them with care and respect and thinking about the long-term impact of your decisions. Very often, a better lighting solution isn’t more expensive, but it always takes more time and courage to think outside the box and take a risk on a solution that may not have been tried before.

Another way lighting is a force for good is how it can support people who find life difficult already: creating spaces where they can be comfortable and relaxed can help them be their best selves and participate more fully in their communities. For example, I’m currently working on a project with a housing association where simple changes to the lighting, surfaces and switching is encouraging the residents to engage with each other with more confidence.

It’s tempting to focus on new buildings, but most buildings that will be here in 20 years have already been built. So we need to find sensitive, sustainable retrofit solutions to ensure light is fit for purpose and leaves a legacy behind.

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How can we promote healthier and more sustainable environments through lighting?

Firstly, we need to lead by example. I am often shocked by how bad the lighting is in the offices of manufacturers trying to sell ‘human-centric’ and sustainable solutions.

The second is education. It can be intimidating to talk to people who have no idea about lighting or are used to focusing on short-term costs. But if we can explain the business case the benefits for their carbon footprint and tackle their concerns head-on, we can boost buyer confidence and drive demand. This will, in turn, increase the volumes and reduce the price point, and ultimately put pressure on manufacturers to raise their game rather than settle for a commodity offer. People will pay a premium if they understand the value - you just have to look at your branded phone to see that principle in action.


Thank you to Dr Shelley for taking the time to share these thoughts with us. To find out more about Age of Light Innovations, visit:

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